Sunday, 21 October 2007

CD review - Percy Mayfield

The Voice Within: The Specialty Singles 1950-55
By M.D. Spenser

A song as fine as ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ almost defies description.

You could talk about the vulnerability. ‘If it’s not asking too much . . .’ the singer pleads gently. You could talk about the melody, or the wistfulness.

Or you could realize that it’s been recorded by as many as 200 artists – big names, too, from Count Basie to Fiona Apple, from T-Bone Walker to Odetta, from Dinah Washington to B.B. King, from Ruth Brown to Luther Allison to Maria Muldaur to Peggy Lee to Irma Thomas to Paul Butterfield to Etta James to … you get the idea. That must be a song with a lot going for it.

And here it is, track one, performed by the man himself, with his inimitably sweet vocals and immaculate timing.

The album has 29 cuts from the same era, most nearly as good, as sweet, as plaintive as the first. Mayfield was a giant.

These songs are from his heyday, when he recorded for the Specialty label, before going on to become Ray Charles’ chief songwriter (‘Hit The Road, Jack’). Stylistically, they are of a piece. An upright bass keeps time; a tinkling piano adds colour, two saxes act as the rhythm section. All tracks have one guitar credited but on most, dang, it’s hard to hear.

And above all, Mayfield’s intimate vocals are well up in the mix.

Mayfield belongs in any collection, and these are the songs you need.

One quibble: There is too much hiss on some of the tracks. These were big hits. The originals were recorded with more fidelity than this. After 50 years, the songs are doubtless in the public domain. Too bad Rev-Ola couldn’t – so it seems – get its hands on the masters. These songs deserve better.

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