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SPECIALTY 416; NOVEMBER 1951

 
 

 

In real life the pain of having your heart broken is more about the emotional anguish of losing someone close to you than it is about the intellectual analysis of the events that led up to it.

In real time we don’t have the inclination or the clarity of thought to stop and put into words what is largely a gut reaction to a chain of events that resulted in a broken relationship. Instead we choose to prolong our misery by dwelling on the feelings that elicits until they consume us and hopefully burn themselves out in the process, leaving behind a barren field for a new love to eventually grow in.

Music on the other hand can’t just be a long dirge with intermittent moaning over it… not if you want hits anyway… and so songs tend to go into detail over the cause and effect of these dreaded events and do so with far more poetic grace than the real split ever warranted.

In the long history of rock ‘n’ roll few artists ever examined this subject more frequently or poignantly than Percy Mayfield, who must’ve had a cast iron heart to be able to conjure up these painful memories with such purity of vision, sparing no one of blame, especially not himself, in the process.
 

 

Pack My Grip
Straightforward songwriting was never Percy Mayfield’s specialty. He came at his subjects from all angles, around corners and in subversive stealth attacks to keep listeners off balance, forcing you to actually pay attention to the unfolding drama rather than simply give you the entire plot with the first line or two and then put the record on auto-pilot as so many writers do.

With Hopeless he outdoes himself though in how the record kicks off by not only referencing another musical trope – a train motif – but playing it up with the exquisite Maxwell Davis arrangement which leans into the horns with their gently surging presence sounding reassuring as if you were being lulled off to sleep as the train pulls away from the station.

But it’s Mayfield’s unusual narrative choices to start things off that makes this stand out from the moment the needle drops as he’s framing the entire story with the admission he doesn’t even have the dough to go home after his love affair came to a close and he is merely hoping to win the funds gambling… a subject that doesn’t factor in to the rest of the story in the slightest, yet perfectly embodies his state of mind and the overall despair he feels.

It’s such a confident move that those who tend not to focus much on lyrics probably won’t get as much out of the record because they’re missing the way Mayfield’s entire outlook has been tainted by this crisis. He’s moved past the initial hurt of the breakup and has settled into a weariness that in many ways is more painful because there’s no cathartic release left for him to draw on.

Instead he’s sleepwalking through the day and night, his heart empty, his eyes blank, his soul depleted but – luckily for us – his mind clear and focused to tell us all about it.
 


 
 

I Used To Love A Woman…
The story of course is pretty predictable, romantic disillusionment hasn’t changed much over the centuries so the causes of their rift are hardly a surprise, but Mayfield voices these things with a self-reflective honesty that is disarming.

Singers don’t always get a ton of credit for their acting ability, but Mayfield’s complete immersion in this “character” sells the record in a way not even the carefully constructed lyrics and aching musical trappings can, thinking his way through each line as if it were three o’clock in the morning and dawn seems like a million years away.

Mayfield’s vocal inflections add immeasurably to the unique characteristics of his semi-spoken delivery and keening tone of voice, all of it combing to bring to life what is designed as subdued resignation, bonding himself with the audience who’ve surely experienced the same basic situation in their own lives.

That’s the key to making this work as well as it does, as so many guys over time have voiced the same sentiments – ”I used to love a woman who I thought was in love with me/But she played me for a fool as anyone can plainly see” – but each person feels at the time as if they were the only ones who ever had to deal with this problem and because Mayfield himself treats it that way it resonates with you without seeming stale or trite in the least.

Likewise the musical touches on Hopeless are straight from the standard playbook of how to express romantic disenchantment, yet Maxwell Davis never steps wrong in his choices, opting for a sparse track with lilting horns offset by alternately reflective and expectant piano work to keep the mood slightly unsettled and in the process achieves a very soothing sound that mitigates some of the pain Mayfield is experiencing.

Davis’s sax solo draws out the tension without dialing up the angst in the process and the sound blends seamlessly into Mayfield’s return on vocals making it all seem like an organic expression of the kind of hurt that may eventually dissipate in time, but until it does still has the ability to put you through the wringer.
 

I Know I’m Hooked
It’s entirely possible that Percy Mayfield’s dour outlook on life in general, and on the downside of love in particular, will become routine over time, much like The Orioles did by constantly presenting songs with the same basic components, from tempo to lyrics to vocal arrangements. But at this juncture anyway Percy Mayfield seems be operating on an altogether higher plane that manages to avoid the pitfalls of musical repetitiveness.

What’s responsible for this illusion isn’t quite clear however. It can’t be the technical qualities of his voice, which surely don’t compare favorably to Sonny Til, and while the tempos are a little more varied and the musical arrangements more diverse, they still aren’t radical departures from what came before.

In fact there’s nothing about Hopeless that would remotely qualify as innovative, yet there’s also nothing about it that isn’t incredibly effective even if we’ve heard much of it before from him under different guises.

Certainly the outcome of the story is never in doubt… Mayfield will continue to suffer until he finds someone else, though at this point he’s still not ready to move on and so he’ll wallow in his gloom… but likewise the outcome of the record isn’t in much doubt either, not with one of the best studio pairings in all of rock operating at the top of their game.

Sometimes misery loves company I guess and with heartache and suffering being universal experiences for all of us at some point or another, it helps to have someone like Percy Mayfield around to remind us that we’re never alone in that regard.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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