Nathaniel Mayer RIP

From Sunday, November 2, 2008 Detroit News

Nathaniel Mayer’s tenor voice added spark to blues
by Susan Whitall / Detroit News Music Writer

Detroit music suffered another loss Saturday with the death of Nathaniel Mayer, one of the liveliest singers to come out of the city’s legendary rhythm and blues scene of the ’50s and ’60s.

In his 64 years, Mayer suffered more dramatic ups and downs than most. He was just 18 when he and the Fabulous Twilights scored a Top 40 national hit, “Village of Love,” on Fortune Records, a Detroit label.

Drop the needle and Mayer’s voice erupts in a tenor howl, “Why don’t you come, come to the village of love…” Three minutes of raw excitement, the record is a party immortalized in vinyl and can still be heard on XM Satellite Radio’s ’50s and ’60s channels.

But after “Leave Me Alone” and other follow-up records weren’t as successful, Mayer disappeared into Detroit’s gritty east side and a life of obscure hardship for decades. It didn’t help that Fortune Records’ catalog was never officially released on CD; only bootleg CDs recorded from old records were available.

During his years off the grid, the Detroit Cobras recorded a cover version of “Village of Love” (in the mid-’90’s), but Mayer was unaware of how much he was remembered or admired.

Fans like Detroit music historian S.R. Boland hadn’t forgotten him. Boland, who sometimes sang backup for Mayer, was instrumental in getting the singer to make a comeback, performing at a “Legends” show at the Millennium Theatre in Southfield in 2000.

Immaculate in white tails, thin as a whippet, Mayer gave an explosive performance. His voice was raspier but still a potent, tenor shriek, and the 60-year-old danced like James Brown in his prime, as if his life depended on it. In a way, it did.

In 2004, the national blues record company Fat Possum, which specializes in reviving the careers of blues and R&B greats, released an album, “I Just Want to be Held,” by Mayer.

He also made several acclaimed appearances at the Ponderosa Stomp roots music festival in New Orleans.

It seemed as if finally, Nathaniel Mayer’s story would have a happy ending.

But on April 13, he suffered a series of strokes, forcing the cancellation of his annual appearance at the Ponderosa Stomp.

“Every day is a miracle,” his daughter Bonnie Thompson told The Detroit News in April. “He’s more alert now, and he’s trying to speak, giving people eye contact. He can talk a little bit, but you have to get up real close. He’s trying.”

But after battling complications for months in a Detroit nursing home, his frantic energy stilled, Mayer finally succumbed Saturday.

Several weeks ago, a group of musicians led by his friend and sometime bandmate Jeff Meier announced a fundraiser Nov. 30 for their friend “Nay-dog” at the Northern Lights Lounge on Baltimore in Detroit’s New Center.

The original intent was to get Mayer better rehabilitation care, but the fundraiser will still go on as a tribute, to offset funeral expenses, with Black Merda, Gino Washington, Kenny Martin, Cody Black and others performing.

Mayer was a student at Detroit’s Eastern High School when he first walked into Fortune Records in Detroit.

Fortune was located in a tiny, ramshackle building on Third, but nonetheless had produced a string of hit records by a roster of hillbilly and R&B artists. Most notable were Nolan Strong and the Diablos (“The Wind” and the later “Mind Over Matter”) and Andre Williams (“Bacon Fat” and “Jail Bait.”)

As funky and obscure as Fortune was, its artists were revered; Motown’s Berry Gordy Jr. tried repeatedly to hire Strong away from the Browns, and he did manage to get Williams on his payroll to produce, and groom Motown acts for live performance.

Anyone could come in to Fortune Records and pay Jack and Devora Brown to wax a record, and that’s what Mayer had in mind, until Devora heard his frantic tenor delivery and decided he had hit record potential.

“Village of Love” was successful in part because the Browns licensed it to United Artists, which had national distribution, but when Mayer followed up his hit with “Leave Me Alone” the Browns tried to handle the record on their own, and his career faltered.

Disappointed, Mayer departed Fortune.

Mayer’s other recent recordings include “I Don’t Want No Bald-Headed Woman (Telling Me What to Do),” a single produced by his friend Gino Washington and finally released by Norton Records, and the 2007 album “Why Don’t You Give it to Me,” on Alive [which was enthusiastically reviewed by Julian Cope in Arthur No. 30].

This year the Spanish record company Munster released some of his older recordings as well.

“I think he did feel vindicated,” said Meier, who started out as a fan and ended up in Mayer’s band.

“He enjoyed the last few years of renewed success. Sitting in Detroit without access to a computer for years, it blew his mind to find out there was so much love out there for him.”

Mayer was preceded in death by his mother, father and a sister. He is survived by three sisters, two brothers and many children and grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Nathaniel Mayer Feb. 10, 1944 — Nov. 1, 2008

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

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