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SUPREME 1543; SEPTEMBER, 1949

 

REISSUED AS:

RECORDED IN HOLLYWOOD 111 (MID-1950)

KING 4480 (LATE-1951)

 

 

The standards for determining a successful release in the music business varies depending on just who you’re asking to define the term “success”.

For record labels success invariably means sales. The more it sells, the more successful they consider it to be since their business relies on tangible economic returns on their investments in order to stay solvent.

For artists and audiences however success can take on a much different meaning. The artist wants to successfully meet their own artistic expectations with their efforts. It may not sell anything but if the sound in their head translates to the sound achieved on the record then they’re generally pretty satisfied with the results.

Audiences meanwhile tend to view a record as a success if their own expectations for the record were exceeded.

Bad records can of course become hits, just as great efforts can fail to reach an audience, but when all three parties view the record as a success using their own unique criteria that’s as sure a sign as you can get that the artist in question is going to be worth following.

For Percy Mayfield this record was a success in all three areas and set him on the course for stardom and universal respect.
 

 

It’s Alright To Dream A Little
As touched upon in the review of the top side of Mayfield’s debut on Supreme after a two year hiatus following his little-heard first efforts on the tiny Gru-V-Tone Records, rock history seems to reserve special praise for great songwriters, or rather great lyricists.

The reason for this is quite obvious when you think about it. Delineating rock history is the realm of writers, people who make their living stringing together words to tell a story. The majority of these writers are not musicians, they can’t play an instrument or carry a tune in a bucket. They know nothing of chords and keys, can’t explain melodies and are quickly stumped trying to come up with clever descriptions of rhythm.

But a song’s LYRICS are something they can relate to, analyze and interpret. That’s something they feel comfortable getting into because it’s using the same tools of their own trade – words – and so they consider themselves experts in that realm. It’s also far easier to transcribe those lyrics in the review of the song than it is to break down chord changes and heaven knows it’s far more likely that even if they could detail the musical side of the equation in an accurate manner there’s little chance that the majority of their readers would be able to understand it.

That’s why in the annals of rock history there is far more praise heaped upon acclaimed lyricists like Bob Dylan than his accomplishments themselves would probably warrant. That’s not to say he isn’t worthy of praise but it’s out-sized compared to what he’s worthy of from a purely objective point of view and the reason for this is because what he excelled in was the very thing that those who make their living praising rock artists found most appealing – lyrics.

By contrast someone like James Brown, whose career ran fairly concurrent with Dylan in that both were at their best from the early 1960’s to mid-1970’s with some periods of later relevance thrown in, gets far less attention in the annals of rock history. He’s certainly not lacking in notoriety but his music gets nowhere near the same pedantic focus as Dylan’s, because with Brown it seems writers are stuck for what specifically they can adequately praise after awkwardly trying to point out his revolutionary deconstruction of melodic structure in his music from the mid-1960’s on. So rather than try they merely leave it at that and move back to scrutinizing every word of an obscure Dylan album cut instead.

The same can be said of all other eras. Chuck Berry gets far more acclaim than either Fats Domino or Little Richard, both of whom were bigger stars of the 1950’s with greater initial impact and yet Berry has long since been elevated over both of them. Again the reason it would seem is primarily lyrical. Berry wrote easily digested lyrical odes to subjects that were universal and he did so with a keen eye and a sharp ear for language. By contrast Domino and Richard tended to be more direct with their lyrics while the music carried the ball.

It’s no wonder then that by the 1970’s renowned lyricists like Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Elvis Costello generated more fawning praise by writers than any disco act ever did.

The rule of thumb has generally been the more words a songwriter expends the more words will be used by reviewers to tout that work.

Which is why someone like Percy Mayfield, if you follow that line of thinking, is deserving of even MORE commendations than he gets because he, more than anyone, is who pioneered the type of introspective literary viewpoints shown in rock ‘n’ roll.
 


 

Such A Brainchild
Though it’d be hard to argue that his previous two efforts reviewed on these pages – Jack, You Ain’t Nowhere and two versions of Two Years Of Torture – hadn’t already exhibited his gift for unique and memorable wordplay, he takes those skills to another level on Half Awoke which manages the rare feat of presenting a guy’s put-downs to a girl in a way that isn’t vindictive or angry, but instead are rather illuminating.

Showing intelligence in a style of music that more often than not revels in crude euphemisms, repetitive declarations and simplistic story-lines can be a risky maneuver if commercial success is your goal. It’s not that the rock fan of the late 1940’s was too unsophisticated to appreciate deeper meanings in the music they listened to, but rather that it was awfully hard to have songs which specialized in more erudite subjects be HEARD over the din of honking saxes, stomping back-beats and wild-eyed declarations of lust it’d be competing with for spins on the jukebox.

Which might be why Maxwell Davis, who presumably ran this session as well as playing tenor sax on it, chose to frame it with a horn section that blasts from the speakers from the moment the needle drops.

The piano in entrusted with carrying the unrelenting rhythm and while the song doesn’t have any instruments stepping to the forefront in a more emphatic way, be it guitar or drums, there’s no slackening of the pace or the drive of the musicians throughout this. The horn interjections ARE a little too brassy, yes, but Davis’s solos are perfectly suited for rock ‘n’ roll and keeps the pulse racing.

All of which is to say that this noisy calamitous framework is hardly a typical structure in which to house an artist whose lyrics are going to take center stage of the record where presumably they could get lost amidst the clatter.

You needn’t worry though, because if there’s one thing that will be consistently proven over the years it’s that Percy Mayfield knows how to make sure that his message will get across.
 

Already In The Know
Here’s the point where the reviewer usually starts quoting lines and wearing out their thesaurus for new ways to say how they stand out: ( let’s get them out of the way, shall we? Witty, smart, clever, perceptive, droll… you get the idea).

The oft-used verbatim lifts are designed to get you an appreciation of their mastery of their craft while relieving the burden of the reviewer in having to add much of their own analysis to the proceedings while still having it fill up the word count. But while that might’ve been acceptable, even advisable, in the olden days where people read newspapers and magazine articles, in this world where the songs are embedded on the page to be listened to firsthand it can get redundant.

Instead let’s look at the way in which he delivers these lines for maximum effect and how that reveals his insolence for this girl who is Half Awoke.

In the last few years the term “woke” has gotten national recognition after taking root in the black community as a word we use to describe social awakening, specifically in regards to seeking racial justice. Though it was used in song prior to 1949 in this context the always dubious Wikipedia credits Erykah Badu with re-appropriating it in music back in 2008 and while we here love her work and can’t wait to start reviewing it – at the rate we’re going it’ll be in about fifty years or so… Stay tuned, folks! – the truth is Percy Mayfield beat her to it by six decades.

Though he doesn’t use the term “stay woke” itself, as is the common usage in this century, his meaning is roughly the same as he starts off by criticizing his (presumably former) girlfriend who he accuses of sleeping through life. Unlike Wynonie Harris’s complaints about a LAZY girlfriend in You Got To Get Yourself A Job, Girl, that’s clearly not what Mayfield is referring to with his critiques.

Instead he chides her for focusing too much on beauty and not enough on her awareness of the world around her. His stop-time bridge delivered in a semi-spoken cadence sounds so off-handed, like he was just caught commenting about her on the side, that it becomes even more effective at showing just where she falls short in his estimation. His frustration about her lack of concern in this area of life becomes palpable as he ramps up his criticism, even calling her a “dope”, then closes that lecture out by telling her ”You’ll never see the light as long as you’re half awoke”.

While he doesn’t lay out specifically what social issues have his attention, he makes it clear that not all women are lacking in whatever area he’s obliquely referring to. You could certainly make the case it may have more to do with the state of male-female relations, but there’s no sign of any topics that would tip you off to this possibility. He’s not railing against her for not showing him the proper attention, nor about any domestic disturbances, unexplained late night departures to see other men, or even a lack of cooking skills for that matter – all the normal complaints that guys in song at this time were known for. But while I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate inattentive girlfriends or cheating partners, and presumably he needed to eat and thus would like a nice meal now and then, Percy Mayfield would soon make his name on showcasing an awareness of the types of larger social themes this record continually hints at.

Given that evidence it’d be hard not to say that Half Awoke wasn’t an early example of the importance of being cognizant of the inequities of the world around you, making it one of the more interesting records to ponder in rock’s early journey. It was a modest success commercially for the cash-strapped Supreme (soon picked up by the Recorded In Hollywood label, and later on by King once Supreme went under) but a clear artistic success that was met with a positive reception by those hearing it who would soon come to seek out such deeper ideas from the man who frequently acted as rock’s conscience.
 

When You Wake Up You’ll Discover…
Few artists in rock history explored these subjects more thoughtfully than Percy Mayfield over a long and varied career. His ascent to stardom was now underway and yet he’d remain a curious outlier in many ways, an intellectual who wrote introspective songs dealing with despair and delivered with a sleepy baritone that hardly could be called arousing, yet who for a time was a sex symbol, showing that, yes, even many rock fans could be stimulated by intelligence as much as by phallic displays of bravado.

I suppose in that way he IS a lot like Bob Dylan, an unlikely star who seduced your mind rather than your loins, but whereas Dylan has no shortage of honors bestowed on him, Mayfield has long since slipped into the outskirts of oblivion, even though, song for song, he can stand with absolutely anybody when it comes to insightful and memorable thoughts put to music.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Percy Mayfield for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)