No tags :(

Share it




There are plenty of artists who specialize in just one rather narrow stylistic approach rather than try their hand at many different forms of rock.

We’re not talking about sticking to just broad subgenres like vocal groups, rockabilly or disco, which obviously is common, but rather confining themselves to just one model within their overall specialty such as adhering to the same structure or pace, arrangement or vocal delivery each time out.

Usually these artists are extremely limited in their appeal even if the first exposure people have to them may result in hits and fame. But when each ensuing record is merely a variation on the first then it wears thin after awhile and audiences look elsewhere for something fresher.

The exception to that rule was Percy Mayfield who occupied a distinct plot of ground that he kept tilling endlessly and still managed to produce bumper crops.


You Came In Like A Sun Ray
There was no mistaking Percy Mayfield for anybody else in rock… whether at the time or in the decades since. That he was so unique worked to his advantage in that his sound wasn’t going to be imitated, watered down and spread too thin, which meant that in a good year you might just get three or four records a year that delved into this sound.

But that still could get repetitive if you concentrated too much of your focus on him at the expense of other rock artists because almost all of Mayfield’s songs featured a crawling pace, gloomy perspective delivered with his baritone placed midway between singing and speaking.

You’d think that would be a dead-end in a musical genre that was always in search of the next big thing, often faster, louder and more exciting than what came before, but Mayfield seemed to thrive as the antidote to that.

On the whole his songs explored far more introspective topics than most were comfortable doing, his lyrics were carefully constructed, gradually peeling back the layers of a theme rather than jumping right into the pay-offs. Even the musical arrangements by Maxwell Davis were able to bring out the melodic nuances in the songs in ways that made them seem fresh.

As such while the surface attributes of What A Fool I Was may have seemed old hat by now for those who’d been following Mayfield’s career from the start, the details of the record set it apart enough from past efforts to give him another feather in his cap as rock’s poet laureate of doomed affairs of the heart.


What Has Happened Has Served Me Right
Break up songs are as much a part of rock ‘n’ roll as the party anthems, snotty rebellious credos, romantic pledges of devotion and songs which serve as barely disguised attempts for the singer to get laid, but it’s safe to say that few artists focused on their own faults when dissecting their wrecked relationships as Percy Mayfield did.

He was rock’s one man therapy session, not only identifying where he was to blame but then analyzing the psychological reasons at the core of his actions… hardly the kind of stuff that would seem to make for hit records in any field.

Yet Mayfield’s strength was the honesty – or at least the appearance of it, since these relationships were presumably fictitious – in his self-critical assessments which always has sort of a voyeuristic appeal and might even allow a listener to recognize signs of their own behavior in life while steering clear of any criticism for their own shortcomings.

What A Fool I Was finds Mayfield shifting his perspective as the song unfolds, opening with some of his best allegorical lines – “You came in like a sun ray and vanished like a shadow in the night” – and at first you think he’s critiquing her for misleading him before turning the focus to his own poor judgement and failure to press his advantage early on.

We could quote lines all day here, each one is vivid, poignant and gets to the emotional heart of the matter in just a few words, almost as though they should be carved in granite. However it’s not the linguistic dexterity that is most impressive here, but rather the way in which he delivers them in such a natural fashion, almost sighing as he expresses these thoughts, resigned to his fate without bitterness or resentment.

Compared to the usual mindset in rock when dealing with a break-up – usually either petulantly blaming the girl or sobbing uncontrollably – his philosophical self-examinations come across as mature, emotionally deep and a lot healthier, not to mention much more interesting for someone listening to contemplate.

It also helps that he’s surrounded by musicians who are sympathetic to his plight, lending discreet support rather than trying to draw attention away from his confessional to show how skilled they are at their jobs. In fact, their main skill seems to be how they blend into the scenery even while they’re adding immeasurably to the atmosphere this song creates.

I Fully Understand
The genius of someone like Maxwell Davis might not always be easy for casual listeners to spot or appreciate because his trademarks as a producer were discretion in his arrangements and deference to the artist. In other words he wasn’t calling attention to what he was doing on these tracks.

Yet if you have a musical background, or just know what to look for, it’s easily apparent how much he complimented the artists he worked with, in particular giving these somewhat dire Percy Mayfield compositions enough musical variety to keep them interesting.

Since Mayfield preferred ballads – some might call them dirges – Davis’s options were limited but on What A Fool I Was he features some stealth-like rhythmic surges that keep things moving, building momentum in subtle ways that makes the lyrical revelations Mayfield offers connect with a little more impact.

The horns on the intro give the appearance of something modestly uptempo before downshifting to close that section out so there won’t be a jarring transition to Mayfield’s crawling vocals thereby establishing right away the dynamic they’ll use throughout the song.

While Percy sings the band is in lockstep with him, well back in the mix with only the piano adding a little liveliness compared to the moaning horns. Yet in between his vocal lines the horns throw in quick modest riffs that accelerate the pace before quickly circling back so Mayfield can fall right back in without tripping up.

The sax solo, brief though it is, brings the required soulful tones to the forefront and if the arrival of the rest of the horns after that isn’t as satisfying, it’s also required to set up Mayfield’s return for the conclusion.

None of it jumps out at you but it’s not intended to. It’s a persuasive arrangement, not an aggressive one, getting you to hand over your time and attention willingly rather than taking it by force and leaving you enough breathing room to reflect on Mayfield’s message when they make their exit.


It Only Proved Love Is A Gamble
As good as this pairing was it’s still sometimes hard to believe that they were so successful commercially with this kind of subdued approach.

It’s not that rock fans were incapable of appreciating these kinds of songs, but it’s just that these kinds of records weren’t specifically tailored for the type of listening experiences rock thrived on at the time where it was jukebox play rather than home listening that made up the majority of exposure.

Mayfield’s records seemed far more suited for solitary listening, where songs like What A Fool I Was could be absorbed in private rather than listened to casually in group settings where the lyrics might be missed and the lack of any musical fireworks could cause them to be ignored.

Yet it didn’t seem to affect his popularity in the least, as this gave him four hits in the six sides he’d released on Specialty and showed that audiences were hardly tiring of this succession of downbeat contemplative music he was establishing as his own private domain within rock.

Who would’ve ever guessed… sometimes talent is enough after all.


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