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The rise and fall of artists is never really predictable.

Though there may be some whose first record practically screams “hit!”, oftentimes someone’s ability to connect with an audience is unexpected judging by their style or vocal attributes.

When someone clicks though their constant presence on the charts becomes more or less a given… until suddenly, without warning, they fade for reasons that are often just as vague and mysterious as what allowed them to break through in the first place.

Little Esther, who we just looked at yesterday, was a case study in both of these areas. She was the unlikeliest of stars at the start of 1950, yet wound up dominating the year like few had before or since, and now she couldn’t buy a hit, the audience seemingly having grown tired of her.

Percy Mayfield was another who, on the surface, didn’t seem like the best candidate for stardom, for despite an enormous amount of talent as a songwriter his downbeat persona and laconic vocal style made him ill-fitting in rock’s normally upbeat party atmosphere, yet here he is again staking his claim as one of the genre’s most dependable acts.


I Can Visualize All Your Beauty
Sometimes the dominant image of rock ‘n’ roll works to its disadvantage as its fans tend not to get credit for gravitating towards deeper insight in songs because of all the salacious material that gets headlines, but rock audiences have always looked to music for working through their own psychological issues in some form or fashion.

With Percy Mayfield you essentially had someone who was acted as a relationship counselor, albeit someone who only handled the most forlorn cases.

Maybe it was his intellectual approach to the problem, the big picture worldview he took of the situation, that stood him apart from those who whined and pleaded for someone to reconsider, but even though his style was unique it still doesn’t seem like the most commercial of avenues to travel. In spite of that Prayin’ For Your Return was yet another Top Ten hit, his fifth such hit in his last four releases… his only four singles for Specialty Records thus far.

Like his previous efforts this one is slow and introspective featuring a warm but weary vocal wrapped in a Maxwell Davis arrangement that adds just enough character to let a little light shine into the darkened room Mayfield finds himself in once again.


My Friends Are Distant And Few
Every review of a Percy Mayfield record would probably best served just reprinting the lyrics and sheet music because they’re all poignant, melodic and endlessly quotable, even a song like this where he’s facing what seems to him to be a dismal future since his girl left him.

The story is one we’ve heard before of course. The enduring image of rock stars is that they all have women by the bushel but it seems a lot of them falter in relationships more than some hapless schlub down the block, and then rather than bounce right back determined to find another to take her place, they spiral into depression instead, as if that girl was the only one in existence and now they’re doomed to spend life alone for eternity.

I guess it’s a marketing decision because you’re playing to the crowd, many of whom ARE that schlub down the street who need some reassurance that they’re not the only one who are in this situation and as such probably don’t want to hear an endless stream of songs about getting lucky with every girl in a college sorority when the tour bus comes through town which is far more realistic for the rock star job description.

In any event Prayin’ For Your Return is the kind of song whose well-crafted agony somehow makes rejection go down much easier if you’re listening in.

While sentiments like “moonlight makes me blind” are designed to catch your ear, it’s how he draws out the line to appear more profound which makes it memorable. It also allows the melody to linger behind the beat just enough so that even without the words the message he’s expressing is evident in the music itself. As a result his songs feel more like a full chapter in a novel rather than a blurb on the back cover.

Take the way he extends the words in the “then I must beeeeeeeeee innnnn-sane”, turning a self-critical analysis into a slightly comedic punchline merely by how he builds suspense until you’re leaning forward, waiting for the resolution. When it comes to Mayfield’s work, every thought, every word, every syllable seems impeccably crafted and as such they hold up no matter how many times you wring these feelings out of him by playing these songs on repeat.

Visions Are Vain
For all his skill as a lyricist, not to mention a vocalist who could give the impression it was all being pulled from his soul in real time, Mayfield’s great fortune was to be on the West Coast rather than back east because of that allowed him to work with Maxwell Davis who was by this point handling the production for a number of Los Angeles based labels – Aladdin, Modern and Specialty.

Nobody, but nobody, was better equipped for this job than he.

Prayin’ For Your Return is a ponderously slow song that obviously can’t have a lot of musical fireworks going off so you’d think Davis would have his hands full to make it interesting.

Yet the song comes alive in his hands because while he’s highlighting Mayfield’s despondent mood behind the vocals with a lonely saloon piano and discreetly sighing horns, in the turnarounds he’s lifting things up by letting the horns briefly surge with interesting melodic rejoinders that prevent it from ever getting too dark.

It’s such a deft arrangement because of how unforced it all is. Rather than let himself get carried away during the sax solo, as a lot of musicians would do to justify the momentary spotlight on themselves, Davis downplays it to such an extent that it becomes virtually seamless when transitioning back into the vocals.

The louder and more frantic a song is, the more room for errors the arranger tends to have, only because there’s so much going on that it’s easy to overlook something that doesn’t quite work. But here there’s so few instruments – and so few musical passages in fact – that there’s absolutely no room to hide and yet Davis never stumbles, creating a vivid picture with such a sparse backdrop that you cringe to think of what a lesser producer would’ve saddled Mayfield with in an effort to flesh this out beyond its means.


You Took All My Love
Each time out as Percy Mayfield unspools another reflective lament something tells you that no matter how well it’s written and carried out, audiences won’t go for it, that eventually they’ll figure they’ve gotten all they can out of him and move on to somebody else.

Yet every time another of these melancholy songs hits the market he continues to find plenty of eager listeners hanging on his every phrase.

Sometimes those whose skills aren’t at all ostentatious seem bound to be overlooked, yet Mayfield connected in ways that proves rock fans were looking to this music to not just serve as the soundtrack to their best times, but also help them deal with their worst times.

Fictitious though the stories may be, there are surely those who hope whoever he’s singing about on Praying For Your Return never does hear it, because if she does, and if she’s got a heart, she’ll go back to him and he might not be moved to sing these morose 3 AM ballads anymore. Though he may have turned out to be just as skilled when it came to crafting a playlist for Saturday night parties, they know that other artists will never run out of those kinds of songs, so he’s not really needed for that job.

When it comes to this job however, Percy Mayfield sometimes seems as if he’s the only one who can truly make it seem as if you aren’t alone even in your saddest hour.


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