Percy Mayfield

TrackSingle
Please Send Me Someone To LoveSpecialty SP 375
Strange Things HappeningSpecialty SP 375
Life Is SuicideSpecialty SP 390
I Dare You BabySpecialty SP 451
You Don't Exist No MoreSpecialty SP 499 45
My Heart Is Cryin'Specialty SP 537 45
The Voice WithinSpecialty SP 544 45
River's InvitationTangerine TRC 931
Stranger In My Own Home TownTangerine TRC 941
To Live The PastRCA Victor 74-0307
Hit The Road JackBonus track (demo only)

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Contributor: Dave Stephens

I’m about to let you into a secret; one that’s been kept for far too many years.

About a song writer (and performer), who was one of the greatest in the world of blues.

Whose compositions were recorded by artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Fred Neil, Jeff Buckley and Ray Charles.

I’m going to introduce you to the Poet Laureate of the Blues, Percy Mayfield.

 

Here’s Aretha – and River’s Invitation:

Elvis – and Stranger In My Own Hometown:

Fred – and Please Send Me Someone To Love:

If by some chance you don’t know any of those. Here’s Brother Ray with Hit The Road Jack:

One of those songs comes from as far back as 1950. Please Send Me Someone To Love, written and performed by Percy Mayfield, was released on 78 RPM on the Specialty label of Los Angeles in 1950. It was the first disc from Percy on Specialty but not his first ever. It reached the #1 spot on the US R&B Chart and, rarely for that timeframe, was one that breached the US National Top 40, climbing to #26. The song is usually categorised as a blues ballad, being softer in tone and with a more supple melody line than a typical blues. It’s been recorded by artists as varied as Solomon Burke and Sade, plus Esther Phillips and the Moonglows (separately I hasten to add). The last named was a great version but I don’t think I’ve heard a bad one; maybe I’ve been selective. The original takes a bit of beating though:

Another rarity for those days was the love and peace message, something that wouldn’t really permeate black music for another decade or two.

Heaven please send, to all mankind,
Understanding and peace in mind.
But if it is not asking too much,
Please send me someone to love, someone to love

The elegance of the lyrics was matched by the elegance of the setting from Maxwell Davis and his Orchestra, with Percy’s voice at no more than conversational level. Not for him the agonised pleading of later soul blues stars like Bobby Bland and the pre funk godfather James Brown. There was distress built in to so many of his records but it was contained; it was what he had to live with. While this time it was general, more typically it was focused.

Just because I’m in misery
I don’t beg for no sympathy

A remarkable record for so early in his career. And he wasn’t content with that, the flip side was a more conventional blues in most respects, but it almost matched the A-side in expressiveness. Strange Things Happening also hit the R&B Chart (and it spawned a splendid cover version from Junior Parker).

Midnight find me cryin’
Daylight find me cryin’ too
You better straighten your mind, pretty baby
Or somethin’ may happen to you

Time to back up a bit. Percy was born in Minden, Louisiana in 1920 but, in 1942, like many budding blues artists, he moved to Los Angeles to get his music career underway. His first record session was for the fledgling Gru-V-Tone label in 1948. The session produced Jack You Ain’t Nowhere Parts 1 and 2, a jumping novelty item in the vein of the then very popular, Louis Jordan. While it’s utterly atypical of Percy’s later songs, of which the vast majority were slow blues and blues ballads, I’m including a clip for completeness:

Of much greater significance to Percy’s future career path was another song recorded at the same session, Two Years Of Torture, which saw release credited to Percy Mayfield and His Gang O’Swing coupled with Mama, Get Way Back, as Gru-V-Tone 102. A slow to medium tempo blues, from a small group with Percy’s piano very much to the fore and lyrics that moved beyond most of the “Woke up this morning” stuff.

I’ve often been told that time bring ’bout a change
I’ve often been told that time bring ’bout a change
Yes, I’ve had two years of torture and my heart still feel the same

Percy made attempts to push the song as a vehicle for Jimmy Witherspoon. Another infant record label, Supreme Records, showed interest but got Percy himself to take the vocal, backed by Monroe Tucker and His Orchestra, a substantial outfit with Maxwell Davis on sax. The last named gent would feature heavily in Percy’s subsequent career as arranger and orchestra leader for the majority of Percy’s Specialty Records. The record itself was a beaut with Percy’s intimate vocal and piano framed by forceful banks of brass and a lazy but ominous sounding guitar. While the first waxing might have insinuated its way into your consciousness, this one took a more direct approach.

It impressed people. In particular, it impressed Art Rupe, founder of Specialty Records, another post-war L.A. start-up. Rupe was a talent spotter extraordinaire. At one time or another his Specialty roster included Little Richard, the Soul Stirrers featuring Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, Guitar Slim, Lloyd Price, Don & Dewey and many, many more. He signed Mayfield, and Please Send Me Someone To Love c/w Strange Things Happening was the first product from the Rupe/Mayfield partnership.

A digression on the blues from a personal stance – like many of my generation I came to them in the early sixties, although my interest had been piqued a few years earlier due to a certain Mr Donegan. Early sixties blues was all electric and most of it came from Chicago, or those were my early impressions. Only later did it become apparent that Chicago wasn’t the only city electrifying artists from the Delta and, indeed, that electrification wasn’t the only game in town. Some of those initially elusive origins of rock and roll started falling into place as I discovered jump blues and boogie woogie. And the importance of those fabulous individuals like Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt really started to register.

But the pleasures of West Coast piano blues took their time. Sure I came across Charles Brown occasionally and, yes, like many I picked up one of those cheapo LP’s of Ray Charles’ early work where the debts to that same Mr Brown plus the early Nat “King” Cole were writ large. The vocal approach of the West Coast men was subdued, polite even, unlike ‘shouters’ like Big Joe Turner and Amos Milburn who usually had to compete with one or more over enthusiastic horns not to mention a drummer beating the skins off his favoured instruments, all to an audience that, like as not, was dancing and calling for more of that driving beat. The milieu of men like Brown and Cole was the supper club with backing often no more than bass and guitar, if that. But the subtlety of the L.A. artists’ cool style did eventually win through and that, in part, was due to Percy Mayfield, who, in my eyes was the best of the bunch and a highly important artist in both blues and the wider field of popular music.

While Percy probably played live at similar clubs usually to minimal or zero backing, on record at Specialty he had the superbly drilled Maxwell Davis Orchestra to keep him company. His records for the label were usually more restrained than the exuberant second version of Two Years Of Torture but they made up for it in a seemingly endless range of riffs and trills, with chunky punctuation where called for plus sax solos that complemented the understated agony of the Mayfield voice. It’s a style that now sounds as if it came from another era altogether, sometimes having more in common with forties pop than blues as we know it.

Which brings me to the blues ballad, a format often favoured by Mayfield. In the hands of slightly later artists like Little Willie John and Bobby Bland this would evolve into one of the strands of soul music. Back in Percy’s day though, such a song was essentially pop music ballad like in structure i.e. not normally conforming to one of the recognised blues sequences, but played very largely as if it was a blues. While by no means limited to Los Angeles, the city had more than its share of performers who would leaven a blues diet with more intimate and sometimes even romantic sounding songs. T-Bone Walker, another artist from the South who effectively ‘emigrated’ to California, is a good example. T-Bone also adopted the cool style of vocal for much of his material.

You Don’t Exist No More which saw release in ’54, was a splendid example of the Mayfield blues ballad. A melody line that seems to meander for at least a minute before it reaches resolution, an arrangement of understated drama and variation, Percy’s sad, sad piano and a sax solo that erupts from some deep well of gloom. Percy is writing her out of his life, but boy is it hard.

Why should you use me and abuse me
And darling, tell me why you treat me so cold

Like a goodly number of his songs, You Don’t Exist No More was given a makeover in the Tangerine days (see later). It re-emerged with a subtly changed arrangement and a recognisable Brother Ray on organ. It also gained a changed title – You Don’t Exist Anymore – presumably to appeal to a wider, more sophisticated audience. I was torn between the two interpretations (but at least you’re getting both in terms of clips).

Striking arrangements weren’t just a feature of the Specialty ballads; they occurred just as frequently on the twelve bar blues. Life Is Suicide – which deserves to get in on title alone and was his second single release on the label – was a slow stop time blues with super punchy chord stops and riffs.

Lest it be thought that Percy only recorded slow blues and blues ballads for Specialty, that wasn’t quite the case although he did come close. The flip of the much better known The River’s Invitation was an almost joyous jump blues. I Dare You Baby wasn’t a million miles from Joe Turner in his prime, though Percy’s approach was more akin to playing with words rather than shouting them. And, surprise, surprise, those lyrics belied the bounce of the brass:

I dare you baby, to stay out all night long
I dare you baby, to stay out all night long
And if you ever do, don’t you never come back home

While the majority of the Mayfield Specialty singles had him almost in a cocoon, locked away with Maxwell Davis, conjuring up variant after variant on his misery-with-elegance theme, some of the later ones showed more awareness of what was going on elsewhere in uptown blues. You Were Lying To Me c/w My Heart Is Cryin’ from December ’54 had him supported by a male vocal group and was actually credited to “Percy Mayfield With His Maytones And His Band”. For the first time, there was a gospel element coming from both the backing singers and the horns, which hinted at influences like Chuck Willis, and pointed towards sounds that would emerge from Hank Ballard (in non-Twist mode) and James Brown a few years later.

I’ve one more selection from the Specialty years (though there could have been scores), and it’s The Voice Within from ’55. Another blues ballad with lugubrious orchestration, and in minor key to boot which helped to shed even more gloom on those lyrics. As if they needed any touching up. Check out the stunning opening couplets:

While talking to myself one day
I heard a voice within me say
Why don’t you wake up
Don’t you know the one you love is not for you

Once again, I have to backtrack a year or two. In 1952 Percy’s life changed. He was returning from a gig in Las Vegas in the front seat of a chauffeur driven car, and was severely injured in a collision with a stationary truck. He was actually pronounced dead at the scene of the crash but eventually recovered after a two year convalescence. The crash left him with major facial scars which, for a very long spell, stopped him making live appearances. It should be noted that before the accident he was a slim, handsome man with wavy hair, and undoubtedly had considerable pride in his appearance.

He gradually got back into recording, initially for Specialty again, and then Chess and Imperial. However, artistically, by far his most successful spell post Specialty was with Tangerine Records, a label set up by Ray Charles and distributed by ABC-Paramount (Charles’ own label at the time). Percy was employed both as an artist in his own right and as a song writer. In the latter role he was responsible for one of Charles’ most well known songs, Hit The Road Jack. There was no studio version from Percy but what we do have is an endearingly informal take from the man at home in 1984, the year he died.

Flip the 1963 Hit The Road Jack single by Ray Charles, and there’s another great song from Percy, The Danger Zone. Here’s Ray:

Even more so than the A-side, that track has all the hallmarks of a Mayfield song.

Other notable Charles/Mayfield records included Hide Nor Hair, At The Club and My Baby Don’t Dig Me. Here’s the last named:

I should interrupt myself at this juncture to say that I was highly tempted to make all my selections from the Specialty timeframe. In large part it was the quality of his Tangerine singles which dissuaded me from doing just that. Though I’d add that the quite remarkable consistency of the Specialty singles still caused me several days of enjoyable agony during the process of narrowing down my selections.

Percy’s stay with Tangerine was from 1961 to 1967, the heyday of sixties soul. While he never achieved the recognition of the big name artists of the period he continued to make excellent records. Under the direction of Brother Ray he re-recorded several of his Specialty songs, often with Ray himself on organ or piano. I had several wrestling matches with myself whilst checking whether my preference was for a Specialty or a Tangerine take. In general I plumped for Specialty but on River’s Invitation (Tangerine dropped the ‘The’), it was Tangerine that got my vote. The brand new riff plus striking latin arrangement just couldn’t be ignored. Somehow the combination of upbeat orchestration and the suicidal lyrics just went hand in hand, making the river’s invitation to Percy, almost playful:

And if you can’t find your baby
Come and make your home with me

But Percy wasn’t only the in-house song writer for other artists whilst at Tangerine, he came up with several new goodies of his own. You’ve heard the Elvis version of Stranger In My Own Home Town; you need to hear Percy’s original, based on an actual visit to Minden, Louisiana:

There were others like My Jug And I, which very nearly made my list, the heavy (in terms of arrangement) blues, Don’t Start Lying To Me and the unusually titled, Ha Ha In The Daytime, Boo Hoo All Night Long. Tangerine also issued three albums of his work so I think we can say, with ample justification, that they did the man proud.

At the tail end of the sixties Percy recorded five singles for RCA Victor, one of which, To Live The Past, became a minor R&B Chart entry. Like most of his tracks it was slow but in this case I’d add the adjective ‘extremely’, perhaps befitting the mortality theme: All you can do is age and cry. Percy had in no way lost any of his skills at innovation though. His delivery was more mannered than usual with bursts of staccato lyrics.

While there was a tendency in the RCA years to surround Percy with seventies accoutrements like wah wah guitar and femme chorales, he still managed to produce some decent records. The Highway Is Like A Woman is one that almost made the list: ’Cause I travel with a passion and the highway is my lady friend.

Percy’s final single, I Don’t Want To Be The President, was released on the Atlantic label and produced by Johnny “Guitar” Watson in 1974. Something of a novelty item but ample demonstration of the wit and invention that underlay many of those normally blue metaphors.

Although Percy then dropped back into relative obscurity, that Atlantic single wasn’t the end of his recording career. In the early eighties, blues keyboard player Mark Naftalin effectively rediscovered Percy, living not all that far away in the Los Angeles Bay Area. He was able to arrange club dates for him and put together a support band. This led to Percy’s final recording sessions for the Dutch label, Timeless Records, with Phillip Walker’s band. My final clip from the man comes from the resulting album, Hit The Road Again, and it’s a fond revisit to his Specialty single, I Need Love So Bad.

Percy died of a heart attack on the 11th of August, 1984. He was 64.

 

Listening to the music again and looking at what I’ve written, several thoughts or only partially answered questions come to mind:

Granted that Percy Mayfield was quite a song writer, were his vocal skills up to his compositional ones? Many of the records, particularly those released by Specialty, sound alien to today’s ears. Is this purely due to a lack of familiarity with music from the time they were recorded?

and, even the much bigger question,

Is blues music still of importance to today’s listeners?

The Mayfield vocal style wasn’t unique. Charles Brown, who I’ve already name checked, was something of a godfather to a whole generation of musicians operating in Southern California but whose origins were often the southern states. Brown himself was from Texas. He was the master of the cool style of singing which was the approved form of entertainment in L.A. supper clubs. Here’s the great Charles Brown (not to be confused with any of the other ‘blue’ Browns) with his Black Night, which was a big seller for him in the R&B Chart in ’51.

The vocal similarities between Brown and Mayfield are immediately apparent. The difference, or to be precise, the difference between this record and a typical Mayfield Specialty disc, lay in the backing. Brown typically used a small combo in this timeframe, sometimes with a sax supplying extra beef. (Intriguingly on this record the sax was played by the ubiquitous and in demand, Maxwell Davis.) Mayfield, as we already know, almost invariably had the full banquet in support. Might sound OTT but the way the Specialty team of caterers, including that same Maxwell Davis, put it together, was haute cuisine all the way with oodles of light and shade (just to ensure maximum mixing of metaphors!)

That’s ducking the question. What I don’t think I’ve managed to convey is that the combination of near conversational vocal style with full orchestration worked superbly, ensuring that the Mayfield songs were splendidly brought to life in the Specialty studios. Which brings me to my second thought on whether that orchestration sounds odd or quaint today. It does, until you get used to it. In part it was the period and the style of orchestration used then but there was more to it than just that. Arranger Maxwell Davis tended to steer clear of the predictable big punchy efforts that we heard elsewhere – the second Two Years Of Torture is a good example. Where there was horn riffing present in his arrangements he would do things like add extra trills producing something that was almost a parody of itself. On many tracks, particularly the blues ballads, he created dramatic arrangements that had more in common with jazz inclined pop ballads, though I wouldn’t even stretch that comparison too far. Put simply, Davis was his own man and those mini-extravaganzas he produced as backdrops for Mayfield have no obvious comparison elsewhere in blues or pop (or, at least none that I’ve found).

My last question is too big for me to attempt to do justice to here. What I would say though is that the 80/20 rule tells us that 80% of blues music is likely to be (and usually is) formulaic, predictable, boring, and I’d even use the word, bland. But look into the 20% and there are gems to be discovered. Percy Mayfield is one. He’s the sort of guy who transcended his medium to such an extent that questions like the one I’ve just posed seem irrelevant.

Early folk rock singer and author, Richard Farina, titled his 1966 novel “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me”. Percy Mayfield said something similar in one of his songs, “I been down so long, getting up don’t cross my mind”. The Farina statement was undoubtedly perceived as hip at the time and is now highly evocative of the whole late sixties alternative culture, LSD-fuelled thing. Percy’s statement though is timeless and it’s one that absolutely anyone can relate to. We all get the blues from time to time but very very few of us are endowed with the ability to communicate those feelings so fluently, so sublimely, as Percy.

In his review of the album His Tangerine And Atlantic Sides, noted US critic Robert Christgau said about Percy, “Excepting Muddy Waters wordman Willie Dixon, the eloquent depressive Percy Mayfield was the blues’ greatest post-World War II songwriter, and unlike Dixon, he could sing.”

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Not all Mayfield discographies mention that he made a record in 1949 under the alias of Dallas Red. The record was Alma Lee c/w Cold Blooded Blues and it was issued by Selective Records, one of the L.A. ‘new boys’ (see also below). The A-side was a rare example of Percy attempting blues shouting with a male chorus echoing his words. The clip below gives you both A- and B-side.

2. Wikipedia classify Jimmy Witherspoon as a blues shouter but he leaned more towards the jazzy end of that grouping compared to the likes of Joe Turner and Amos Milburn. He was originally from Arkansas but operated out of several other US cities during his working life. He was lead vocalist with the Jay McShann band in the mid forties and it was in that guise that he made his first records. He went solo later in the forties, registering R&B Chart hits including Ain’t Nobody’s Business, In The Evening, No Rollin’ Blues.

3. I’ve bandied around the name of Maxwell Davis rather a lot but it’s not one that’s likely to be known by other than true aficionados. Originally from Independence, Kansas, Maxwell moved to L.A. and started his music career as sax player with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. By the mid forties he had become a session musician, and subsequently arranger, for many of the small record labels that started springing up in L.A. Some of these I’ve alluded to but others included Aladdin and Modern, the early home for B.B.King. Mike Stoller (of the Leiber/Stoller songwriting team) has referred to Davis as “an unsung hero of early rhythm and blues” (source: Wiki).

4. Supreme Records was yet another of the small independent labels set up shortly after the end of the Second World War. Like several others it specialised in blues. Probably the most well known single from the label was Jimmy Witherspoon’s Ain’t Nobody’s Business. Supreme closed down in 1950 after being hit by costly law suits. Most of the masters were sold to Swing Time Records but Mayfield’s Two Years Of Torture went to Dolphin’s of Hollywood (owned by a gent called John Dolphin). A curio for pub quiz addicts is that Supreme was founded by a dentist (named Albert Patrick).

5. Chuck Willis is another figure from the early days of R&B who deserves to be better known. Although he recorded for several labels, his hits came from spells with Okeh and then Atlantic. Notable among them: C.C. Rider, which sparked off a brief craze for a dance called The Stroll; What Am I Living For, a precursor to Atlantic styled soul music; and It’s Too Late, a blues ballad made famous by Buddy Holly but later recorded by Otis Redding, Charlie Rich, Derek & The Dominos and more.

6. Not everyone may be aware that there’s an alternate version of Elvis’ Stranger In My Own Hometown on YouTube, which was apparently laid down during rehearsals for one of the Vegas shows in 1970. James Burton’s guitar gets plenty of airtime and El is a little more outspoken than usual!

7. Mark Naftalin was a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the mid to late sixties and appeared with the band on their first four albums. In later years he appeared and recorded with a long list of individual blues artists.

8. Phillip Walker was a Texan blues singer/guitarist, and one of several from that state who took T-Bone Walker as an inspiration. Like Walker he spent time in L.A. but in his case it was in the sixties. Something that gets a mention in all the biogs I’ve seen on Walker is that he spent a brief period of time in Clifton Chenier’s band in the fifties. He had a minor hit with the single Hello My Darling in 1959. Like several other bluesmen Walker had a good ‘retirement’ with albums coming out on labels like Black Top and Rounder.

9. Percy was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery, south west of downtown Los Angeles. Also buried there are T-Bone Walker, Ray Charles, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Preston, Syreeta, Cornell Gunter (Coasters) and Richard Berry (of Louie Louie fame) and many more (info supplied by Cal Taylor).

10. The quote “I been down so long, getting up don’t cross my mind” comes from the song The Bluest Blues which was contained on a one-off single issued by Cash Records of Hollywood in 1956. The A-side was entitled Look The Whole World Over. It came from that period when Percy was getting his career back on track after the car accident plus the long recovery that followed.

11. Cal Taylor also pointed me to the fact that Tina Mayfield, Percy’s widow, befriended and assisted a long line of blues artists including Big Mama Thornton and Lowell Fulson. She had considerable business and organisational skills and managed to put together some important blues shows in Los Angeles. After Percy’s death she founded the California Black Blues Society in order to promote further understanding of the blues. When Tina died in 2006, Jocelyn Stuart wrote in the L.A. Times:

“Tina Mayfield was a guardian of the blues, a patron who treated its performers as if they were family and the music as if it were a precious heirloom. Through her work as a promoter she helped keep the blues alive and accessible to audiences in Southern California.”

12. Ace Records UK, bless ‘em, were, I believe, the first label to put out a retrospective of Percy’s Specialty work in the UK. The record/CD was entitled Poet Of The Blues. The opening comment on their description reads “Arguably, and frankly it’s a pretty one-sided argument, Percy Mayfield was one of the top handful of truly great blues singers.” Jasmine Records now have a 56 track set entitled Lost Love: The Singles As & Bs 1947-1962. As the title implies, this covers more than Specialty and is a highly recommended purchase. If you can find His Tangerine and Atlantic Sides, that would appear to be another excellent buy (though I should add that I don’t own it).

13. Although there’s no credit given to Cal Taylor at the start of this Toppermost, I am using this para to acknowledge and give thanks for the help he gave me, which extended to a not inconsiderable amount of proofing and correcting.

 

 

Percy Mayfield (1920–1984)

 

Percy Mayfield on Discogs

Percy Mayfield on 45cat

Percy Mayfield: Stranger in My Own Home Town – a short film by Steve Roeser

Percy Mayfield biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Bobby Bland, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Junior Parker, T-Bone Walker

TopperPost #630

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    May 26, 2017

    Great piece, Dave and what a superb singer and songwriter Percy was. Has never really received the credit he deserves.

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