Percy Mayfield was a renowned R&B songwriter with hits including “Hit the Road, Jack” and “Please Send Me Someone to Love.”
Known as “the poet laureate of the blues,” Percy Mayfield is revered as a uniquely sensitive songwriter and rhythm and blues (R&B) artist. One of Mayfield’s early producers, Art Rupe, stated that “If he could have been encouraged more, [Mayfield] would have been seen as great as Langston Hughes.” Mayfield also remains equally renowned as an understated yet powerfully affecting vocalist.
Mayfield was born in Minden, in Webster Parish, in 1922. As a schoolchild, the creative young Mayfield wrote original poems and songs. Hoping to launch a music career, Mayfield struck out on his own as a teenager, going to Houston and then to Los Angeles. Mayfield spent most of his twenties in LA working outside of the music industry while trying to get established. In 1950 he signed with Specialty Records, a label that would record many important Louisiana musicians during the ensuing decade, including Lloyd Price, Earl King, Ernie K-Doe, Clifton Chenier, Joe Lutcher, and Guitar Slim.
Mayfield’s first record for Specialty, “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” reached number one on the national R&B charts, as tabulated by Billboard magazine. It is still performed and recorded often—for example, by Aaron Neville—underscoring the timeless appeal of poignant lines like “Heaven, please send to all mankind / Understanding and peace in mind, / But, if it’s not asking too much, / Please send me someone to love.” Mayfield’s original “River’s Invitation” is likewise lauded for its plaintive lyrics: “I spoke to the river, / And the river spoke back to me, / It said man you look so lonely, / You look full of misery…” In 1989 the acclaimed New Orleans singer Johnny Adams recorded a tribute album entitled Walking on a Tightrope: The Songs of Percy Mayfield for the Rounder Records label.
In 1952 Mayfield was seriously injured in an automobile accident that left him horribly disfigured, significantly hampering his live-performance career. He continued recording until a year before his death in 1984, but found more success as a songwriter. Ray Charles took Mayfield’s “Hit the Road, Jack” to number-one on Billboard’s pop and R&B charts alike and won a Grammy award with it as the Best R&B Recording of 1961. Mayfield also wrote for B. B. King.
In 1952 Mayfield waxed nostalgic: “I was born way down in Louisiana … I’m going back and try to settle down … in my own hometown.” He did return briefly to Minden. In 2005 the town declared May 13th “Percy Mayfield Day.” In further evidence of Mayfield’s lasting stature, the University of Mississippi established a Percy Mayfield collection that is open to researchers.