Percy Mayfield - Biography
By Bob Fagan
Percy Mayfield is a R&B singer and songwriter perhaps best known for his song “Hit the Road, Jack” a million-seller for Ray Charles. His own biggest hit, “Please Send Me Somebody to Love,” which combined a plea for world peace with a more personal prayer for a lover, was a number one R&B hit in 1950, remaining on the charts for over half a year.
Born in Minden, LA, in 1920, he wrote poetry as a young boy and later began to write songs and sing. He began his musical career in Texas but soon moved to Los Angeles, CA, where he thought he would have a better chance of success. In 1947, after several years of struggling, Mayfield came to the attention of Supreme Records. He had written a song, “Two Years of Torture” and had the idea to pitch it to Supreme Records recording artist Jimmy Witherspoon. When the people at Supreme heard Mayfield’s own rendition of the song, they were so taken with his softly nuanced drawl of a voice that they decided to sign him to the label and release the song as his first 45.
A few years later, Art Rupe, the owner of Specialty Records, bought Mayfield’s contract from Supreme. It was with Specialty that Mayfield scored a series of hits on the R&B charts over the next few years. Although Mayfield was never a notable success on the pop charts, his gloomy lovelorn lyrics and gentle, ironic voice found great favor among R&B fans. Mayfield specialized in sad love songs and rueful observations of life, sometimes veering into semi-suicidal pronouncements. A mere look at some of his song titles– “Life is Suicide,” “The River’s Invitation,” “You Don’t Exist No More” and “Nightmare” - give an indication of the sort of material he typically composed. He also offered up thoughtful and heartfelt musings on the social and political troubles of the world. His biggest hit –“Please Send me Someone to Love” – is a beautiful example of how he could combine the universal with the personal to great effect.
If his lyrics offered a bleak outlook on life and love, his wry vocal inflections and self-deprecating humor rescued them from bathos. Never a blues shouter or overly dramatic singer, he was more of a balladeer, with exquisite phrasing that was closer to the singing of jazz vocalists like Billie Holiday or the Nelson Riddle-era Sinatra. Unlike most R&B performers, he wrote virtually all his own material, and also unlike his contemporaries, his songs were more for listening than dancing. His subtle singing and slow tempos were evocative of a smoky late night, after-the-band-is-gone ambience, similar to what Sinatra tried to capture on such records as No One Cares and In the Wee Small Hours.
Between 1950 and 1952 he scored no less than seven top ten hits on the R&B charts. He was a charismatic live performer, a handsome man with a legion of screaming female fans in love with his movie star looks and sexy, purring voice. Hs career came to a sudden halt in 1952, when he was seriously injured in an auto accident. His injuries took months to recover from, and he was left facially disfigured by the crash. The lingering effects of the accident forced him to curtail his life performances, but he continued to write and record new material. He left Specialty in the mid-fifties and recorded for RCA, Chess Records and the Imperial label, with some occasional chart successes.
He came to the attention of Ray Charles at the beginning of the 60s. Charles’ recording of Mayfield’s “Hit the Road, Jack” was a huge success, making it to number 1 on both the R&B and pop charts. Indeed, the song ultimately became Ray Charles’ best-known hit and a staple of his live shows for the remainder of his career. Signed to Charles' own Tangerine label, Mayfield provided Charles with several more hit songs during the 60s.
He continued to record into the 70s and returned to more frequent live performances, although he generally stayed close to home in Los Angeles. After a few minor hits in the first half of the 70s, he faded from public view and died in 1984 from a heart attack.
Percy Mayfield’s literate and thoughtful lyrics remain a presence and influence in the pop, blues and jazz genres up to the present day. “Hit the Road, Jack” has been recorded by numerous and diverse artists, from The Animals and reggae star Big Youth, and from David Johansen’s alter ego Buster Poindexter to San Francisco art rock band The Residents. Similarly, his own biggest hit, “Please Send me Someone to Love,” has found a home in the recorded and live repertoires of dozens of artists, from Count Basie to Pat Boone, and from Dinah Washington to Fiona Apple. The legendary and troubled Memphis jazz pianist Phineas Newborn recorded a tender instrumental version backed by Elvin Jones and Ray Brown (Please Send Me Someone to Love, 1990 Fantasy) that is worth seeking out, as is Sade’s Betty Carter-influenced version.
Mayfield’s Specialty work has been compiled on Percy Mayfield: Poet of the Blues (1989 Specialty). Most of his RCA-era material can be found on Blues Laureate: The RCA Years (2006 RCA). The Tangerine label releases, many backed by musicians from Ray Charles’ band, are on Percy Mayfield: His Tangerine and Atlantic Sides (2004 Rhino Handmade.) His last release during his lifetime is a well-played live outing with Paul Butterfield Blues Band alum Mark Naftalin on piano (Percy Mayfield Live, 1982 Winner).