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SPECIALTY 375; SEPTEMBER 1950

 
 

 

Talk about coming out of the corner swinging…

After some good – but little heard – early efforts on a few small labels that were spread out over the past three years, the career of Percy Mayfield finally took off when the last of those records was picked up for re-release last spring, six months after it vanished without much of a trace in late 1949.

One thing leads to another, as it often does when there’s money to be made, and Specialty Records, still struggling to find an artist outside of Jimmy Liggins to capitalize on the exploding popularity of rock ‘n’ roll, swooped in and signed the singer/songwriter who would soon be a cornerstone of one of the strongest rosters of any label in this field.

How soon?

Well how about with both sides of this first single for the label, as the top side quickly rocketed to the #1 song in the country while this B-side nestled comfortably within the Top Ten in its own right.
 

 

Something May Happen To You
As with most of Percy Mayfield’s catalog the themes he tackled, whether broad state of the world messages such as Please Send Me Someone To Love, or scaled down looks at one on one relationships starting to fizzle as with this side, his outlook on matters was quietly ominous, his music almost always focusing on the dark clouds over every horizon.

Most songs of this nature are structured as downhearted ballads in order to emphasize the sadness and bleak outlooks of the narrators, and I suppose technically this might qualify as both downhearted and a ballad, but it’s not exactly a perfect fit when it comes to either of those descriptions.

In both cases Mayfield is pushing the limits of what is expected, increasing the tempo from a crawl to a saunter… one with even a little bounce in its step at times… while also choosing not to let his vision be clouded by misery but instead taking on a clear-eyed view of the situation and offering up a more practical response than the usual doom, gloom and despair sequence of events we’ve come to expect from songs taking residence under the same general banner as this.

“Love me or leave me” he tells his girlfriend to kick off Strange Things Happening in a rather direct fashion, though it’s clear he’s still with her even though they appear to be existing on borrowed time. He’s not angry or demanding in this request but is simply telling her they can’t go on this way and it’d be best for both of them if she decided what she feels was in her best interest which would then allow him to move in or move on, whatever the case may be.

But this being Percy Mayfield there’s still some ambiguity in some of the lines for you to read into what you want, as he obliquely warns the girl that something might happen to her down the line… not a threat that he’ll do anything to her, at least it doesn’t come off that way, but rather something in the karmic sense will befall her for not being honest about her feelings. This of course fits in well with his larger overall themes regarding his dour assessment of humanity as their own worst enemy when it comes to achieving true contentment.
 


 
 

Either One You Want To Do
As always, Mayfield’s crafting these songs for his own unique stylistic bent, meaning their wry cynicism is conveyed just as much by his weary voice as the carefully plotted lyrics themselves. Though not blessed with a pretty voice, it IS a smooth one and he’s a master of control, knowing just how much pressure to apply on each word to draw out its deeper meanings.

Listen to the way he gnarls the word “be” in the line, ”If you know you don’t love me, why won’t you let me beeeeee?”, stretching it out but also twisting its meaning so it goes from a simple request to one that turns an accusatory finger back at the girl in question without having to raise his voice or snarl his disapproval at her.

He sounds more hurt and disappointed than angry throughout Strange Things Happening and as a result you feel far more sympathy for him than if he were merely crying over his lack of true love like so many other artists have done over the years.

You get the idea that Mayfield is the one who will exit this relationship unfazed by its ending even though he’s the one likely being dumped as well as the one who will struggle to find a more suitable replacement in the long run. That ability to use his pessimism as a shield to deflect the larger hurts was a trademark of his, giving him a unique persona that allowed him to remain identifiable, and at times even lovable, as the perpetual underdog in life’s pursuit of happiness.
 

Straighten Your Mind
Musically speaking Mayfield could not have found a more sympathetic partner to express these feelings than Maxwell Davis, who puts yet another feather in his ever-expanding hat as producer and sideman for the crème de la crème of the Los Angeles rock and blues scene.

Having established his wares most potently with Amos Milburn, then subtly tweaking that approach with Little Willie Littlefield, who began as a pretty obvious clone of Milburn before finding a voice of his own, Davis has since spread out to take the reins behind Jimmy Liggins and even Pete Johnson on some uptempo drag races, always bringing something fresh and fitting to the arrangement.

Here on Strange Things Happening the primary component is the seemingly odd inclusion of what will be called the “stroll tempo” (in about seven years time) behind Mayfield’s vocals on the verses.

That decision gives this otherwise cheerless topic some semblance of life… even, dare we say, swagger to it.

Never overdoing it and changing the mood entirely, the horns sort of gently walk beside Percy, forcing him to increase his gait to keep up, yet the whole time allowing Mayfield to lead the way vocally so you don’t know which of them is setting the pace as they go along.

Unusual though it may be for the topic it has the effect of making this something you can appreciate without necessarily getting into the details Mayfield is raising with his acidic take on the subject. It may not be the first song even someone who can’t understand the English language would choose for dancing, but it’s not impossible to do so either because of Davis’s contributions.

The guitar solo that takes the first half of the instrumental break is subdued enough to fit into the larger ambiance of the record while adding a totally new texture to it which can’t help but get you to focus more on it, all of which means that when Davis himself closes this section out with a surprisingly spry sax solo, it’s been telegraphed a little by the guitar we just heard. As a result it doesn’t catch you off guard as it brings a livelier vibe to the entire affair before shifting back down to let Mayfield wrap things up in a typically understated way.
 


 

Daylight Find Me Crying Too
While usually the preferred approach for a single, especially coming from an artist still seeking to really break through to a wider audience, is to have something fast paired with something slow, we have to accept the fact that Percy Mayfield wasn’t cut out for the former, with rare exception over the years.

So knowing that he was going to be sticking to just one lane on the rock ‘n’ roll highway they had to figure out how to keep it from getting boring.

With Strange Things Happening they’ve seemed to have already pinpointed the formula, which centers around his coming up with insightful observations with very pointed descriptive lyrics housing a clear perspective for each song, while Davis is left to subtly adjust the arrangements to prevent repetitiveness from one record to the next.

With Mayfield’s impeccable decision making regarding his own vocal delivery to offset the lack of power and flamboyance in his voice, the game plan was set but remained surprisingly flexible in its discreet variations along the way.

Maybe if other artists responding to his meteoric rise tried to follow suit this would’ve become old a lot quicker, but nobody else seemed to have the one defining characteristic of his to draw from and as long as Percy Mayfield refused to see the world through rose colored glasses, his singular image as rock’s weary reporter on the disenchanted – not yet quite lost – generation taking root at the time was all but assured.

Rock’s ultimate crafstsman finally has a full toolbox with which to build.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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