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In Europe, New York and Los Angeles, rhythm and blues guitarist/vocalist Sammy Mayfield has made a name for himself as the musical director for legendary soul and gospel shouter Solomon Burke. But in Denver, where Mayfield was raised, he's just another musician about town. He's respected in musicians' circles, but his Sammy Mayfield Blues Revue has a lower profile than most cover bands.
Given Mayfield's talent, there's definitely something wrong with this picture. Still, he insists he's come to accept the situation. "When I come home, I come home to rest and do my thing," he says. "Yeah, like all over Europe, we're really big. Here, it's nothing. I guess it's just like any place else, though. The way I look at it is, you've got to live somewhere."
Mayfield generally spends at least one week a month out of town. Either on his own or with Burke, he has played blues festivals in Chicago and throughout Europe, including two appearances in Berlin. The first of these took place in 1987, the second in 1989, around the time when German reunification was becoming a reality.
"The best audience we ever had that I remember was before the wall came down," he remembers. "There were 30,000 young kids out there listening, looking up at us. We're singing these love songs and talking about freedom and all these things. It was a very eerie feeling. It really got to me. It sent chills through me when they started holding up their lighters. Everything was so different behind the wall. The soldier patrols were walking around with their guns, and you had to have the proper papers just to go from one sector to the other. They just smiled at us all the time but never left us alone. Once we got on stage, though, it was worth it. When we went back [in 1989], it was totally different. Most of the strictness was gone."
When not globe-trotting, Mayfield has been getting more serious about his own music. "I really just started doing my own thing in the last couple of years because I've been so involved in Solomon's stuff and other things," he notes. "I moved back here in '89, and I've finally got my studio built and my own blues band going."
The Blues Revue consists of Mayfield on guitar and lead vocals, drummer Donnie Eden, bassist Nathaniel Wright, trombonist J.D. Kelly, saxophonist Jesse Lee, guitarist (and KUVO DJ) Frank Bonney, and Marcus Johnson, who in addition to contributing backing vocals often can be seen playing organ with his right hand and trumpet with his left. It's a good working unit, with Eden in particular exhibiting power and subtlety that perfectly complement Johnson's dexterity. Only guitarist Bonney seems miscast: He's an adequate guitarist, but his playing sometimes seems unimpressive when compared to Mayfield's intense and dynamic performances.
Mayfield's charisma is rooted in his talents as a player, arranger and composer, as well as his feeling for the sound of blues played on guitar, which he took up while in elementary school after dabbling with the saxophone. "I love the music," he says. "And so as far as my life and the ups and downs of the business goes, I just take it as it comes. Maybe one day I'll make a lot of money. Maybe not. But the bottom line is, I'm happy with myself. I have a deep love for this music, because I've lost a lot of wives over it. I've been married three times, and when you give up so much for something like music, you have to continue to live it."
Listeners can hear Mayfield's work at B.J.'s Port, which he made his Denver base of operations a year ago. He plays at the club every weekend that he is in town simply because he loves to share his music. "We're having a good time up there," he enthuses. "That's what it's really all about. That's where you really get paid, because you can't make a lot of money doing it like this. But if you're having a good time and the music is good, that's where you get your payday."
In the meantime, Mayfield, who already has released one album of his own compositions (Blues by the Bushel) on his own MPAC label, is working on a recording he hopes to complete later this year. Thus far, he's failed to attract the attention of a major label, but he says he's not discouraged. He claims that his greatest asset is stubbornness. "I won't give up. I just keep going for it. Every day I wake up, and this is what I do."
Sammy Mayfield Blues Revue. 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 17-18, B.J.'s Port, 7800 East Colfax Avenue, 331-0330.