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Offbeat: Hidden Charms > Christmas In July - Nathaniel Mayer Profile

Hidden Charms: Christmas In July
By Michael Hurtt

It’s July 20, 2002 and I’m standing outside of the Millenium Theater in Southfield, Michigan, with my favorite soul singer of all time, Detroit’s Nathaniel Mayer. It’s a little hard to believe that I’m actually in the presence of the man behind such otherworldly Motor City brilliance as "I Had A Dream," "Leave Me Alone," "Village Of Love," "A Place I Know," and "My Lonely Island," to say nothing of quite possibly the greatest Christmas song ever written, "Mr. Santa Claus."

Up until five minutes ago, my image of Mayer had been pieced together from the aforementioned musical snapshots and exactly three promotional photographs taken when he was a teenager. For years I’d hounded my musical colleagues in Detroit to track him down but, maddeningly, they seemed content to wax poetic about his discs and let the man and the myth remain one and the same. Just eighteen years-old when "Village Of Love" rose to number 22 on the Billboard national charts in 1962, Mayer, it seems, has always been a man whose reputation preceded him. He cut his last single for Detroit’s Fortune label in 1964 and made a brief return to the studio in 1980 for "Raise The Curtain High," credited splendidly to Nathaniel "Nay Dog" Mayer and the Filthy McNasty Group Plus Free Style. Then he vanished for two decades; just long enough for every rumor imaginable to transform him into a walking urban legend.

Lifting the cuff of his black trousers, Mayer pulls a pack of cigarettes out of one of his dress socks and laughs incredulously. "People were talkin’ about they thought I was dead!" he exclaims in a voice so raspy that several people are overheard wondering in worried whispers about whether he can still sing. In just a few short hours he’ll out-sing anyone they’ve ever seen, but right now Mayer appears to be as excited about the prospect of an interview as I am. "Ask me some damn questions, man!" he demands, after introducing me to yet another one of my long lost soul heroes, the great Melvin Davis.

How about the often repeated tale told by late Detroit guitarist Cub Koda, who, while backing Mayer during his early ‘60s apex, recalled him wearing a white suit with holes punched in it to accommodate a string of blinking Christmas lights? Though Mayer’s label mate Andre Williams—who never even met Coda—has told the same story, Nathaniel dismisses it immediately. "That’s not true," he laughs, then adds mischievously "but print it anyway, it’s good!"

Such controversy seems indicative of the mysticism—imagined or real—that is part-and-parcel to having been a Fortune Records recording artist. Before Motown there was Fortune, and as Mayer will tell you, everybody—from exotic blues man Eddie Kirkland to country star Skeeter Davis to jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell—got their start there. Founded in 1946 by the eccentric Jack and Devora Brown, Fortune’s unique vision was applied liberally to a staggeringly warped variety of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, gospel and hillbilly records before they finally hit pay dirt with Andre Williams’ sleazy R&B masterpiece "Bacon Fat," followed a few short years later by Nolan Strong and the Diablos’ magically compelling "Mind Over Matter." Then came Mayer’s pounding "Village Of Love," the biggest hit the label ever had. The backing bands were propulsive and raw, sounding as if they would explode at any minute; the recording techniques strictly in-the-red with all subtleties left at the door. These were the kind of records so viscerally intense that they could do nothing but fuel rumors.

Nevertheless, one thing is for certain: of all the records cut at Fortune’s cinderblock-walled, dirt-floored studio, Mayer’s were among the most extreme.

"I grew up on the East Side but I stayed all over Detroit," he says. "I know everybody in the whole damn town; and everybody knows me. Me and the Temptations started out together, they were the Distants back then. We stayed in a little funky-ass apartment building on John R.—the kind where you pull out a Murphy bed—four or five of them was in one, and me and my buddy was in another. I go all the way back, it’s some helluva shit. My father told me ‘Cut that noise out and get you a job!’ But I didn’t do that. I went down to Fortune Records and cut a song called ‘My Last Dance With You’ in 1959. I was fifteen years old when I walked in there. We messed around with that and got a little action and then I came up with ‘Village Of Love.’

"I take a little bit of this and a little bit of that," he continues simply, "put it together and I’ve got my own sound. I get ideas from everybody. Just a note...a couple of notes, turn me on." Framed by Fortune’s notoriously primitive aesthetic, Motown ringers like Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson backed Mayer on the ethereal "My Lonely Island," while Edwin Starr’s rhythm section laid down the tough-as-nails grooves that propelled "I Had A Dream." But there were unsung heroes as well, he stresses, citing the incendiary guitar solo on his dance-floor filler "Leave Me Alone" as an example. "That’s Chuck Edwards, he’s got the wildest guitar in the world. This is a white guy, he’s playing on ‘Mind Over Matter’ too, later he was with Rare Earth. He could play his ass off. Me and him used to drink wine together. I also had this guy, Butch Vaden, he was my drummer. Now that was my buddy, we were together every single day; he played drums on just about every one of my records. Steve Mancha played bass on a lot of them, the Dynamics sung on ‘A Place I Know,’ and that’s Nolan Strong singing with me on ‘Hurting Love.’"

And what of the unforgettable "I Want Love And Affection (Not The House Of Correction)?" "I was in jail when I wrote that, damn right! I started bangin’ on a piano in there and said, ‘Man, I’ve gotta write a song about this shit!’ I got out about a week later and recorded it." Released in 1964, it was to be the final collaboration between the Browns and their premiere artist. "I stopped recording for them after that. Jack Brown was like a father to me, I loved Jack Brown. By then my father was dead and Jack always took care of me, he would always show me the best way, always make sure I was alright. But I never had a royalty statement. They would give me maybe five hundred or a thousand dollars, or buy me a new car, but they made more money with me than they made with anybody. I was the biggest thing they ever had; I know it and they know it."
As he prepares to take the stage at the Millenium Theater, it’s obvious that his rabid fans know it as well. The air is filled with buzzing anticipation, but still, nobody quite knows what to expect. Mayer strolls proudly from behind the curtain dressed in white tails and, leaping into the air, shoots his left hand out at the drummer like a bolt of lightning. A single snare crack later, performer and audience are testifying in a kinetic frenzy. Somehow it makes perfect sense that Mayer—the one true wild card on the show, the one guy who has everything to prove and perhaps everything to lose—has the only fully rehearsed band of the evening.
After bringing the audience to their collective feet with a slashing proto-funk raver, he addresses the crowd: "For all the people who aren’t enjoying themselves, I want you to know from the bottom of my heart...I DON"T GIVE A DAMN!!" Then he launches into an astounding "Please, Please, Please," prefaced by a gospel-charged intro so devastatingly great that it virtually paralyzes memory. Suddenly, stories of suits decorated with Christmas lights aren’t what they used to be, because this time the reality transcends the legend. Still, he vows to have a one made.

Fast forward to a year-and-a-half later. Since taking back his name with an unprecedented vengeance, he’s hooked up with Detroit garage combo the Fabulous Shanks and is playing New Orleans for the second time, Christmas lights a-blazin.’ Although most people in the audience have never heard his records, by the end of the show he has every one of them singing along to "I Want Love And Affection (Not The House Of Correction)." A month later he’s headlining the Norton Records Holiday Soul Spectacular show in Brooklyn and although the sold-out roster boasts stellar performances by saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood (singing his killer "Go-Go Shoes" and the Falcons’ "I Found A Love)," Andre Williams (dressed in red pants, a red tie, a blue and gold admiral’s jacket and a matching yachtsmen’s cap and doing all of his Fortune sides with a doo-wop group behind him), The Mighty Hannibal (three piece suit and a derby hat, screaming out his anti-heroin funk hit "The Truth Shall Make You Free"), Rudy Ray Moore (I hardly know where to begin) and King Coleman (ditto); when Mayer hits the stage wailing out "Mr. Santa Claus" he’s clearly earned his crown.

"I don’t worry about coming on stage," he says, "I don’t care whose been on the stage, it don’t even bother me. I know when I come up there I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do and I’m gonna do it to perfection. I come to work, I don’t come to bullshit. I love music, man."

That last statement is only underscored by his brand new album on Fat Possum Records, I Just Want To Be Held, which manages to capture the frenetic garage soul that he and the Shanks have been perfecting for the last few years. It’s the aural equivalent of finally seeing that infamous white suit; dissolving four decades of obscurity in a single, microphone-shattering instant. "That’s the way I’m comin’ back," Mayer concludes, "I’m comin’ back with lights all over me. When I was a little star people didn’t act the way they’re acting now; now they’re just going crazy over me. I can’t believe this is the deal. I love doin’ this. It’s my world, man."
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