Percy Mayfield: The Poet of the Blues

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Percy Mayfield: The Poet of the Blues

Who is the most underrated songwriter of the rock ‘n’ roll era? Percy Mayfield, the Louisiana-born, L.A.-based singer/songwriter, could be as sweet as Pharrell Williams, as funny as John Prine and as scary as Lou Reed. Though a handful of his songs from the ’50s and ’60s, such as “Please Send Me Someone To Love” and “Stranger in My Own Hometown” are still sung today, few would recognize his name and fewer still have heard Mayfield’s own brilliant recordings.

Has there ever been a scarier song than Aretha Franklin’s 1969 recording of Mayfield’s “The River’s Invitation”? The Queen of Soul finds herself on the bank of a river, telling the muddy currents of her despair over a departed lover. “You know which way I’m headed,” she cries in a frenzy that converts gospel worship into emotional brinkmanship, “if my baby can’t be found.” You can tell she’s going crazy, because the river starts talking back to her. “If you can’t find your baby,” it tells her, “come and make your home with me.”

You can tell she’s seriously thinking about jumping into the water and ending her troubles right there by the way she goes silent during Junior Mance’s introspective blues-piano solo. When the horn section (featuring such jazz stars as Pepper Adams, Frank Wess and Benny Powell) reenters, its punchy riff seems to be pushing her farther and farther towards the lip of the bank. You can almost hear Franklin’s mind snap as she resolves to find her baby, “take him for a ride” and commit the murder/suicide that will have them spend the rest of their days “among the tides.” She goes out screaming, “I’m going to take that river’s invitation!”

“To really enjoy the fruits of life—joy, happiness and love—one must know pain,” Mayfield wrote in the liner notes when the song finally appeared on an album. “The price you pay for one is the other. There were times in my past when pain played the biggest role in my life. During those times, many songs with sad feelings and sad stories were born, such as this one.”

Has there ever been a funnier song than Ray Charles’s 1961 recording of Mayfield’s “Hit the Road, Jack”? A wife, backed up by her sister and mother, tells her good-for-nothing husband to “hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more.” The husband, all gruff and macho, protests that he’s been mistreated and misunderstood by “the meanest old woman that I’ve ever seen.” The wife, unimpressed, replies, “You ain’t got no money and you’re just no good.” The women, backed by an irresistible horn riff, again take up the title chant and seem to be pushing the husband farther and farther out the door with each repetition.

“He was one of our greatest stylists,” Charles says of Mayfield in the 1983 documentary film Percy Mayfield: Poet Laureate of the Blues. “In other words, Percy Mayfield was Percy Mayfield, and what he did was unique. He wrote songs that were ahead of their time.”

“The River’s Invitation” and “Hit the Road, Jack” demonstrate the great breadth of his emotional range. He could also write a political song as incisive as “Danger Zone,” an alcohol number as ambivalent as “My Jug and I,” or a romantic yearning as optimistic as “The Hunt Is On.”

And the songs keep getting recorded. Willie Nelson, Wynton Marsalis and Norah Jones cut a popular version of “Hit the Road, Jack” in 2012. The California Honeydrops made “The River’s Invitation” the title track of their 2015 album. Shemekia Copeland included it on her 2009 album, Never Going Back. Susan Tedeschi included “The Danger Zone” on her 2005 album, Hope and Desire. Fiona Apple recorded “Please Send Me Someone To Love” for the Pleasantville soundtrack in 1998. Diana Krall included “Lost Mind” on her 1997 album, Love Scenes.

Mayfield had a gift for writing the kind of smooth, bluesy, melodic swing favored by L.A. contemporaries such as Nat King Cole, Charles Brown and Amos Milburn. He had a rare ear for language, penning such wonderful phrases as “My future is my past; its memory will last” or “I ha-ha in the daytime but I boo-hoo all night long.” But what really separated him from other songwriters in the ‘50s and early ‘60s was his willingness to investigate the darker side of the human psyche.

“The River’s Invitation” was not his only song about despair and depression. “Lost Mind,” indelibly recorded by Mose Allison, is the confession of a man whose “soul’s been torn apart” by a “devil with the face of an angel.” “Stranger in My Own Hometown,” which became one of Elvis Presley’s greatest recordings of the ‘70s, describes the very particular disorientation of returning to one’s childhood home only to be greeted with indifference and contempt. Mayfield’s catalog is filled with song titles such as “Life Is Suicide,” “Memory Pain,” “Wasted Dream,” “Nightmare,” “Does Anyone Care for Me” and “How Deep Is the Well.”

“Most of my style of singing sadness started from pain,” Mayfield told Living Blues Magazine in 1980. “Once I got set in my ways, I found out that with my talent I could sell more sadness than joy. Because there’s more sadness in the world than there is joy. However, that doesn’t mean that I got to live as sad as I sell. But after intermission, when the booze has started soaking in, they want blues—or sadness.”

“He would try to leave something with the people that they wouldn’t forget,” his widow Tina told Goldmine Magazine in 1997, “to relieve the pain. Because he had gone through a lot of pain, and a lot of agony in his day. He had quite a few unhappy days. His whole life was full of pain and misery.”

You don’t have to be miserable to write about misery any more than you have to kill someone to write about murder or undergo a sex-change operation to write about the opposite sex. There are thousands of people who have suffered without being able to put their pain into words. Mayfield’s genius as a writer comes not from his biography but from the same place as William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams: from his own innate potential developed by hard work and courage.

The courage was necessary, because you don’t write something like “The River’s Invitation” if you’re sticking to the well-worn path. To be willing to describe how suicide might seem attractive to a desperate man, you have to be willing to dig into human nature as it actually is; you can’t be satisfied with repeating how we wish human nature were. If two artists have the same ability and skills (not the same thing), the one with the greater courage will create the more enduring work.

“He wanted to write a book,” Tina Mayfield told Goldmine. “He wanted to be a novelist. But he felt that if he wrote a book people wouldn’t buy it like they do music. Because if you hear good music and good lyrics that go with that music to tell a story, you’re going to buy it. Because you enjoy listening to that story. Every time you listen to Percy’s lyrics, you wait on one word to come out right behind the other. And when you complete listening to those songs, you’ve got a message—a message in song.”

“We don’t have a lot of good blues lyricists,” B.B. King tells the filmmakers. “We have a lot of great writers, but I’m talking about when you get down to the real blues, the kind of songs a lot of us as blues singers enjoy doing. We don’t have many who are doing it today, and Percy stands at the top of the line.”

Percy Mayfield was born in Minden, Louisiana, near Shreveport, in 1920. He lived on a farm seven miles from town, doted on by a mother who encouraged him to sing solos in church and by teachers who praised the poems, plays and songs he wrote for school competitions. But that idyllic world came crashing down when his mother suddenly died in 1932 when the son was 12. The shattered teenager soon took to hopping freight trains and getting off at whatever big city they carried him to. He survived by shining shoes, selling newspapers and panhandling. He would return for short stays to Minden or Houston where his sister Jessie Mae lived, and then he’d be off again.

In 1942, he followed his sister out to Los Angeles and went to work pressing clothes and driving a cab for his uncle. He had kept his literary ambitions under wraps, but in California, he joined Al-Mus-Art (Allied Music & Art), a volunteer group of writers, singers, dancers and musicians. In 1949 he volunteered to take four songs from the club (two and a half by him, one and a half by Ida Bravo) to Supreme Records in L.A. in hopes of convincing his idol Jimmy Witherspoon to record them. Witherspoon was fighting with the label over unpaid royalties, however, so owner Al Patrick told Mayfield that he would accept the songs only if the newcomer would sing them himself.

“I didn’t decide to be a singer; it was forced on me,” Mayfield told Barry Hansen (aka Dr. Demento) in 1969. “I always just wanted to write. But every time I took a song to a recording company to present it, to audition it for other artists, the company would only accept it if I would sing it…I couldn’t very well refuse and let those people in the talent club down, so I accepted. I went in and cut those four songs, and that’s how it started.”

One of those songs, “Two Years of Torture,” a song about a man remembering a cherished lover who departed 24 months earlier, became a West Coast hit, and Art Rupe came looking for Mayfield. Rupe owned Specialty Records, the L.A. home of jump-blues star Roy Milton (and soon to be Little Richard’s label) and he signed Mayfield. The first single was “Please Send Me Someone To Love,” one of the most perfect blues songs ever written.

“Heaven please send to all mankind understanding and peace of mind,” Mayfield croons in his buttery baritone in a melody that crouches low and then jumps high. This captivating opening indicates that the song is a political anthem, calling for universal brotherhood. But in an amazing sleight of hand, it also becomes a romantic plea in the next couplet, which jumps up even higher: “But, if it’s not asking too much, please send me someone to love.”

The social commentary is most pointed within the bridge’s second melody, with the marvelous internal rhyme of lines like “Unless men put an end to this damnable sin, hate will put the world in a flame, what a shame.” But the monologue quickly becomes personal again as Mayfield insists, “Just because I’m in misery; I’m not begging for no sympathy,” lines that set up a terrific saxophone solo by the session’s arranger, the brilliant Maxwell Davis.
“I wrote ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ as a prayer for peace disguised by a blues melody,” Mayfield told Living Blues. “I didn’t look at the song as being an awkward thing. I put a melody to it in order to reach the masses. The people out there playing them jukeboxes all night long and them hustlers, they could hear it because it sounds like I’m singing the blues.”

The single became a national No. 1 R&B hit, and its flip side, “Strange Things Happening,” went to No. 7. Follow-up singles such as “Lost Love” (No. 2), What a Fool I Was (No. 8) and “Prayin’ for Your Return” (No. 9) also hit the R&B top 10. Before long “Please Send Me Someone To Love” was covered by movie cowgirl Dale Evans and by jazz diva Dinah Washington. Over the years the song would be recorded by everyone from Solomon Burke to Jeff Buckley, from Dr. John to Sade, from Count Basie to Peggy Lee. Randy Newman even wrote a very funny parody of the song called “Lover’s Prayer.”

Mayfield was an overnight star, and he was soon touring the nation. His widow Tina remembers seeing a concert when she was a teenager in Arkansas. The headliners were Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong, but the young girls were most interested in the opening act: Percy Mayfield & the May-Tones. He was the proverbial “tall, dark and handsome” singer, slender as a reed with long fingers and a pencil-thin mustache. He didn’t play an instrument on stage, but conducted his big band with body language. He would hunch his shoulders when he wanted the energy to pick up; he would wink at the saxophonist when he wanted a solo.

He was on top of the world until one night in 1952. Mayfield himself claimed it was August 22; others cite other dates, but everyone agrees he was driving back home to L.A. after a gig in Las Vegas. Mayfield was stretched out in the front passenger seat while his valet Shep Ealey was driving 90 miles an hour across the desert, the way Mayfield himself liked to drive.

But when Ealey came around a bend and encountered a slow-moving car, he couldn’t stop in time. Mayfield’s car struck the other car, flipped over and rolled down the bank into a grove of eucalyptus trees. One tree drove the engine through the firewall and into Mayfield’s forehead. When the paramedics arrived, they assumed the singer was dead. In fact, news reports went out that he had died in the crash.

He hadn’t, but he spent more than a month in the hospital getting put back together. When he was released, he had an even lower voice and a deep, V-shaped dent that ran from his left eyebrow up to his hairline.

“I started touring again in ’53,” he told Hansen, “but with a different personality. I have to admit; I had an inferiority complex in those years, but I didn’t quit…I may have taken a swig before my gigs or when I was getting ready to record to calm my nerves, but it wasn’t enough to call myself a drinker. But after I had the accident that changed too.”

“Percy, like all good-looking cats,” Rupe told Hansen in the same interview, “thought that’s the only thing the chicks dig. He didn’t realize that what they really dug was something he had inside. He was a young kid then, but he’s matured like everyone hopefully does.”

“It changed my everything around,” Mayfield says in the film with quiet sorrow. Then he brightens and jokes, “Now I know I’m a star, because no one else in show business looks like me but me.”

Mayfield would not have another charting single under his own name till 1963. His contract with Specialty ran out, and he cut a single with Chicago’s Chess Records, which had just scored a No. 5 R&B hit with the Moonglows’ doo-wop version of “Please Send Me Someone To Love.” Mayfield couldn’t match that success, and he released singles for such labels as Cash, Money, Imperial and Atco with a similar lack of success. He still didn’t have an album to his name, and his career seemed to have bottomed out.

But in 1961, he traveled from his current home in Louisiana to L.A. to pitch songs to B.B. King, who had already cut several. Ray Charles, who had recorded “Two Years of Torture” two years earlier, heard Mayfield was in town and invited the songwriter over to pitch some tunes. When Charles heard Mayfield’s a cappella demo for “Hit the Road, Jack,” he claimed the song for himself. When Charles’s version went No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 2 on the pop charts, he signed Mayfield to a five-year contract as Charles’ private songwriter.

When Charles had further luck with such Mayfield songs as “But on the Other Hand, Baby” (No. 10 R&B, No. 72 pop), “Hide ‘Nor Hair” (No. 7 R&B, No. 20 pop) and “At the Club” (No. 7 R&B, No. 44 pop), the singer signed his good-luck charm as an artist to Charles’ own label, Tangerine Records. With Charles producing and playing keyboards and the Ray Charles Orchestra backing him up, Mayfield released his first two albums: 1966’s My Jug and I and 1968’s Bought Blues.

If the years 1950-52 represented Mayfield’s first peak, the decade of 1961-71 represented his second. He followed up the two Tangerine albums with one album for Brunswick and three for RCA, all terrific. He couldn’t break into the Top 20 on the R&B singles chart, but he was writing smart, magnificent songs. He approached his craft as seriously as any novelist or poet.

“I’d write about anything or anybody at any time,” he says in the film. “You could say something here or on the street and if it caught my ear, I’d write it down on a matchbook cover or napkin—just those few words. I might not use it for a year, but if I’m reaching for a word to match a sentence, I’ll remember it. First I try to please me; then I try to please everyone else.

“I’m a stranger to the world while I’m writing. When it’s ready for the public sphere, then they can criticize me. But they can’t criticize me while I’m writing: ‘Do this here; do that there.’ Go ahead and leave me alone. When I write it out, I ask myself, ‘How do you like this here?’ If it’s good, OK. If it’s not, I’ll just keep it in my notebook.”

But all of his success couldn’t protect Mayfield from America’s prejudices. He was living back in Minden in the mid-‘60s when he was investigated for narcotics.

“It’s a small Southern town,” he told Living Blues, “and if you weren’t teaching school or working at the Shell plant, people couldn’t understand how you were making your money. But I was under contract to Ray Charles, who was guaranteeing X amount of dollars a year. But the people around there in that small town never could understand. And they framed me. They said I was selling dope. I wasn’t even fooling with it, but they tied me up because Ray Charles had a habit. I was innocent but they uglied my name and shamed my family. So I wrote ‘Stranger in My Own Home Town.’”

On the other hand, Mayfield wasn’t above having a little fun with Charles’ heroin addiction. “I wrote a lot of those songs with little trickerations in the words,” Mayfield told Goldmine, “to get Ray to record them. I pimped him into recording them. Ray had a habit back then, so I put in lines like, ‘You know I’m hooked on you, Mama.’”

After 1971, Mayfield sank back into obscurity. He would still sing in clubs around Los Angeles and record the occasional single such as 1974’s “I Don’t Want To Be President,” produced by Johnny “Guitar” Watson. But beyond the California borders, he was more or less forgotten.

When Mark Naftalin, the original keyboardist for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, moved to the Bay Area, however, he tracked down Mayfield, a longtime idol, and invited him as a guest on the Naftalin’s live-in-a-club radio show, Blue Monday Party. The best of those appearances were released as an album, Percy Mayfield Live, and as part of the film Percy Mayfield: Poet Laureate of the Blues, featuring Naftalin as producer, interviewer and pianist.

In 1984, though, a year after the half-hour documentary came out, Mayfield died of a heart attack, one day before his 64th birthday. Little Richard sang “Thank You, Jesus” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” at the funeral. Soon Mayfield was getting more attention than he had in years.

In 1989 the great New Orleans singer Johnny Adams, backed by Duke Robillard and Jon Cleary, devoted a whole album to Mayfield’s songs: Walking on a Tightrope. Specialty Records released all its Mayfield recordings on two CDs: 1990’s Poet of the Blues and 1992’s Memory Pain. In 2003, Rhino released a limited edition of Percy America: His Tangerine and Atlantic Sides. In 2006, Australia’s Raven Records released Blues Laureate: The RCA Years. In 2008, the wonderful Canadian bluesman Amos Garrett released Get Way Back: A Tribute to Percy Mayfield.

The music isn’t easy to find, but it’s out there—and it’s well worth the search. Whether he was being as scary as “The River’s Invitation” or as funny as “Hit the Road, Jack,” Mayfield had the skills and the courage to get at the inside of human nature. When he did, he was one of the 20th century’s best writers.

“A song has to have one of two sounds,” he told Living Blues. “You’ve got to have a sad sound, a serious sound, or a novelty sound. Like when the weather be bad, I can close my windows and close my doors and picture me a storm. Or I can picture me trying to get in my door and ain’t got my key and there ain’t nobody in the house. All my tunes are true to life, even my novelties. I try to make them make sense because I don’t know nothing else to do.”

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