Walking on a Tightrope album mixes Johnny Adams’ vocals and Percy Mayfield compositions
Walking on a tightrope
Heading for the twilight zone
Where the future never makes it
Until the past has gone.
– ‘Walking on a Tightrope’ by Percy Mayfield
SINGER JOHNNY Adams and singer/songwriter Percy Mayfield both knew the ups and downs of the blues life.
Mayfield, who died of a heart attack six years ago at 64, was a major R&B star in the early ’50s after his ‘Please Send Me Someone to Love’ became an R&B standard. He also wrote songs like ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ for Ray Charles.
But the blend of ballads and swinging, horn-driven blues favored by Mayfield never connected with the guitar-dominated sound that rock-era fans embraced.
Adams, who appears at the Palomino next Sunday, enjoyed one brief run of national success in the late ’60s with his ballad hits ‘Release Me’ and ‘Reconsider Me’. But the New Orleans native, 58, was never able to break free from the Southern regional club circuit.
These two artists who never received mainstream acclaim are now joined as Adams devotes his new album, Walking on a Tightrope, to material written by Mayfield. The Rounder release is the finest record of Adams’ career, a collection of bravura performances that makes it one of the best blues albums in recent memory.
Mayfield’s sophisticated blues, cloaked in savvy, horn-dominated arrangements, proved to be a tailor-made showcase for Adams’ formidable arsenal of falsetto whoops, “mouth trombone” scatting and superb control.
The velvet-smooth vocalist had recorded three Mayfield songs for his previous Rounder album, and their lyrics became Adams’ primary inspiration for devoting so much attention to Mayfield’s material.
“I find the songs are very meaningful where everyday life is concerned,” Adams said by phone from Baton Rouge, La. “I don’t know if he experienced these things himself – maybe he experienced it through other people, but it’s the same things people go through every day and it comes out as a good song. The way he sung the songs, it was just like holding a conversation with somebody.”
The news that Adams was planning a full album of Percy Mayfield’s songs delighted the composer’s most ardent champion: his widow, Tina Mayfield, a zealous keeper of the flame since Mayfield’s death.
“I flipped because I love Johnny Adams,” she recalled in the kitchen of her South Central Los Angeles home. “If anybody could do it, Johnny Adams can because he knew exactly what Percy was talking about in all his songs and how Percy wanted to relay his message to the people.
“It’s very hard to find people with the right feel for Percy’s songs because you’ve got to understand and be able to relate to what he was trying to express. You don’t jump on the bandstand and start singing one of his songs just because it sounds good and may be a pretty song. You’ve got to truly understand why he wrote that song and you’ve got to have the feeling coming from down within.”
Mayfield wrote more than 800 songs, according to Tina Mayfield, but only a handful are readily available in record stores. Specialty’s The Best of Percy Mayfield collects the early-’50s recordings for the label that established him as a major R&B artist.
Two European compilations – The Voice Within on Sweden’s Route 66 label and My Heart Is Always Singing Sad Songs for England’s Ace label – focus on different material from the Specialty period. Tina Mayfield also sells cassette copies of commercially unavailable Percy Mayfield material through record collector publications.
Adams didn’t focus exclusively on the early, Specialty phase of Mayfield’s career while selecting material for Tightrope. Five songs were recorded, either by Ray Charles or Mayfield, during Mayfield’s five-year association with Charles’ Tangerine label in the early ’60s.
‘Walking on a Tightrope’ appeared on an album for Brunswick in the late ’60s and ‘My Heart Is Hanging Heavy’ was previously unissued. Blues historian Dick Shurman and Tina Mayfield chipped in by sending tapes of little-known songs written by Mayfield.
“He (Adams) started off with the intention of producing the entire album exactly like Percy had it on the original (version of each song),” said Tina Mayfield. “(Producer) Scott (Billington) asked if I had anything else Johnny would be interested in. Percy had a lot of unpublished music that nobody has ever heard so I got busy with my master tapes and sent him copies of things he didn’t have.”
Explained Adams, “I wanted the more soulful songs and I was after something that wasn’t ‘on the record.’ If I had known Ray Charles had recorded ‘Danger Zone’, I don’t think I would have wanted to do it.
“It worked out pretty good so I guess it was best that I was in the blind where the song was concerned. I tried my best to do Percy justice – then I had to do my best again for my own satisfaction.”
Percy Mayfield wasn’t a particularly strong early influence on Adams, a jukebox junkie who absorbed the major pop and R&B hits of the day like a sponge.
“I used to be around a bar most of the time shining shoes and almost any record that came up, I could sing it the same three minutes after it had played,” Adams recalled. “There wasn’t any such thing as putting ’em on tape – you had to remember it and write it down. It was the Ink Spots back then – every time they sang a song, I guess I knew it second.”
Adams spent the first 10 years of his career singing in New Orleans-area gospel quartets before making the shift to R&B in 1959. ‘I Won’t Cry’, his first release for the Ric label, was a regional success and Adams hit the national R&B charts for the first time in 1962 with ‘A Losing Battle’.
He almost landed a Motown contract then but it wasn’t until 1968 that he surfaced on the charts again with ‘Release Me’, for the Nashville-based S.S. International label. ‘Reconsider Me’ was even bigger the following year, a Top 10 R&B hit that also cracked the pop Top 30. But Adams’ visibility soon faded, apart from the staunch R&B fans who dubbed Adams “the Tan Canary.”
Things changed four years ago when he signed with Rounder Records. The increased exposure helped Adams win the 1989 W.C. Handy award (the blues community’s equivalent of a Grammy) for best male vocal for his Room With a View album.
More attention is liable to come his way with Tightrope, but Adams doesn’t maintain a regular working band and may not be able to duplicate the record’s full arrangements on stage. A Rounder spokeswoman reported that chances were slim that Adams would perform any Tightrope material at the Palomino.
Like Adams, Percy Mayfield was a Louisiana native. He came to Los Angeles to join his sister in 1942, and looked to move into the music industry. He got his first break performing at the Lincoln Theater on Central Avenue.
His goal was to be a songwriter, but a different fate was in the cards. Mayfield was pushing singer Jimmy Witherspoon, who had a deal with Supreme Records, to record his song ‘Two Years of Torture’ in 1949. But the label chief liked Mayfield’s demo version so much he insisted that Mayfield cut the tune himself. It became his first release as an artist.
The following year, he enjoyed his greatest success when he signed with Specialty and saw his ‘Please Send Me Someone to Love’ top the R&B charts. He had a string of successful follow-ups, but a serious car accident derailed his career and left his face disfigured.
Mayfield bounced back, but the accident ended his run of seven Top 10 R&B hits. He left Specialty and recorded for Chess and other small R&B labels during the late ’50s without much success.
But his songwriting career took off again during his five-year stint with Ray Charles. Mayfield wrote several chart successes for Charles in addition to ‘Hit the Road, Jack’, and also released two albums on which he was backed by Charles’ band: My Jug and I and Bought Blues, on Charles’ Tangerine label.
After leaving the Charles fold in 1965, Mayfield returned to the R&B club circuit as a solo artist and released four more albums for Brunswick and RCA. A 1974 single for Atlantic was his last American release, and the following year Mayfield broke up his band, sold his tour bus and stopped performing.
“He had just given up, stopped writing, because he already had material that he had written previously and hadn’t done anything with it,” said Tina Mayfield. “All this good stuff was just lying around the house. He had his own reel-to-reel machine and made up his own masters but then he wouldn’t do anything with them.”
Unlike many veteran blues figures, Mayfield had retained the copyrights to his older songs and continued to receive royalties from them. But it was European demand that sparked a revival of his performing career. He went to Holland for the first time in 1982, recorded an album for the Timeless label there, and had three foreign tours scheduled when he died.
“What he was really waiting on was a good recording company,” said Tina Mayfield. “He was hoping to find the right company to record his new stuff, but he didn’t live long enough to do that.”
© Don Snowden, Los Angeles Times, 15 April 1990