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Sam Mayfield by Jerry Roys
Blues at the Vineyard enjoys performance by Denver's Blues Man Sam Mayfield. TICKETS ARE ONLY AVAILABLE AT THE DOOR! YOU CAN CALL 303-287-5156 OR 720-254-8511 FOR MORE INFORMATION.
Sam Mayfield Story
By Jerry Roys of Locals & Legends
Published: May 20, 2007
From the "Chitlin Circuit to the Grammys," Colorado blues guitarist Sam Mayfield, has played guitar in many a venue while leading his own band and as King Solomon Burke’s musical director.
The Pauper and The King
King Solomon Burke wrote 32 singles, including six top-ten R&B hits and four songs which made the top 40 in the pop charts. Burke is best known for his song, "Got to Get You Off of My Mind," and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall in 2001. Mayfield started working for the musical legend in 1973 after his band backed Burke at Margies Lounge in Denver.
"Because he was late we didn’t get a chance to rehearse," Sam says. "He was impressed that we knew all his music, of course we grew up on his music. After that I started playing with him full time."
Mayfield was born in Denver and raised in the Curtis Park area. He started playing guitar in 1957, when he was seven years old. His first instrument was the saxophone, which he played in school.
"I couldn’t feel the horn the way I could play the guitar," Sam said. "I knew from the time I was seven what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."
Mayfield grew up around music. His uncle Clarence Mayfield played guitar and Sam picked it from him. He also said his mother took him to church, "Every day of the week and twice on Sundays," He said there was a lot of singing and preaching. His mother encouraged him to keep busy with music because she believed it kept him out of trouble. She bought him his first guitar from a local pawn shop.
"We grew up with cheap stuff," Sam said. "That was all we could afford. The tone is in your hands, not the guitar or amp. We bought our strings at the drug store. The G string was coated, so I would scrape it with a knife, made it easier to bend, tricks of the trade."
Sam said his second cousin Percy Mayfield was a successful hit song writer until he was involved in a car accident. Percy Mayfield wrote "Hit the Road Jack," a song made famous by the late great Ray Charles.
"I always liked the blues," Sam said. "My family all listened to the blues, BB King, T-Bone Walker, Gate Mouth Brown, Muddy Waters, all them cats."
Beating the Odds Mayfield said growing up in a segregated era kept black people together and made them want to break out and music was one way to break out of the projects.
"Black people weren’t allowed past York," Sam said. "At theaters we had to sit upstairs. We had our own stores right down in the Points. Things didn’t change until 63-64 when Kennedy was president."
One of the people wanting to break out of the projects with Mayfield was Nathan Wright, Sam’s life long friend and bass player. They met when they went to Cole Jr. High School together, where they both played saxophone in the school band.
"Sam always has been a guitar player. I played sax all the way through school," Wright said, "But I always wanted to play bass. When I graduated I bought a bass."
Wright said through high school he didn’t see Mayfield all that much, because Sam was busy honing his craft, and honing his craft he was.
When he was a teenager, Mayfield cut his teeth playing guitar at the black nightclubs located in the Five Points area in Denver. He would go to school during the day, then play all night at such clubs as The Savoy, KC Lounge, Bowlers Club and The Rosanna Lounge.
"They partied all night back in those days," Mayfield said. "The Protocrest started at 2:30 in the morning and went to 6:00 in the morning. The cops would come in and they would hide me."
Old Friends and the Road
Wright said soon after he started on bass, Mayfield heard him and asked him to play bass in his band. He said it was Mayfield who taught him how to play bass, how to approach it and put the feeling behind the groove he was laying down. He said when they weren’t playing a club they were rehearsing and he remembers putting a lot of miles on the road.
"We broke a lot of bread together on the road," Wright said, "And Murphy’s Law hit musicians harder than anybody. We learned to work around it, so when it happens now, been there, done that."
Wright said at times there were as many as six band members crammed into two vehicles along with all the equipment. He said both vehicles and equipment broke down a lot on the road. He also said there were times club owners didn’t want to pay them, and of course the racism and segregation they had to endure on the road.
Being Black in the South
Mayfield said though he grew up with segregation in Colorado and it changed in the 60s, segregation didn’t change much in the South.
Mayfield said at times the only place they could wash up was in train stations. This made playing the blues mean more, because he witnessed first hand what down-and-out could really mean.
"I saw a lot of prejudice," Mayfield said. "When you were playing down in the South you understood you were Black. You stayed at different people’s houses because you couldn’t stay in a hotel."
Yet, Wright says it was all worth it and he feels blessed for the musical experience and friendship he has had with Mayfield and other musicians.
"I’m not bitter about the racism," Wright said. "Because playing music has always been a wonderful thing and still is. We met a lot of great players and people on the road."
Lessons from the Road and the Hood
Mayfield said he learned on the road, and that is where he developed his style of guitar playing. He said that the secret to being a successful guitar player is to have your own voice. One element that led to him developing his own style early on was that he and other players in the projects were too poor to afford good equipment, but everyone had a guitar. A guitar player had to have something that was unique to set him apart from everyone else.
His drive and experience gained him a reputation as a top guitar player and band leader. He soon was a top attraction, not only to the local club scene, but also to black national acts in need of a guitar player or opening or backing band. When black national musical acts came into town, they played at the clubs located in the Five Points area. Mayfield soon had the opportunity to play guitar with his guitar heroes like Big Joe Turner, Gate Mouth Brown, Little Lester, Vernon Garret and Solomon Burke.
Looking for Good Blues in Denver When Carlos Lando, current program director for 89.3 KUVO, moved to Denver in the 80s to work at radio station KDKO, he would go looking for live soul, funk, jazz or blues bands that he could listen to. He quickly became a fan of Mayfield’s band, and he and Mayfield became great friends. He would often go see Mayfield’s band back up many of the national acts that played at the Casino night club located in the Five Points area.
"One week it would be Lowell Folsom, then the next week Ruth Brown, and then Ester Phillips and he would introduce me to these artists. We started to hang out and we became close friends." Lando said
Lando remembers a blues concert he MC’d at McNichols Sports Arena in the 80s and blues legend Big Mama Thornton was on the bill. The promoter had hired a local band to back her and she didn’t like the lead guitarist. A call was made for local guitarist to audition for the show and Mayfield was among them. Big Mama heard Mayfield play a few notes and said, "That’s it." Lando said after the show she told him what a great musician Mayfield was, and that he was the glue that had held it together for her.
All Blues - Saturday's at 5pm
When the opportunity came, Lando hired Mayfield to be the main host for the "All Blues" program on KUVO. Not because he’s a close friend, but because of what he brings to the program.
"He’s a cat that knows the music," Lando said. "I wanted to bring a musician who had a following. That knew the music selection and the knowledge to comment on it. I wanted to bring some legitimacy to the program."
Mayfield has been doing the program for about five years now.
The only time Mayfield doesn’t do the show is when he’s playing on the road, which he said he has to do in order to make money. Mayfield said now all the black clubs that played live music in Denver have disappeared. He said all you find are DJs and it makes it hard for a working musician to survive. In order to make a living you have to do it on the road.
"I’ve been on the road for over 40 years," Mayfield said. "All over the states, and in Europe, which seems to appreciate and encourage blues musicians more."
Bringing Down the Wall
Mayfield said the one European gig that stands out for him was in Berlin. He was playing guitar for Solomon Burke when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. He said it was a great experience and that Burke’s song "A Change is Going to Come," was used as the theme song for the historical event.
Speaking of historical events, Mayfield has witnessed and played through some of the history of how modern music has been shaped and formed, and is a living historian of the early Denver R&B, soul, and blues music scene.
Lando said Mayfield was there when it was a very special time for music through the 60s and into the 70s.
"He learned from the masters while being on the road," Landos said. "Sam was always and still is the consummate band leader, a legitimate R and B player." Carlos feels Sam is one of the last links in Denver representative to that era of R&B, soul and blues that came up in the 60s and 70s.