july 2008

Amos Garrett
Stony Plain

In his own time, Percy Mayfield, who died in 1984 at the age of 64, was rightly known as “The Poet of the Blues.” A man with an acute self-awareness and perhaps sensitive to a fault, Mayfield penned excruciating portraits of men and women at odds in romance, often expressed doubt as to whether anyone could or would ever love him, and frequently engaged in harsh self-analysis to the point of even doubting his own sanity. But he had a way, in his relaxed, understated vocal style, of making some dire situations and personal traumas seem less unsettling than a less generous soul might have done. Recording fruitfully for the Specialty label from 1950 through 1957, his big hit as a solo artist was 1950’s chart topping “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” which is on the surface a moving plea for companionship but reveals itself in the lyric “If the world don’t put an end to this damnable sin/Hate will put the world in flame” to be a discourse on racial prejudice, as timely now as it was then; following a disfiguring car accident in September 1952 (in a letter to Specialty Records owner Art Rupe he described himself as “ugly”), Mayfield retreated from live performance and concentrated on songwriting and recording. After leaving Specialty he was signed by Ray Charles’s publishing company and record label (Tangerine) and for Charles wrote a stone R&B monument, “Hit the Road, Jack,” and a wealth of other tunes that articulated his own profound disillusionments in songs rich in lovely melodies and given touching performances on record. In the years prior to his death he recorded for Tangerine, Chess, Cash, Imperial, RCA, Brunswick and Atlantic, never having another hit but always acquitting himself well in the studio.

Veteran guitarist Amos Garrett, whose studio credits range from Stevie Wonder to Anne Murray to Emmylou Harris to Maria Muldaur (among many, many others), has fashioned a beautiful tribute to Mayfield on the easygoing Get Way Back, which leans heavily on Mayfield’s Tangerine catalogue and avoids both “Please Send Me Someone to Love” and “Hit the Road, Jack” (“Well, those songs have been sung before,” Garrett says). Working with a sharp septet featuring horns and Hammond organ complementing the basic drums-string-bass-piano-guitar combo, Garrett makes it a tossup as to whether the star of this outing is his mellow vocal drawl (so much his own but also reminiscent of Mayfield’s deceptively casual style) or his personable guitar stylings. He takes off on a solo flight on “Fading Love” that is an absolute marvel of emotion-laden voicings and captivating concision, full of feeling but reigned in so that a few pungent, longing notes reveals a whole world of experience. On the other hand, the horn-driven slow blues, “Ha Ha In the Daytime,” a clever but devastating confession of loss and longing, Garrett’s earthy baritone swoops and rumbles through the unfolding testimony, rendering the pain he hides from view until the sun goes down, when he can “boo hoo all night long,” in near palpable terms—and underpinning it with a low-down guitar solo complemented by Dave Babcock’s blaring tenor sax retort. Mayfield at his dreamiest brings out the best in Garrett’s earthy vocal style when he digs into “To Claim It’s Love,” a romantic beauty of a song in which the composer admits to both yearning for the pain and the exhilaration of true love while also admitting to great insecurities about his paramour’s true feelings for him. With Mayfield, the song titles spoke volumes about his internal battles—check the abovementioned songs, for instance, or others in the catalogue such as “Life Is Suicide,” “My Pain Is Here to Stay” and “My Mind Is Trying to Leave Me”—and he has to be admired for his resilience in the face of such strong inner turmoil. Tuned into this big time, Garrett makes sure his tribute doesn’t drown in its own sorrow. The self-explanatory “Stranger In My Own Hometown,” its lyrical conceit of total alienation from everything and everyone in the place he knows best delivered with a wry drawl by Garrett, is taken at a brisk, shuffling pace and features another terrific, sputtering sax solo from Babcock; and “Get Way Back,” a forthright ultimatum for a woman either to fork over some cash “to make my ends meet” or else hit the road, inspires a jaunty, smart aleck vocal on Garrett’s part, which is part and parcel of refined, low-key jump blues arrangement spiced by some tart, Les Paul-like solo guitar flights and Babcock’s muscular, protesting sax solos. Given great material to work with, Amos Garrett went the extra mile to give it new life. Honoring Percy Mayfield’s work is always the right thing to do, but Amos Garrett and his bandmates have honored themselves as well by presenting Mayfield’s rich legacy with unswerving integrity and soul. Everyone wins.—David McGee

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