Mayfield, Percy (1920-1984)

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Mayfield, Percy (1920-1984)

Percy Mayfield has been widely described as "the poet laureate of the blues." Armed with a dry baritone, songwriter and singer Mayfield sang blues ballads that pondered worlds of trouble, melancholy, pain, and suicide. He was one of the most creative songwriters and performers of California blues.

"I'm a poet, and my gift is love" explained Mayfield to an interviewer in Living Blues. Some of his themes dealt with subjects not generally associated with the blues. His biggest hit, "Please Send Me Someone to Love," was a prayer for understanding and peace of mind among all men. Mayfield's songs have been recorded by performers as diverse as Sade, Dale Evans, and Robert Nighthawk. As staff writer for Ray Charles, he wrote four top-ten hits.

Mayfield was born in Minden, Louisiana, 30 miles from Shreveport, on August 12, 1920. His mother was a singer who instilled in her son a love for music. Mayfield also wrote poems and set them to music as a child. At 15, he left Minden, riding the rails before settling in Houston, Texas, for a brief stay. He came to Los Angeles in 1941, where he lived with his older sister. Several orchestras featured Mayfield as a guest singer and subsequently he landed a two-year engagement with the George Como band. While he honed his songwriting, Mayfield supplemented his income by working as a taxi driver and a dry cleaning presser. Mayfield was a woman's man—handsome and stylish, he could attract women with just a look or a smile.

In 1949, Mayfield approached the Supreme record company with the idea of the company using some of his songs for their artist Jimmy Witherspoon. The surprising outcome was a chance for Mayfield to record himself. He recorded "Two Years of Torture," which gained some attention on the local charts. In 1950 he recorded, for Specialty Records, "Please Send Me Someone to Love," a hit that secured his fame as a songwriter. "Please Send Me Someone to Love" was followed by several hits, including "Strange Things Happening," "Lost Love," "What a Fool I Was," "Prayin' for Your Return," "Cry Baby," and "Big Question." After leaving Specialty, his subsequent singles on other labels were not as successful.

Mayfield considered himself above all a balladeer and not a blues singer. His early influences were Al Hibbler and Billy Eckstein. Mayfield's pensiveness and religious leanings set him apart from a number of blues singers. "I promised God I wouldn't write and sing a lie," he once said; Mayfield consistently acknowledged God for his songwriting talents. He epitomized, however, sadness in his songs and perhaps the lyrics of his own "My Blues" best explain his aesthetic: "Someone may ask the question, why are you so sad? /I would answer quite correctly, the blues is all I've had."

In September of 1952, Mayfield was involved in a catastrophic automobile accident, which acutely disfigured his face, changed his voice, and gravely affected his self-esteem. After this setback, he became staff writer for Ray Charles, penning at least four top-ten hits. These included the familiar "Hit the Road Jack," "But on the Other Hand Baby," "Hide nor Hair," and "At the Club." Mayfield also recorded what is considered his best work on an album entitled My Jug and I. A spirited "River's Invitation," arranged by Ray Charles, placed at 25 on the rhythm and blues chart in 1963; it was Mayfield's first top 40 entry in 11 years and was also his last. "River's Invitation" is clearly one of the most profound songs of Mayfield's oeuvre. It invokes the river in a metaphysical dialogue, which personifies a peaceful home and death. The river, in turn, invites Mayfield to give up his search for his lost love and join the waters: "You look so lonely /you look full of misery /and if you can't find your baby /come and make your home with me."

Mayfield recorded infrequently in subsequent years, completing an album for Brunswick and three for RCA Victor. In later years, companies were not interested in recording him and he would have to pay for his own recording sessions. Mayfield's baritone, however, continued to embrace most songs and convincingly made them his own. As his wife Tina recalled, "his music was more or less about sadness." His death from a heart attack came on the eve of his sixty-fourth birthday, August 11, 1984. Mayfield's death signaled the loss of one of the most creative and distinctive poets of rhythm and blues.

—Willie Collins

Further Reading:

Mayfield, Percy. Memory Pain. Vol. 2, Specialty Records, SPCD-7027-2.

——. My Jug and I. Tangerine Records, TRC-1505.

Shurman, Dick. "Songs of Inspiration: Living Blues Interview: Percy Mayfield." Living Blues. January, 1981, 12-25.