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Around here it’s almost guaranteed that every artist we look at will be told at some point or another to vary their output on their releases, not so much from one record to the next, but rather when it comes to offering a different mood, style or approach on the A and B sides of their singles.

It simply makes sense to couple an uptempo song with a ballad, a fuller production with something stripped down, a vocal with an instrumental, a love song with a party anthem. That way if one doesn’t click the other side allows listeners to hear something totally different which might win them over.

It also lets artists show off various components of their skills which might otherwise remain buried if they’re constantly being asked to stick with a hit formula which in time will invariably got tedious if that’s all people ever hear from you.

But as the saying goes there’s an exception to every rule and in rock that exception’s name is Percy Mayfield.


I’m Laying Here Wondering Which Way To Go
Over the course of his career that lasted just over three decades Percy Mayfield recorded only a handful of uptempo songs with upbeat outlooks. He was as downcast as they come, someone whose portrait should be sure to have a black cloud hanging over his head.

In fact he’s one of the few artists you can name, and maybe the only truly important one in rock, who penned multiple songs about taking your own life, or using terms that referenced such an act at the very least, including this one.

In time this perspective might seem more appropriate for him after he was disfigured in a car crash at the peak of popularity, shelved for a year after which he never was the same debonair attractive ladies man that he started out as being.

But before that accident he was already taking on the topic of the pointlessness of existence in direct fashion on songs like Life Is Suicide, a dire concept set to music that you might think was only fit for playing at a funeral parlor.

Yet in spite of the morose thoughts, downbeat music and weary vocals on it and other songs with similar moods, Percy Mayfield was cherished for these songs because they spoke to listeners struggling with existential questions of their own and did so in a way that was intelligent, insightful and at times even inspiring.

Maybe because that formed such a cornerstone of his musical persona he felt it would be disingenuous to then turn around and release a song about dancing at a party with two lusty women who didn’t mind sharing him, or singing about gallivanting around town looking to stir up trouble on a Friday night.

So instead on both sides of most of his releases Mayfield stuck to the same slow tempo, uncluttered arrangements and despondent subjects and nobody thought any less of him for it. In fact, maybe they thought even more highly of him because he made them seem so different even when using many of the same materials each time out.


I Can’t Live Without My Baby
What makes Mayfield so intriguing is not the usual attributes of a great voice or dynamic musicianship, but rather his meticulous approach to songwriting.

Even when he took on common subjects, such as responding to a breakup, which he does on both sides of this single, he was somehow able to distance them from one another as well as from all of the other songs mining this same field that rockers had been doing since the beginning.

On Life Is Suicide he’s intentionally crossing the line into overreaction, suggesting that his life must be through if he can’t be with the one he loves… a common sentiment when someone is blindsided by a split, but one that everybody knows is a temporary condition.

Usually rock acts who were using this same concept would play up their despair vocally, wailing away to show their grief, almost crying to express their sadness in no uncertain terms. Roy Brown had done it, Andrew Tibbs had as well and Clyde McPhatter would do so down the road, all of them knowing it was an effective way to put your peerless voice and your dramatic style in the spotlight as well as a way to ensure that the women in the audience would have their heartstrings pulled enough to endear you to them.

But Mayfield doesn’t have their voices and he’s hardly capable of matching their over-the-top deliveries and so here he takes the same perspective but filters it through a much different lens.

As always the focus is on what he’s saying more than how he’s saying it, though in this case HOW he’s delivering it definitely does factor in, as he’s expressing anguish rather than breaking down completely over it, but it’s the words themselves that will hook you as he describes the scene in such detail that you can practically draw the floor plan of the room he’s in while he’s watching the cab drive off with his girlfriend inside.

By laying bare the internal struggle over his predicament, he’s essentially using this opportunity to unburden himself of the feelings that are weighing him down. You may take the suicide vow he makes seriously, and perhaps he does mean it at that, but it seems more as if his saying it out loud is the relief valve he needed to move past this sorrow and pick up the pieces of his life and start anew.

Go Out With The Tide
As always Mayfield’s world-weary tone of voice helps complete this effect for sure, as does the quirky delivery with its great stop-time vocals to kick off each stanza, but it’s also the work of Maxwell Davis behind him which allows this to come off as well as it does.

We’ve seen what unimaginative arrangements can do to repetitive song structures each time out when it comes to The Orioles who rarely tried to deviate from the same bare bones structure giving all their songs an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. But they didn’t have Maxwell Davis to shake things up around the edges while still maintaining the same overall mood that each of Mayfield’s songs required if they were going to be effective.

On Life Is Suicide he adds a more up front horn pattern which kicks off the record in a livelier fashion and then keeps that going with the horns answering the vocal lines in the song’s set-up. In between the vocal stanzas themselves Davis and crew provide a more prominent transition with those horns lightening the mood just enough to keep it from being too bleak and adding to the impression that Mayfield might simply be working through his misery rather than letting it consume him altogether.

Davis’s tenor solo in the break is similarly vital to offset what is to follow, where Mayfield talks about jumping in the river over his love troubles, as the more spry interlude shows a vitality of life that would be quelled if he were to follow through on his threat.

Compared to the more discreet arrangement on Lost Love this busier approach might give the impression of being too lively for the subject, but it’s used to balance things out, both in the song itself and on the record, making sure each song has their own identity beyond the story contained within.


About The Break Of Day
Though this was the only song among his first four sides not to make the national charts, it was hardly due to a lack of quality.

Maybe Life Is Suicide was a little too dire to find widespread appeal but it was a moving composition that gave further insight into Mayfield’s soul and helped to set up his longstanding image as rock’s uneasy conscience.

For years before confessional works like Pet Sounds and the broader trend of psychological self-analysis that found favor in the early 1970’s in rock, it was Mayfield who stood alone as the guy who would drop his emotional defenses and show vulnerability, confusion and despair without any self-consciousness.

And just so you’re reassured about his intent on songs like this, Percy Mayfield lived a long life, singing to the end when he died of natural causes just a day short of his 64th birthday.

Life, it turned out, was worth living after all.


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