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Nobody in rock history ever wrote so clearly, so succinctly and so accurately as Percy Mayfield when it came to examining the human condition.

Smokey Robinson was a more gifted emotional poet. Kendrick Lamar told deeper and more cinematic stories. Chuck Berry wrote more memorable vignettes.

But Percy Mayfield’s gift was that he described the inner workings of the soul in such direct fashion that it was impossible to avoid looking inward on your own circumstances in life and realizing something profound about yourself in the process.

His songs are psychological treatises with intoxicating melodies.

Though the clinical description of his peculiar talent might leave you cold, Mayfield’s unfailing insight, ease of language and warm sympathetic tone makes listening to each record almost a therapeutic experience.


If You’re Acquainted With That Subject
Here’s a question to ponder…

What one trait in life would best serve you in any and all circumstances you encountered from childhood to adulthood, from purely social interactions to professional situations, when dealing with everything from casual friendships to romantic relationships?

It may vary from person to person depending on what attributes you value, but you probably wouldn’t go wrong if you chose “awareness”.

The ability to intuitively grasp the reasons for your own feelings and opinions, as well as judging the behavior of those around you is invaluable. It allows us to see through deception as well as to better avoid deceiving ourselves in order to preserve an image we wish to uphold, for if you can’t be honest with yourself and recognize and admit to your own shortcomings, then you’ll never be able to better yourself in any meaningful way.

Percy Mayfield made this practically his life’s work, as he explored his own internal weaknesses, self-doubt and failure to live up to his own expectations along with the similar failings of those he comes in contact with in song after song.

Sometimes he went about it in a roundabout fashion, crafting a broader story to serve as a backdrop for his own analytical dissertation, yet his goal was always the same. On the ironically titled The Big Question, he strips away the “bigger” context he favored and narrows his focus down to one very specific personal query that everybody, at one time or another, has either experienced or can relate to…

What goes through the mind of the lonely in the moments when their isolation is most acute?


I’ve Got Some Questions To Ask You…
So that’s the textbook run-down of Percy Mayfield, songwriter. Accurate in its depiction, but understandably lacking the one thing that he did best, which is to make these intellectual forays musically inviting.

As always he’s got plenty of help starting with Maxwell Davis producing and playing saxophone to ease you into the story, the horns pulling you in as the piano tickles your senses. It’s such a laid-back sound that you feel your defenses weaken before Mayfield even appears and once he does, like a professional counselor, he knows how to keep you in that tranquil state of mind by lowering his voice while maintaining a consistent pace, easing off the gas only to give you a few extra moments to contemplate what he just said.

As for what he says, here’s where The Big Question earns its stripes, as to get to the heart of YOUR problem of an empty heart he turns the tables on himself to show his own similar situation… or at least that’s how he makes it seem as he “asks” questions in the abstract about your habits while living on your own, all of it centered around your failure to find and to hold the one you want to spend your life with.

He so conversational that you let your guard down and then doesn’t shy away from details which are so vivid that a lot of people – male and female alike, for the most part he’s playing no favorites here – may blush or look away thinking he’s been peering in their window to see them “walk the floor ‘til the break of day” too distraught over your situation to get any rest.

But the way he presents it makes it seem like he too has laid in bed “and cried the whole night through”, a slight of hand trick that gets him firmly on your side so he can dig deeper into your unresolved feelings over this desolate fate so many people endure.

What comes to light are merely the universal truths of humanity laid bare. The need for companionship, the intense longing for something you know exists but may never have seen or experienced, the aching hollow feeling of seeing no light at the end of that particular tunnel.

The setting may be stark, but there’s a warmth to his voice that winds up comforting you even as the story wraps up with no conclusive solution other than to not give up hope, something which is revealed in a typically clever fashion as he admits all of this has in fact happened to him and while he doesn’t come out and say he’s still out there trying to remedy his situation, the mere fact he’s singing about it and offering himself up as an example shows that he’s far from throwing in the towel.


Have You Ever Felt So Sad?
Maybe this isn’t what most rock fans are after in their music. One of the reasons why songs connect so much is because they provide an escape to everyday problems and so when somebody uses those problems as the source material for those songs it has the potential to hit too close to home for most people’s comfort.

I suppose that as long as you can keep those oppressive feelings at bay, dancing or singing along to a hedonistic anthem, there’s the mistaken belief that you’ll outrun your problems… at least until the music stops.

But by stopping YOU in your tracks and then pointedly asking you The Big Question while laying out the scenario in precise terms that far too many listeners surely have first hand experience with, Percy Mayfield gives you no place to hide unless you turn it off altogether and play another record, pushing aside the painful introspection for another day.

I’m sure a lot of people in need of this probably did so back then, masking over their issues without ever getting out of their funk. Yet as evidenced by this cracking the national charts it would seem that the rock fan was a little more self-aware than they let on and while most of them might’ve waited until that door was closed and the lights were off to cue this one up, we know – just as well as they do – that there wasn’t going to be anyone there to disturb them as they contemplated why they were listening by themselves.

The answer to that question is easy… because if you have someone, you’d have no need to listen to this anymore.


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