It's not hard to see why Percy Mayfield has been so frequently covered and so often mentioned with admiration among his fellow blues singers; he was a master of the moody blues ballad, he had flawless timing and phrasing and as a writer his songs had a frank, penetrating insight into the dark, complex side of the human condition. Songs like "River's Invitation", "Please Send Me Someone To Love", "Life Is Suicide", "My Jug And I" and "Stranger In My Own Home Town', to name just a few, were adult songs for adult listeners, filled with a darkly hued, poetic sensibility, devilish wit and hipster coolness.
Mayfield's main hit making period was from 1950-1952 when he scored seven top ten hits for the Specialty label including "Please Send Me Someone To Love", the biggest hit ever for the label. He stuck with the label through the decade, cutting a few singles for Chess, Cash and Imperial along the way, but never matched his early success. In the 1960's Mayfield's song "Hit The Road, Jack"came to the attention of Ray Charles who was also starting his own record label called Tangerine. Charles hired on Mayfield as a writer and also gave him a chance to record for the label. Mayfield was at the height of his abilities penning songs for Charles like "Hide Nor Hair", "At The Club", "Danger Zone" and "On The Other Hand, Baby." Mayfield's own sides for Tangerine were every bit as good and have been collected on Rhino's limited addition His Tangerine And Atlantic Sides. After leaving Tangerine Mayfield moved to Brunswick, cutting the exceptional Walking On A Tightrope album.
Much less well known are the trio of superb records he cut for RCA in the 1970's, all unfortunately out of print: Percy Mayfield Sings Percy Mayfield (1970), Weakness Is A Thing Called Man (1970) and Blues…And Then Some (1971). While I won't go so far as to say these are better than his earlier records, they're not, they are quite good and deserve to be better remembered. Mayfield's writing and voice were in great shape, and he was surrounded by sympathetic studio bands including Eric Gale, Billy Butler, Chuck Rainey, Pretty Purdie, Seldon Powell, Snooky Young, and Richard Tee to name a few as well as full horn sections and female backing vocalists. The music is filled with blues ballads, funky shuffles and a touch of soul. Like similar era recordings from Bobby Bland and Junior Parker, the music has a bit of a period feel but finds a veteran artist still at his peak, making a few changes to still sound fresh and relevant.
The albums are filled with songs dealing with relationships, a preoccupation with the past and meditations on the human condition. Percy Mayfield Sings includes the bouncy "Live Today Like The Day Before" and the moody mumble of "To Live The Past", two songs that find Mayfield ruminating on the past. In the former song he sings:
Well my past is like a whirlwind, on a summer day
It whirls around inside, and I get carried away
So when I'm reminiscing, it's no fault of mine
It's just my past that won't let go but I'm sure it will in time
On Blues…And Then Some the memories of a past love at times soothe his mind on the lovely ballad "Memories That's All" and are harsher on the funky "Minden Is A Dry Town" from Weakness Is A Thing Called Man. Minden, Louisiana was Mayfield's hometown and where he returned for solace after he was involved in a terrible auto accident in 1952 which left his matinee-idol good looks disfigured. Mayfield explored this theme in 1964's masterful "Stranger in My Own Hometown" a devastating portrait of isolation and alienation and his struggle with alcoholism afterward in "My Jug And I" and "The Bottle Is My Companion." He likely has Minden on his mind on the smoldering "California Blues" also from Weakness Is A Thing Called Man:
I'm gonna leave here, I'm going back where I'm better known (2x)
Where smart people mind there own business, and the fool will leave your business alone
I was born to be a wise man, look how long I've been a fool (2x)
I don't mind being used by people, but I sure do hate to be misused
California, California, make room 'cause here I come (2x)
'Cause you see, you're more like a mother to me [spoken: in more ways than one]
Because that's where I started from
Travel is also the theme of one of his best blues from this period, the slinky "The Highway Is Like A Woman", from Percy Mayfield Sings:
The time has come, and I've got to hit the road again (2x)
'Cause I travel with a passion, and the highway is my lady friend
You see the highway is like a woman, soft shoulders and dangerous curves (2x)
If "Please Send Me Someone To Love" was a universal prayer for peace, Mayfield is still delivering a message on the troubled state of man on the super funky "Stand Tall", "Right On Young Americans", the shuffling "Brotherhood Week" and the brooding "Weakness Is A Thing Called Man."
Above all Mayfield sings masterly about the complicated state of love on the throbbing blues of "This Time You Suffer Too" punctuated by Eric Gale's economical, stinging licks and a batch of gorgeous blues ballads like "Lonely For My Baby", "Hand In Hand With Another Man", "Getting You Off My Mind", "Contact Me (When You Find Her)", "You Lied To Me For The Last Time", "Don't Want To Lose My Baby" and the evocative "Black Coffee" as Mayfield expertly charts the state of troubled love:
Well my nerves has gone to pieces, now my hair is turning gray
Well I'm a talking to the shadows from one o'clock to four
Lord how slow the moments go, and all I do is pour, black coffee
Love is a sorry affair, a sorry affair
It's not all gloom and dark shadows. In fact Mayfield has a wicked sense of humor as he displays most notably on "A Lying Woman" and "The Devil Made Me Do It." On the former he sings:
You're not a trustworthy woman, 'cause you just lie all the time (2x)
You and I never will never be successful, just as long as you keep on lying
I remember when I met you, you said your name was Mary Jane (2x)
But when I seen you in the line-up, the heat was calling you by another name
In the latter he sings:
Now a broad in a mini-skirt sitting at the bar, her big legs crossed
And just as I asked her, darling, how much do your mini-skirt cost?
Before she could answer my question, and she seemed so very nice
My old lady wanted to know, just what do you wanna to know the price?
I said the devil made me do it, I'm not guilty baby
Well now you might as well get used to it because the devil got most of me
A couple of years back the Raven label did issue Blues Laureate: The RCA Years which collects twenty-five tracks from Mayfield's RCA period. Still, I wish these records would be reissued in their entirety. After these albums Mayfield slipped back in obscurity but made a comeback in the early 1980's resulting in a pair of strong live recordings. He passed in 1984.