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Percy Mayfield was born in Minden, Louisiana (near Shreveport) in August of 1920. During his high school years he developed a talent for writing poetry and this led him to believe he could effectively convey this talent into popular song. To follow his dream he went first to Texas and then to Los Angeles around 1942 and as he struggled to fulfill his musical ambitions he took a number of odd jobs in order to survive financially. He was a dishwasher, a short order cook, a clothes presser, and a taxi driver, among other professions. He tried his hand as a singer with the local band of George Como. The vocal part did not lead to success but he had written a song called "Two Years Of Torture" and with it hoped to provide a successful hit for blues and jazz vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon. He went to Al Patrick's Supreme Records label in L.A. (not to be confused with the Chicago and New York labels of the same name). As it happened, the folks at Supreme thought Mayfield's demo of the tune sounded good enough to be recorded by them. In late 1949 "Torture" was paired with the song "Half Awoke" which was recorded with the band of Monroe Tucker and released on Supreme # 1543. Through the early months of 1950 "Two Years Of Torture" was a steady seller in California, especially in Los Angeles. By July of the year the recording master was picked up by local music entrepreneur John Dolphin and re-released on his Recorded In Hollywood label on # 111.
In September with "Two Years Of Torture" continuing to sell during most of the year, Art Rupe is impressed enough to sign Mayfield to an exclusive recording contract with his label Specialty Records. The first release for the label by Mayfield is another of his own songs called "Please Send Me Someone To Love" backed with "Strange Things Happen" on Specialty # 375. The new record gets off to a fast start in the L.A. area becoming a top seller in the first week of release. By November Mayfield is a top draw in the Los Angeles. He plays to standing room only at The Avodon, and sells out a follow up appearance at the L.A. Elks Club along with Floyd Dixon and his band. "Please" is a top seller passing 250,000 and could become the biggest seller ever for the label. Rupe signs Mayfield to a new five year contract in December doubling his royalty numbers, and Hill & Range music acquires the publishing rights to the song. In December Mayfield draws a sold out crowd to the Oakland Coliseum and is planning a national tour for 1951 with his own backing orchestra. In late December Mayfield appears at his "home" town of Shreveport Louisiana for a sold out show and his national tour will consist of sixty one nighters across the country including the Apollo Theater in New York. At year's end "Please" is beginning to sell in the Northeast especially in New York.
In January of 1951 "Lost Love" and "Life Is Suicide" are released on Specialty # 290, and in February the label announces that both records by Mayfield will now be available in the new 45 rpm format. By February "Lost Love" shows up on best seller lists in Dallas, Texas, and New Orleans. In March Recorded In Hollywood Records continues to push their recording of "Two Years Of Torture" on # 111. In May "Nightless Lover" and "What A Fool I Was" is released by Specialty on # 400. In L.A. the annual Cavalcade of Jazz will feature Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstine, Joe Liggins, Roy Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon, Wynonie Harris, and Percy Mayfield. Other artists may be added to this killer lineup at Wrigley Field where the crowd is expected to top twenty five thousand. "What A Fool I Was" is a top seller in Texas. In mid-August "Praying For Your Return" and "My Blues" are released on # 408. In October Percy and his band plus the vocal group The Larks embark on a tour of Midwestern theaters. In November "Hopeless" and "Cry Baby" are released on # 416 and "Hopeless immediately becomes a good seller in the Bay area of San Francisco.
In February of 1952 "The Hunt Is On" and "The Big Question" are released on Specialty # 425. By March "Hunt" is the big seller in Atlanta and Florida, while "Question" sells well in Dallas and Oklahoma City. That month Mayfield plays a weekend date at the Lincoln Theater in L.A. In may Mayfield's next release for Specialty is out - "Louisiana" and "Two Hearts Are Better Than One" on # 432. "Two Hearts" sells in Mayfield's strong area of Dallas and New Orleans. In September "Lonesome Highway" and "My Heart: are released on # 439 by Specialty. Mayfield continues to record his own songs, and his talent as a writer as well as a performer is bringing in a great appreciation of his talents. In September of 1952 while returning to Los Angeles from a date in Las Vegas, Percy Mayfield is seriously injured in an auto accident. His career is put on hold while a long recuperation period begins. A tragic result of the accident was the serious disfigurement of Mayfield's facial features which certainly altered his life from that point on. For a time he returned to his home town of Minden, Louisiana, which gave him no comfort at all and resulted in the autobiographical song "Stranger In My Own Home Town" with its problematic sadness and depression.
In mid-January of 1953 Percy Mayfield returns to the recording studio. Specialty Records releases "I Dare You Baby" and "River's Invitation" on # 451. "Dare" gets good airplay and sales in Atlanta during the next month. In May "The Lonely One" and "Lost Mind" on # 460 are released by Specialty as Mayfield's writing takes on a deeper personal and introspective outlook on life and love. Percy readies his first personal appearance tour in more than a year to kick off in mid-September. In time to tie in with the tour, Specialty releases "How Deep Is The Well?" and "The Bachelor Blues" on # 473. Mayfield closes out the year with a show at the 5-4 Ballroom in Los Angeles along with The Ravens. In February of the soon to be tumultuous year of 1954, Percy Mayfield records "I Need Love So Bad" and "Loose Lips" on Specialty # 485. Percy does a week's engagement at the Club Alimony on Central Avenue in Watts. In April "I Need Love So Bad" shows good sales numbers in Memphis and Little Rock. In late April Percy hits the road for a number of one nighters along the West Coast with sax player Arnett Cobb. In June Mayfield's latest for Specialty is out - "Sugar Mama Peachy Papa" and "You Don't Exist No More" on # 499. Percy does a week in late June at L.A.'s Gibson's Dine & Dance. In August Jimmy Witherspoon joins Percy Mayfield for a three night stay at the Savoy Ballroom in Los Angeles. In November Mayfield heads out on tour in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico for two weeks with The Chords of "Sh-Boom" fame. At the end of the year "My Heart Is Crying" and "You Were Lying To Me" is released by Specialty on # 537.
In early 1955 "The Voice Within" and "Baby You're Rich" are released on Specialty # 544. In May of 1955 Percy Mayfield is at the end of his five year recording contract with Specialty Records. There are a number of labels interested in adding Mayfield to their roster, and it looks like Chess Records in Chicago has the inside track. Late that month Leonard Chess confirms the signing of Mayfield to his label. In early July Percy joins The Penguins on stage at the 5-4 Ballroom in L.A. for three nights. The first Chess record hits the street in late July and features the songs "Are You Out There?" and "Double Dealing" on # 1599. Mayfield, along with Richard Berry and The Medallions did SRO business in Oakland. In October mayfield heads off on a tour of the Southwestern states. In early 1956 Percy joins a stronger blues influenced touring unit with Harmonica Slim and Tony Allen to do West Coast dates. In March Mayfield signs on with a big touring R & B unit called "The Rock & Roll Cavalcade" which will tour for two months beginning in Houston Texas. The show features nineteen acts including Roy Brown, The 5 Royales, Joe Tex, Camille Howard, and others. In June of 1956 John Dolphin signs Percy to his Money label after an unsuccessful year with Chess for the vocalist, and is readying a new recording of a tune called "Remembrance".
In June of 1957 Specialty Records releases a Percy Mayfield single - "Digging The Moonglow" and "Please Believe Me" on # 607. The record begins to sell immediately in the Midwestern markets of St. Louis and Kansas City. At this time The Moonglows record a moving version of his hit song from seven years before "Please Send Me Someone To Love" with a great lead vocal by Harvey Fuqua. The Chess release is a national hit and revives interest in Mayfield as a composer. Percy appears at Al Benson's big Christmas show at Chicago's Regal Theater. Jackie Wilson, The Five Satins, The Ravens, and Billy "The Kid" Emerson are some of the other performers. In January of 1958, Mayfield is signed to Atco Records as a writer-performer for the label. Closing out a solid decade as a recording artist, Imperial Records releases "My Reward" and "One Love" on # 5577 in March of 1959. In September "My Memories" and "My Heart Is A Prisoner" is released on Imperial # 5620. "Prisoner" is a good seller in Dallas and Oklahoma City. Now it was the dawn of a new decade and Percy Mayfield had now been in relative obscurity as there were many changes after the first golden era of R & B was ended. Once again fortune smiled on Percy Mayfield as he went around to various labels with a song he had written.
This time in 1961 the song was called "Hit The Road, Jack", and it came to the attention of Ray Charles who was also starting his own record label called Tangerine. The new label would be distributed by ABC Paramount. Charles hired on Mayfield as a writer and also gave him a chance to record for the label. Percy penned a number of great tunes for Ray - besides "Hit The Road, Jack", there was "Hide Nor Hair", "At The Club", "Danger Zone", and "On The Other Hand, Baby". Some of Mayfield's better sides for Tangerine were "Give Me Time To Explain" and "My Jug And I" (relating to Mayfield's battle with alcoholism) on # 957, "We Both Must Cry" on # 966, and "Pretty Eyed Baby" on # 979. He recorded two LPs for Tangerine (with the Ray Charles band) "My Jug And I" and "Bought Blues". After leaving Tangerine in the late sixties Mayfield recorded a number of sides for RCA Victor. Some of these recordings were "To Live The Past" on # 74-0307, "The Highway Is Like A Woman" / "You Wear Your Hair Too Long" on # 74-0348, "Weakness Is A Thing Called Man" / "Daddy Wants You To Come Home" on 74- 0379, "California Blues" / "The Flirt" on # 74-0462, and "Right On Young Americans" / "The Devil Made Me Do It" on 74-0650. In 1974 Mayfield recorded one side for Atlantic - "I Don't Want To Be President" and "Nothing Stays The Same Forever" on # 3207. From the mid seventies on he lapsed into relative obscurity and passes away on August 11, 1984, one day shy of his sixty fourth birthday.
In retrospect, he was one of many R & B performers who hit their creative peak for the most part in the years before the music became the sound of mainstream America. Because of that it was always a struggle to gain recognition as one who had paid his dues rather than one who was trying to achieve his big break among the hordes of hopefuls. CDs of his music remain to provide examples of his talent in both writing and performing. The best of these are from Ace (U.K.) with "Percy Mayfield Vol 1 - Poet Of The Blues" and "Percy Mayfield Vol 2 - Memory Pain", and these two have also been released in the U.S. on Specialty. "Two Years Of Torture" and "For Collectors Only" are other Specialty CDs previously released and you should be aware of duplication of tracks on these CDs. "Tangerine and Atlantic Sides" on Rhino presents the best of his work in the sixties. "Percy Mayfield Live" is a 1994 CD on Winner, and the two latest retrospectives are "Hit The Road Again" with the Phillip Walker Blues Band on Timeless, and "Walking On A Tightrope" a 2002 release from Acadia.
Percy Mayfield began his career at the dawn of the nineteen fifties with so much promise with "Two Years Of Torture" and "Please Send Me Someone To Love". Before he could really display his potential talent in writing and performing, a personal tragedy interfered and altered his life forever. But through it all he did persevere and present his work for all those interested people to contemplate and enjoy.