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GRU-V-TONE 101; (APPROXIMATELY) DECEMBER, 1947

 


When starting this blog I had a very clear picture in mind of how I wanted it to unfold. The format – taken shamelessly from, but with the blessing of, the fantastic Motown Junkies (the best music blog in the history of the internet in case you’re wondering) – was fairly cut and dried, that of a chronological look back at rock history one record, and one review, at a time.

What could be simpler than that?

Well, a lot of things actually, like staying in bed, going to the beach or cashing in a stock portfolio and fleeing to a tropical island with a bevy of scantily clad beauties to waste away in a land of sun, surf and no income tax. But whether stubborn or foolish I pressed forward with Spontaneous Lunacy and went about assembling the outline for the first year of releases to be covered.

Despite the huge scope involved I wasn’t that worried about the process itself. I had all the music at my fingertips, piles of books, liner notes and personal histories for background information, and I was blessed with… umm, cursed with?… a predilection for long verbal discourse.

Let the fun begin!

But one thing wasn’t quite as easy as I had anticipated and that was accurately pinpointing the release dates of some of the more obscure records in these earliest days of rock, many of which came out on fly-by-night record labels, sold all of about 14 copies, had absolutely zero promotion to narrow down the period in which it hit the marketplace, and if the companies involved actually bothered keeping accurate records of their business to begin with those files were undoubtedly used to light a fire in the trashcan when the check for the heat bounced and the office temperature dropped below freezing about two weeks before the company itself went bust, never to be heard from again.

In other words, good luck trying to tell for sure whether some of these records came out in November or December… seventy years ago!

I touched upon this difficulty in the review for Dave Bartholomew’s song Dave’s Boogie Woogie, but with that one there was at least enough circumstantial evidence to know where to start and with equal parts digging and deduction I was able to place its release date with reasonable assurance of its accuracy, give or take a few weeks.

If only I could be so sure about THIS one!
 

A Groovy Tune… or a Gru-V-Tone
Like Dave Bartholomew, the name Percy Mayfield is not a modernly obscure one by any means. This isn’t an artist whose contribution to rock was so minor and insignificant that his inclusion on the blog to begin with is somewhat superfluous. Mayfield was a very notable figure on the rock landscape for more than two decades as both a performer with a string of hits to his name in the early 1950’s, and as a highly respected songwriter for others, most famously for Ray Charles in the 1960’s (“Hit The Road, Jack” being just one of many he penned for Brother Ray), but also through other huge names such as Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin cutting his tunes.

So on the surface you’d think that accurate information on the dawn of Mayfield’s recording career would exist somewhere. Who knows, maybe it does, but I don’t have access to whatever classified CIA files they appear on, and unfortunately Wikileaks has been wasting valuable time drastically impacting national elections, revealing details of covert military operations and providing an outlet and safe haven for whistleblowers of all kinds instead of focusing on really IMPORTANT things… like when were the handful of unsuccessful records made by the short-lived Gru-V-Tone Records label, totaling about six in number, released publicly, assuming they were ever actually made commercially available?

Sadly, we may never know for sure.

So that left me with two choices regarding Jack, You Ain’t Nowhere, the debut recording of Percy Mayfield. I could either ignore the record completely and wait until his more proper introduction to the public two years down the road to first write about his sublime artistry, maybe mentioning this “record” in passing before getting down to the smash that would effectively launch his career, OR I could just take a wild guess (based in part on dates that may be as accurate as Jack Benny’s birth certificate – that’s a topical joke for those of you who want to immerse yourselves in the late 40’s cultural landscape that we find ourselves in while you’re here at no extra charge!) and just stick the record somewhere that made logistical sense.

Obviously I chose the latter and so along with the review I’ll offer the following disclaimer for legal and ethical purposes:

The release date of this record is approximate and based more on conjecture than fact, not that it matters much anyway because even if it were accurately placed so few people likely heard it at the time that it had absolutely no effect on the course of rock music’s evolution, so what does it really matter anyway, bub?

That’s official “legal” talk, by the way. I checked.
 

Jump For Joy!
So… the record.

In many ways this is an entirely appropriate way to introduce Percy Mayfield to readers because unlike so many future stars who struggled to find their true voice in a series of fits and starts, he comes to the party in full command of his faculties. Everything he’d later become renown for – his detailed wordplay, his droll laconic delivery, the knack for coming up with melodies that don’t knock you out on first listen but reveal their charms over time and hold up to repeated spins – are all present on Jack, You Ain’t Nowhere, maybe in a bit cruder form than he’d go on to show, but you can tell right away this cat wasn’t some hack off the street.

The lyrics jump out at you right away. Mayfield proves he was in many ways the bridge between old school luminaries such as Cole Porter and future master wordsmiths like Smokey Robinson, able to convey great detail with an economy of words, yet always with a fresh eye, valuing clever descriptions not just for their uniqueness but also for the way in which they can be delivered to highlight them without coming off as grandstanding. To wit:

You threw away your money on no good chicks
Then you dress it up in wine

An utterly captivating way to tell us that this Jack fellow was basically an incorrigible playboy and booze hound headed for the gutter.

Unfortunately the fidelity of this record is pretty bad, as you might expect for one so rare. It’s doubtful there’s any master tapes remaining and so we’re stuck with dubs made from existing 78 RPM records, of which few exist and those that do are surely fairly poor in quality. As a result you need to strain to hear it well and even then you’re only half sure you heard what you think you heard (the line immediately preceding the ones I just quoted above I’m still not 100% positive of for instance).

But what stands out regardless of how murky it all sounds is his song craft.


 

Somewhere
Though there’s ample conflict as to just when he even recorded this, the majority opinion as well as the musical cues one gets by listening place it squarely in the waning days of 1947 just before the recording ban hit. The melody fits that era stylistically and in fact is a little atypical for what Mayfield would be known for down the road, as he usually tended to veer towards more melancholy music to fit the emotional inner conflicts most of his prime era songs featured.

The piano here plays a spry melody with lots of treble which helps cut through the aural shroud and though I’ve even seen it suggested that this was more of a demo, the give and take exchanges with the backing vocalists who deliver the condescending title line criticizing the wayward subject (that would be Jack), indicate this is definitely not the case. The whole thing is simply worked out in too much meticulous detail to be anything less than a finished product.

The solos, both piano and sax – with some exuberant encouragement shouted by Mayfield – also show how its construct was well fashioned, and the flip side is an instrumental continuation of the theme, something that certainly wouldn’t have been the case were it more of an in-studio run through to be revisited later.

As with almost all of Mayfield’s subsequent work there’s a charm and wit evident throughout this neat little character sketch, while his voice itself, conversational in tone which would become his trademark, is warmly inviting. It makes you want to hear more… and to hear this one more clearly.

That’s the bugaboo about the record, as with the dreadfully poor sound quality I’m sure it’s something that won’t be listened to much beyond whatever initial curiosity it elicits so it will wind up sitting outside his main oeuvre unless – and until (optimism reigns supreme here) – a cleaned up version can be located.

But peering through the fog surrounding this (both in terms of audio and historical considerations) what begins to emerge if you focus hard enough is a figure whose skill, sense of artistry and underlying intelligence were evident from the start. This is no mere shot in the dark by a novice, though that may in fact be the circumstances it was made in, but rather the confident first step in a promising career and for that reason alone it had to be placed somewhere, chronological accuracy be damned.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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