Percy Mayfield, Specialty Records promo shot, 1950
At home with Percy Mayfield, early 80’s.
For those of you who like their geniuses tortured, Percy Mayfield (b. Aug 12, 1920, in Minden, Louisiana), may have been the greatest song writer in the history of rhythm and blues, he was certainly the most uncompromisingly bleak tune smith the music has ever known. While Robert Johnson might’ve had to “keep movin'” to stay ahead of the hellhound on his trail, Percy Mayfield knew there was no place to run. In the sound of his voice, and the subtlety of his lyrics you can hear him genuflect to the horrors of every day life, resigned to the shitty luck of being born into a world that tore apart sensitive souls like himself as a matter of course. He took these forlorn feelings and made them into some of the greatest rhthym and blues records of all time. And of course, he has a story.
Mayfield left Louisiana as a teenager, kicked around Houston for a bit and washed up on the west coast. Most bios put the beginging of his musical career at 1949 when he showed up at Supreme Records, supposedly to attempt to sell his song Two Years Of Torture for Jimmy Witherspoon to record. The owner of the label liked Mayfield’s singing so well that he insisted that Mayfield record the tune himself, and this set him on his path to a musical career. This may have well happened, but what virtually every bio I’ve read leaves out is that Mayfield had already recorded a version of Two Years Of Torture for the Gru-V-Tone label in the Bay Area (where last week’s subject Pee Wee Crayton had started) at least two years (possibly three) earlier. Gru-V-Tone not only released the first recording of Two Years Of Torture b/w Get Way Back (Gru-v-Tone 102), but first released, from the same session, a two part Louis Jordan styled jive number called Jack You Ain’t Nowhere Pts. 1 & 2 (Gru-v-Tone 101), a somewhat trite record, but a record none the less.
Whatever, history is just whatever some one manages to get published somewhere. What ever happened, Supreme re-recorded Mayfield singing Two Years Of Torture releasing it with Half Awake (Baby You’re Still Square) in 1949 (Supreme 1543) and it must have been a decent seller since they also leased it to Swing Time, King and Recorded In Hollywood at various times. The a side would eventually be covered by Ray Charles, the flip by B.B. King. But Percy Mayfield, for whatever reason never gave Supreme a follow up disc, and was soon recording for Art Rupe’s Specialty Records, the label that would give us Roy Milton, Joe and Jimmy Liggins, Guitar Slim, Lloyd Price, Wynona Carr, Professor Alex Bradford, Little Richard, Larry Williams, The Soul Stirrers (with Sam Cooke), Dorothy Love Coates, Mercy Dee (of One Room Shack fame), Don & Dewey, Sonny Bono, Willie Joe & his Unitar, and may have had the highest ratio of great records of any label in history. His initial session for Specialty, produced and arranged by the great tenor sax player Maxwell Davis (the man who taught Leiber and Stoller how to make records, his importance to R&B and rock’n’roll is criminally under acknowledged) birthed Percy Mayfield’s biggest hit, and one of his greatest compositions– Please Send Me Someone To Love, a clever plea for racial harmony disguised as a torch ballad, it struck a deep chord in record buyers in 1950 spending 27 weeks at the #1 spot on the R&B charts and becoming one of the most enduring standards in the blues canon. The flipside- Strange Things Happen had it’s own chart run, hitting #7 R&B in early ’51.
Between 1950-1952 Mayfield put seven discs in the R&B top ten, recording with Maxwell Davis, he waxed some of the greatest, and most desolately beautiful blues ballads ever heard.
Among these spine tingling dirges were this catalogue of pain: Hopeless, Life Is Suicide, Nightless Lover, Cry Baby, The Lonely One, Lost Love, Lost Mind, Wasted Dream,The River’s Invitation, The Hunt Is On, Memory Pain, You Don’t Exist No More, Nightmare, The Big Question, and to my mind, his greatest moment at Specialty– The Voice Within.
A slim, handsome man with wavy hair and suave demeanor, he was becoming a major attraction on the Chitlin’ Circuit, but as if to fulfill his recorded litany of gloom, a 1952 car wreck disfigured his handsome face, leaving a huge, Quasimodo like hole that ran from his eye to the hairline, (he would spend five months laid up in the hospital recuperating and underwent multiple operations to put his face back together), it virtually ended his career as a live performer. Over that five months laying in a hospital bed, I can’t help but wonder if the chorus to Memory Pain– “It serves me right to suffer” rang in his ears as some sort of cosmic, sick, ironic joke.
It was at this point in late ’52 he parted way with Art Rupe and Specialty Records, although their exists a heartbreaking letter he wrote to Rupe begging to let him record again even though he was “too ugly to be seen in public”. He wouldn’t record again until 1955 when he cut Double Dealin’ b/w Are You Out There for Chess in Chicago. He made another single for the tiny Cash label in L.A. the same year–Look The Whole World Over b/w The Bluest Blues, and then returned to Specialty for one final session, the rather goofy pop tune Diggin’ The Moonglow b/w Please Believe Me. He would cut singles for Home Cooking, Imperial and 7 Arts in the next two years. None of these are good as his earlier Specilty work, and his career was losing momentum fast. Enter Ray Charles who signed Mayfield to a contract as both a songwriter (a move which would immediately pay off with the massive Hit The Road Jack, one of Charles’ biggest and most enduring hits, here’s Mayfield’s demo), and as a recording artist to his Tangerine/TRC labels, for which he recorded two excellent albums– The Jug and I (1963, the single from which Stranger In My Own Hometown was perhaps his greatest recording, and later covered by Elvis in the King’s last truly transcendent recorded performance) and Bought Blues (1966). Excellent as these two LP’s are they produced only one minor hit, a remake of The River’s Invitation that peaked at #25 R&B in July of ’63.
After parting way with Ray Charles, Percy Mayfield would cut one LP for the mob run Brunswick label– Walking On A Tightrope, followed by three really good ones for RCA–Sings Percy Mayfield, Weakness Is A Thing Called Man, Blues and Then Some, again only one minor hit, To Live In The Past which scraped its way to #43 R&B in March of 1970. These records were far outside the type of R&B that ruled all important radio in the early 70’s, there was simply no niche for Mayfield’s music that the record companies radio and marketing department could find (good music is hardly enough for these generally dullwitted types). He cut one single for Atlantic with Johnny Guitar Watson producing– I Don’t Want To Be President, his final chart entry, only making it to #84 R&B in the fall of ’74, it would also be his final studio recording.
Sometime in the early 80’s Percy Mayfield returned to performing live, appearing mostly in small clubs around L.A., a new generation of mostly white fans had been turned on to his music through re-issues of his Specialty sides by both Specialty (who would issue two killer CD’s full his classics and un-issued material from it’s vaults, Poet Of The Blues Vol. 1 and Vol. 2,) and in Europe through the U.K. Ace label. In his final days he was fronting a band that featured guitarist Pee Wee Crayton and plans were made for them to record together when he died of a heart attack on his 64th birthday– Aug. 12, 1984.
In the years since his death, Rhino Handmade has re-issued his Tangerine sides, his Specialty output remains in print both in the U.S. and the U.K. , although his various one off 45’s, as well as Brunswick and RCA LP’s get tougher to find every year (I can use a new copy of the Brunswick album myself), but his songs remain, he’s been covered by hundreds of artists, in fact, a CD compilation of the best Percy Mayfield covers would be a good idea. Speaking of which, they’re is supposedly in RCA’s vault a third, x-rated, take of Elvis’ version of Stranger In My Own Hometown (the first was the stunning finale to the Elvis In Memphis LP, an alternate take surfaced on the UK Elvis Blues CD in the late 90’s), anyone out there have a copy they want to send to the old Hound?