Nathaniel Mayer – A showman’s life
What grabs your ears right off the bat upon popping in I Just Want To Be Held, the new album by Detroit R&B legend Nathaniel Mayer, is his voice. The timbre is raw, glottal, suggesting an instrument that should have given up the ghost long ago. “His voice sounds like Miles Davis, this evil, devil rasp — only he can sing beautifully,” says Matthew Johnson of Fat Possum Records, which released the disc. “I don’t know how he does it.”
There is no danger that anyone will mistake Mayer, 61, for James Earl Jones as he talks over the phone from his Motor City home early on a Friday afternoon. “I was up late last night, acting the fool,” he croaks. But he punctuates his anecdotes and answers with plenty of laughter. This is audibly a man who is thrilled to be back in action.
While making his first full-length record since 1964, Mayer would sit out the first few hours of each day’s recording sessions and let his pipes warm up while his band, the Fabulous Shanks, laid down instrumental tracks. “They would go at it at about 10 o’clock,” he recalls. “I’d just lay around, and drink water, water, water, because I can’t sing first thing in the morning. But after about two hours, I’d come alive. And then I’d be ready to go.”
And once he gets started, Mayer doesn’t hold back. Despite virtually vanishing for over three decades, when he returned to the fray at the turn of the 21st century, the energetic singer started garnering attention for his explosive performances. His electric onstage personality translates well on I Just Want To Be Held, an explosive, 35-minute set that doesn’t let up, from its booty-shakin’ opener, “I Wanna Dance With You”, till the southern-flavored stomp of the climactic “What’s Your Name”. Even on the ballad “You Are The One”, Mayer pours on the juice; his repeated pleas to “be mine, be mine” are naked and heart-rending, yet shockingly tender.
Born in 1943, Mayer grew up surrounded by music. “Everybody in my family sings…but ain’t nobody sings as good as me,” he brags with a laugh. “I’ve been a showoff all my life.”
Mayer grew up idolizing James Brown, Hank Ballard and Marv Johnson. In 1959, while still attending high school, he made his public debut at a sock hop. Not long after, he cut “My Last Dance With You”, his first of many sides for Detroit’s Fortune Records. With a promising show business career about to unfold, he left academia behind, without a diploma. “I got all the way to 12th grade, then quit,” he admits. “That was stupid. I started singing, and said, ‘I don’t need school, I’m going be rich.'” (Years later, he went back and got his G.E.D.)
For a while, Mayer seemed poised to make good on that promise. In 1962, his feisty original “Village Of Love” became a national hit (#16 on the R&B charts, #22 pop). Despite the song’s bare-bones arrangement, distortion, and drums that sound like someone beating a cardboard box, the intensity of the 18-year-old singer’s adenoidal attack was irresistible.
But after “Village”, Mayer’s momentum slowed instead of accelerating. Sensing they had a potential star on their hands, Fortune founders Jack and Devora Brown declined to license subsequent recordings to a larger label such as United Artists (who had picked up “Village Of Love”) or Chess, who would have taken a chunk of any profits. But the independent lacked the resources to adequately promote Mayer outside of Detroit. “They should have let other people handle the distribution,” Mayer contends, with a hint of bitterness. “They were too cheap. They beat me out of a lot of money.”
He continued cutting great sides for Fortune (compiled on the 1996 anthology Village Of Love, on Italy’s Gold Dust Records), including his garage-y, kiss-off classic “Leave Me Alone” and the haunting “I Had A Dream”. Even on mediocre material, such as an attempted sequel, “Going Back To The Village Of Love”, a third-rate Twist novelty, Mayer’s vocals leap off the grooves.
Mayer wrote or co-wrote most of his own songs. For his other signature tune, “I Want Love And Affection (Not The House Of Correction)”, he drew inspiration from a real-life episode.
Often, he and one of his contemporaries, a member of vocal group the Capitals (of “Cool Jerk” fame), would go out cruising together. One day, after a protracted absence, Mayer’s buddy showed up on his doorstep, announced that he’d just procured a ’62 Cadillac convertible, and invited Nathaniel to go for a spin.
“I jumped in the car, and we’re riding around,” he recalls. “We were picking up girls, playing the music loud. All of the sudden, we’re on the boulevard, and cops are coming out of everywhere. Guess what? He’d stolen the car.” Even though Mayer claimed he was oblivious to any wrongdoing, the unwitting accomplice was sentenced to 30 days in the pokey.
“The week I was released, I went into the studio. The following week I finished [the record], and within a month it was out.”
Although big chart success eluded Mayer, he continued to tour throughout the ’60s with his own revue, which included his band (the Detroit Sounds) and a pair of dancers, dubbed the Professionals. Other Motor City singers frequently joined him: Motown great Jimmy Ruffin, Spyder Turner, Emanuel Laskey, future Northern Soul staple J.J. Barnes (“Baby, Please Come Back Home”), and “Sweet” James Epp (formerly of the Fantastic Four). “I had about ten people working with me,” he says.
“I kept it going for ten years, and then I kind of slowed down,” Mayer admits. “When things aren’t going right, you get a little depressed.” He started hitting the bottle hard. Little was heard from the singer, though he remained a cult figure and resurfaced periodically. In 1980, he released an impossible-to-find single, “Raise The Curtain High”, credited to Nathaniel “Nay Dog” Mayer & the Filthy McNasty Group plus Free Style, on Love Dog Records.
“What else could he have done?” ponders Johnson, looking back on the decades when Mayer was missing in action. Better-known colleagues such as Ike Turner were scraping for gigs, or migrating to England, a la Ruffin and Edwin Starr. “That music went out. And when the pendulum swings, it doesn’t swing just a little. Who can be at their best when everything is crumbling around you?”
With the turn of the century, things started to improve for Mayer. In 2002, Norton Records issued a new single, “I Don’t Want No Bald Headed Woman Telling Me What To Do”, an unreleased 1969 cut produced by Mayer’s colleague and fellow soul sensation, Gino Washington. He resumed playing occasional live dates in and around Detroit.
It was at one such gig where, by chance, he met ex-Detroit Cobras guitarist Jeff Meier. Just before a scheduled appearance at the 2003 Ottawa Blues Fest, Mayer parted ways with his backing band (including Funkadelic vet Mickey Atkins) and recruited Meier and his group, the Shanks, to accompany him. They’ve been working together ever since. “These young guys keep me young,” Mayer cracks.
While the groovy garage rock of the Shanks is one primary asset of I Just Want To Be Held, it’s Mayer who holds the spotlight, whether he’s singing brand new tunes or ditties he’s been sitting on for 20 years (“I’m In Love”, “You Are The One”). On “Stick It Or Lick It”, he growls his way through the raunchy tale of picking up a destitute hooker at the liquor store, only to get ripped off by her. The rousing exhortations of “You Gotta Work” make James Brown sound weary by comparison, while “Leave Me Alone” rips along like a cranked-up Tom Waits tearing into the Contours’ “Do You Love Me?”
But the disc’s uncontested highlight is a rendition of John Lennon’s “I Found Out”. Mayer coaxes and squeezes every last drop of feeling from the anguished lyric; only an idiot would challenge his declaration that it “Can’t do you no harm/Feel your own pain.”
Initially, Mayer balked at Johnson’s suggestion that he cover the tune, originally found on Lennon’s 1970 Plastic Ono Band LP. “I listened to the song, and thought to myself, ‘I don’t like that,'” recalls Mayer. “But I didn’t tell Matt that, because he’s the boss. I went in the studio with it, and after we’d done it a couple times, I listened back to it, and I fell in love.”
Although Mayer says making I Just Want To Be Held was far easier than making any of his 1960s recordings — and he looks forward to releasing more new material (he’s already re-recorded “House Of Correction” for Fat Possum) — his heart remains with the stage. “That’s my world,” he declares; “that’s what I love.” With any luck, audiences around the country (and in Europe, where demand is running high) will get to witness that firsthand in 2005.
“Once you’ve seen their show, you don’t need to know more,” says Johnson, who signed Mayer after witnessing a single gig in Memphis. “The question was not can he play live.”
“The people seem like they’re way more into me than they were [in the ’60s],” concludes Mayer. “They were into me then…but now? They’re going nuts. They’re singing and dancing along with me.” He clears his throat and chuckles. “Those crowds make me feel so good.”