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Quality is often conditional.

A comedic actor hamming it up in a serious drama might be funny but it’s inappropriate for the material and thus it fails to resonate.

A guy taking his date to an amusement park when she was led to believe it would be an elegant dinner is hopefully going to fail to get to first base with her even though riding the roller coaster and posing for goofy pictures with people dressed up in animal costumes might be fun in different circumstances.

Similarly an artist like Percy Mayfield delivering a deep introspective song with a sophisticated bent might reveal a multitude of skills to be envied yet in the context of rock ‘n’ roll those skills are more likely to miss their mark.

How then do we reconcile the abundance of musical qualities shown here while at the same time critiquing it for not quite fitting seamlessly in rock ‘n’ roll’s established parameters?

Not very easily.


Waiting And Watching The Days Go By
The nature of the record business, where sales always outweigh artistic development, means that in order for a genre to advance the “right” records have to be the ones that succeed. Each step along the way in music leads directly to another step and when you get off course, even if that course is somewhat interesting in its own right, the view becomes different, the expectations change and the subsequent records being pushed are the ones that adhere largely to the path that has already proven itself to be commercial.

Typically that means the safest, most predictable, conservative and least experimental precedents available will be duplicated and as we should all know by now those things are the antithesis of what rock ‘n’ roll has always stood for.

Yet when something new comes along and manages to break through it gives the entire industry the green light to pursue that alternative direction instead, opening up the possibilities before you in a myriad of exciting ways… but also possibly in ways that threaten to steer the music into another less vital direction should one of those breakthroughs run counter to the primary thoroughfare of rock ‘n’ roll.

Which is why Percy Mayfield could be – at times – a vexing artist to deal with. His lyrical gifts were unrivaled which meant he was a vital addition to the rock brigade, giving others the leeway to go beyond simple platitudes in their own work. At the same time his laid back vocal delivery brought an element of quirky diversity to the presentation rock was able to use, which added more interesting fibers to the genre’s textures.

But with songs like Nightless Lover those components might’ve been pushed a little too far and if it had been a major hit it risked creating an alternate reality, one where the qualities he needed to expand rock’s reach would be pulled out of the genre altogether and taken by Mayfield into a new, smaller yet potentially viable commercial market of their own.

It might not be hyperbole to say that for the long term success of a deeper and more diverse rock ‘n’ roll this record had to fail… if only to pull Mayfield back into the fold his next time out.


Wait Until The Moonrise
Even if we’re somewhat uneasy about his methods here the results are naturally quite impressive anyway as Mayfield and producer Maxwell Davis craft another mesmerizing song with an arrangement that manages to simultaneous gently pull you along and leave you hanging in equal measure, all contingent on Mayfield’s vocal revelations to get over each carefully plotted musical chasm they lay out.

You would think his languid semi-spoken delivery would start to seem like a gimmick after his last few records established him with a wide audience who were more used to – and comfortable with – songs where the singer rode a more natural rhythmic wave than he ever did, but it’s still effective because he’s never merely reciting lines, but instead is pulling them from his soul to put across a very specific message.

On Nightless Lover that message is an aching loneliness that manifests itself not in pity or simple dejection, like say Ivory Joe Hunter would capably produce in his songs, but rather this finds that unwelcome solitude eating away at Mayfield’s very essence, unable to cope with his plight until he sounds as if his grip on reality is loosening the more this goes on.

It’s a haunting song, almost harrowing in the emotional impact the loss of his woman had has on Mayfield. He’s avoiding all of the sad song rock clichés – self-pity, frustration, anger, resentment, even self-loathing – and is left to contemplate existential reasons that are well beyond his ability to cope with or change. Needless to say this is not something to listen to all alone on a Saturday night if you want to make it to Sunday morning.

But then again, it’s also not something to spin on a jukebox when you and your girl want to dance or just neck in the booth by the window and maybe that’s a good thing because it doesn’t have the shallow allure that might let these sentiments, style and classier musical touches reach a wide enough audience to give the go-ahead to other artists and labels to pursue themselves.

I Hope It Won’t Be Long
Yet unsuitable though it may be for our needs, it doesn’t make it any less impressive when viewed in a bubble.

Mayfield as always is the picture of vocal discretion, applying only as much force as absolutely necessary to convey the mood, his sense of time is particularly remarkable, refraining from uttering certain words until the suspense has reached its breaking point.

Likewise Davis takes the same approach with the music, holding back the full arsenal instruments early on, giving us enough horns to set the melody before dropping them to allow the piano to establish the fragile nature of the theme and only after Mayfield comes along and steers this into the slow moving traffic does the support become more prominent, horns now responding to his lines with rising urgency.

Though Mayfield and the band work well together, both fitting seamlessly into what the other is doing, it’s their combined efforts which turns the atmosphere of Nightless Lover further away from rock than we’re comfortable going.

The supper club piano a third of the way through and the artificial nature of the horns after the halfway point as they swell behind Mayfield’s plea for this women not to “stay with someone else”, an effect that’s repeated later on as well, conspire to make this something which could just as easily go over well at the late set at a high end cocktail lounge where few of the patrons sipping gin would be able to name three rock hits released any time over the past three and a half years.

Ultimately that kind of potential musical appeal to another constituency entirely is going to be a detriment when it comes to giving this record credit in a rock setting for the technical accomplishments it has coming.


Like A Stranger Left All Alone
Though the critiques of this record are stylistic ones rather than anything related to the abilities of the singer or the band, the fact is the rock audience at the time agreed with those critiques.

Percy Mayfield was coming off three hits from his initial two singles on Specialty Records and Nightless Lover was the designated A-side of his third release, heavily promoted, widely distributed and anxiously anticipated by his fans.

Yet those fans, while not hesitating to buy the record and search it out in jukeboxes, didn’t favor this side, but rather the more traditional rock ballad structure of the flip side, thereby restoring order to the rock universe.

But in the end this shouldn’t be viewed as a failure, some kind of wayward experiment gone wrong or a lesser quality offering not worthy of your attention… just the wrong offering for our specific needs in one very unique and fiercely territorial part of the musical spectrum.


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