PERCY MAYFIELD

Photograph compliments of Jerry Frasier

 

 

Percy and Elvis

Compliments of John Agan and the Minden Press Herald May 17, 2005

A look at how the two musicians
affected Minden



Today’s Echo of Our Past is about an upcoming event in our city that will give our community a chance to make a gesture to compensate for a time in our past that was not a proud part of our heritage. Next weekend, May 13 and 14, Cultural Crossroads of Minden is hosting its 11th annual Spring Arts Festival at the Moess Center for the Arts and City Farm. This event is always a highlight of the year as it gives the youth of our community the opportunity to demonstrate their talents in the arts and also be exposed to aspects of the arts that are missing from public school curriculums,
With its theme of “Canned Culture: Focus on the ‘50s”, this year the Spring Arts Festival is looking back 50 years to 1955, part of the years of innocence in American History. Particular attention is being paid to two musicians whose lives and work made an impact on the world and on Minden - Elvis Presley and Percy Mayfield.

Percy was a native son, a gifted songwriter who was born here but spent most of his adult life elsewhere and was never particularly welcomed in our town. Elvis, on the other hand, spent one night here in July 1955 - and that event is still remembered by many and is a highlight of their growing up years.

Now, Percy Mayfield’s musical career clearly did not have the impact on America and the world as that of Elvis Presley. In addition, Percy had a troubled personal life that made him an outcast to many here in Minden. Yet, we know that Elvis also had many similar personal problems, yet they don’t seem to have particularly had an impact on his legacy and how he is remembered.

So what made the difference? In looking at the lives of these two men briefly, particularly as they touched our community, perhaps we can understand a little about the difference in how they are perceived in our town. A difference perhaps summed up in the one song that tied the two together, Percy’s autobiographical “Stranger in My Home Town” which was later covered by Elvis. What makes the difference between Tupelo, which has created a shrine to Elvis, and Minden, which seems to say “Percy Who?”
 

Percy in Minden

Percy Mayfield was born in Minden in 1920 and spent his growing up years in our town. He was able to hear the varying musical sounds in our area, a wonderful mélange common in much of the South - as in the areas around Tupelo, Mississippi where Elvis spent his earliest years. Minden and Tupelo share a very similar cultural heritage, both have the musical roots based in the songs of church and the slaves. Minden’s other notable contribution to the national music scene, Gene Austin, noted how that eclectic mix aided his development of a unique style.

As a child attending school here in Minden, Percy demonstrated both a love of and a gift for poetry. He wrote his first song lyrics as a teenager, although he didn’t set out for a musical career. Percy left Minden and spent years living in both Houston and Los Angeles. By the late 1940s, after working in various jobs, his musical career began to take off. Soon he had a song at the top of the Rhythm and Blues Charts, “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” He seemed headed for a storied career as a performer and songwriter. Unfortunately, a tragic car accident while traveling back to Los Angeles from a show in Las Vegas left Percy struggling for life and permanently disfigured his handsome face. Yet, his musical career had only just begun. Feeling his performing days might be limited because of his altered appearance, Percy continued to perform but gained even more renown as a songwriter. His skill at sharing his ideas and feelings through lyrics earned him the nickname the “Poet Laureate of the Blues.” Soon he was writing songs for many of the top performers of the era including B. B. King and Ray Charles. A special bond grew between Percy and Ray, both on the professional and personal level. Many friends gave Percy much credit in Charles’ overcoming his heroin addiction.
 

Back Home

It was during those years of songwriting success that Percy decided to return to his “own hometown”, Minden. In his song, “Louisiana”, he writes of the special feeling he had for our area and our community. He says he’s “going back to his own hometown to settle down.” He explains how he likes California but there is something very special about his home in Louisiana. Full of optimism, he looks forward to returning to the world he remembered fondly. And Percy tried to do just that. He built a home on Murdock Street here in Minden with a small recording studio in the back yard. In fact it was during the years that he was living here that Percy penned his best-known song, “Hit the Road Jack”, which became a number one song for Ray Charles on the Pop Charts.

Yet, Percy found life here tough. He had trouble with the local legal system, with one arrest for possession of marijuana and seemed to feel rejected by the community he loved and had called home.
This sense of disillusionment is clearly shown in the words of the autobiographical, “Stranger in My Own Hometown.” Listening to that song, after hearing the hopeful words of “Louisiana” leaves a stinging indictment of our community. Here are the lyrics of that song, which is the tangible tie between Elvis and Percy as Presley later recorded the song. (Rather ironic considering the regard with which Elvis’ hometown seemed to have for the singer.)

“I’m like a stranger
Like a stranger in my own home town
I’m like a stranger
Like a stranger in my own home town
My so-called friends stopped being friendly
Oh but you can’t keep a good man down
Oh no, can’t get him down
I came home with good intentions
About 5 or 6 years ago
I came home with good intentions
About 5 or 6 years ago
But my hometown won’t accept me
Just don’t feel welcome here no more
My hometown won’t accept me
Just don’t feel welcome here no more
I came home with good intentions
About 5 or 6 years ago, yes I did
I came home with good intentions
About 5 or 6 years ago
But my hometown won’t accept me
Just don’t feel welcome here no more
I’m like a stranger, like a stranger in my own hometown
Yeah, I’m like a stranger, like a stranger in my own hometown
My so-called friends stopped being friendly
Oh but you can’t keep a good man down.”
 

A Legend

Percy moved back to California and gained wide recognition for his amazing writing skills. During the last years of his life, his legend grew and live performances from those years are today considered classics. Percy died in 1984, unrecognized at home but a giant of Rhythm and Blues.

What were the reasons for Minden’s rejection of Percy? One is obvious, he did live a lifestyle that seemed unconventional to many here in Minden, yet, as the Bible tells us, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” So even if that is true, Christians and those who truly embrace mankind as a brotherhood have no excuse for denying recognition on that basis. We all have feet of clay, and while we cannot condone the faults in the lives of others, and ourselves we also need to celebrate the talents.
Percy Mayfield’s troubles were largely his own, he didn’t harm others and his music contributed much happiness to those across the world. As a community we are an extended family, and we always find it possible to overlook the problems of family. The same should be true of Percy.
 

The Difference

Yet, the other reason is perhaps clearer and it is a taboo we don’t want to discuss, racism. Percy Mayfield had the misfortune of being black in a segregated Minden. That is the only explanation for the vast difference between how our community perceives those two men who touched Minden, Elvis and Percy. Surely in a truly color-blind world, Percy would at least be remembered with pride here in Minden.

This is not the time for recriminations about the sins of the past. Minden has come a long way from the years of segregation and dwelling on that period serves no purpose. However, ignoring the error of our ways is also unacceptable.

However, the past is the past. Percy is gone, but Minden has made strides in its attitudes. Leaving recriminations to the past, we now have a chance to honor the memory of Minden’s Poet Laureate of the Blues.
 

Celebrating Percy

Minden Mayor Bill Robertson has proclaimed Friday, May 13, 2005 as Percy Mayfield Day here in our community. Governor Kathleen Blanco has made that day, Percy Mayfield Day in the State of Louisiana. During the festival a salute to Percy’s music with performances by “Dorsey Summerfield and the Polyphonics” of Shreveport will be held along with a film on Percy’s life produced by Safa Paulson of Cultural Crossroads.

As a result of this new publicity, Percy is scheduled to be inducted in the Louisiana Entertainment Hall of Fame on June 12, 2005. So why not come out and help Minden to atone to a degree for neglecting this talented man’s legacy.

Come out to the Spring Arts Festival and enjoy the music of the “King” and remember his brief stop in Minden, but especially come out and here the songs of the man who called this place home and whose words include part of “us” in their message.

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                                                    If anyone has a memory of Percy Mayfield we would like to post it here...

 

                                                                                          Memories of Percy Mayfield

In looking over the site I again found the article about Percy Mayfield.  Mother and I knew Percy through the record shop when she was running Don's Record Shoppe.  I don't think I ever saw him after James and I married and left Minden in early 1961.  He was very interesting but always seemed to be such a "lost soul" to me.  I don't mean that in a religious way but he just always seemed so sad and alone, whether he truly was or not.  I LOVED his song, "One Love", and had it in my private collection of 45 rpm records at home.  One day one of Mother's customers insisted on having that recording right away, even if used, and Mother didn't have it at the shop at that time.   I offered to let them have mine as I thought Mother could order me another copy.  Well, the record was no longer available but I will never forget the song and how I love/d it.  I tried to get into contact with Percy to learn where I could get another copy but never heard from him as I didn't have an address and couldn't find a way to get in touch at that time. 

Linda Holt Moorehead