Wednesday 24 January 2018

Two Poets Of The Blues: Jesse Belvin & Percy Mayfield


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When Jesse Belvin’s career was autowrecked to a fatal stop on 6 February 1960 RCA filled the vacancy on its artist-roster with young soul-stirrer Sam Cooke – who subsequently went on to Pop hits, Twist hits, Levi’s TV-ad hits, and yet more hits. It’s an irresistibly easy what-if alternative history to write. Stuck in the crossfire betwixt the waning Blues Big-Band, and the bratty Rock ‘n’ Roll upstart, both Cooke and Belvin could pen a mean hit song – Belvin’s “Earth Angel” sold two-million for the Penguins, as well as a side-order of sales for Gloria Mann, and for white coverists the Crew-Cats, but unlike Cooke, Belvin never completely successfully crossed-over into the lucrative milk-‘n’-cookies white teenage market. He hit a ‘Billboard’ no.31 in April 1959 with “Guess Who”, and scored with the drive-in smooch-standard “Goodnight My Love” – but beyond that, the might-have-been scenario is still up for grabs. 

But on the strength of this immaculately assembled and lovingly packaged CD of twenty-four tracks salvaged from the vaults of his pre-RCA days with the Dolphin and Specialty labels (1952-1958) the Texan falls largely into the late-night smoky-blues – some might say slightly draggy and very dated side of the equation. Billed ‘Mr Easy’, he looks back with the subtle swing of “Baby Don’t Go”, “Hang Your Tears Out To Dry”, or the slow luscious ooze of “Confusin’ Blues”, while leaning forward into the gently rocking ‘previously unissued demo’ of “Don’t Stop (Pretty Baby)”, or the novelty Coasters-styled “Puddin ‘n’ Tane”. There’s some atmospheric studio back-chat on “What’s The Matter”, and there’s a boisterous “Ding Dong Baby’ that goes ‘she’s fat and she’s a-round, weighs five-hundred pounds, she’s my luva-luva-luva lover, every ounce and every pound’! 

A compulsive aka Belvin also worked his way through a dozen labels as part of as many oddly-named groups – the Cliques, Hollywood Flames, Sheiks, or Three Dots-And-A-Dash, and there’s no less than three takes here of his Jesse & Marvin duo hit “Dream Girl”, prime deep-throated Doo-Wop, as well as a Marvin Phillips’ sax-break of some cooking honk-content on the duo’s “My Love Comes Tumbling Down”. 

Louisiana-born Percy Mayfield’s seven American hits spaced across the years 1950-1952 – including the soul-pleading “Please Send Me Someone To Love” and “What A Fool I Was”, were also restricted to the ‘Race Records’ zone of the black R&B Top Ten. With a career interrupted by a near-terminal auto-accident, he had to wait until 1960 before Ray Charles (and more recently Buzzz) took his composition “Hit The Road, Jack” to white ears. And although he’s another worthy contender for the ‘Great Unknowns’ category benefitting from Ace’s valuable ‘Legends Of Specialty’ vinyl archaeology series, there’s a tendency to the Mr Sheen side of over-polished audible across these twenty-five tracks. A blend that Black Music historian Paul Oliver describes as ‘palatable to the more sensitive tastes… popular music with Blues colouration’ (‘The Story Of The Blues’, Penguin Books, 1972). But there’s something magnificently dark about “Life Is Suicide” (‘going down to the river, go out with the tide/ without my baby, life is suicide’) and the thematically identical original take of his 1963 hit “River’s Invitation” – ‘I spoke to the river, the river spoke back to me/ and it said you look so lonely, you look full of misery/ and if you can’t find your baby, come and make your home with me.’ And while there’s more than a touch of Brook Benton-Lou Rawls tuxedo respectability in the deep Creole phrasing, a try-out for the sophisticated supper-club circuit rather than ‘American Bandstand’, there’s still enough Johnny Ace to keep you listening.

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