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113 N athaniel Mayer’s house on Detroit’s east side, on Burns Street between I-94 and Van Dyke, was an oasis of seminormalcy in the middle of a war zone. Most of the houses on his street looked like they’d been blown up. The remaining houses were mostly crack houses. Nathaniel’s place was a nice, old house that made you feel comfortable enough to forget you were living in the twenty-first century. The house looked like it hadn’t changed much since 1960, which is about the time Nate’s musical career began. One night Nate’s bass player and I were at the house celebrating Nate’s birthday, hanging out and watching a video of Nate singing his 1962 hit “Village of Love”on a TV special. When it was time for us to leave,Nate’s family and friends suddenly seemed very concerned that we might not make it to our car alive, even though it was parked directly in front of the house. Nate stepped onto the front porch, looked up and down the street, and declared,“They’ll be alright. Everybody knows they’re with Nay-Dog.” Nathaniel Mayer had lived a hard life on the streets of Detroit, and was still living it that way, even though he was getting some recognition lately. Nathaniel stopped making records in 1968. His life was intertwined with many of the ups and downs of the city he lived in. He didn’t like to talk about the riots in the ’60s, and he didn’t want to talk about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and he didn’t want to talk about anything that happened in the ’70s. We didn’t talk much about the ’80s or ’90s, either. Nate had fond memories of the Detroit he knew, which had begun to disintegrate sometime in the ’60s, and had gotten worse and worse every day, like a nuclear bomb going off in slow motion. He would often talk about how nice his neighborhood used to be.Nate had recently started making records and playing concerts again, and he had become a living, breathing reminder of a world that seemed to have been destroyed. The way he talked, the way he dressed,and especially the way he sang,all made you Nathaniel Mayer in the Twenty-First Century Matthew Smith Nathaniel Mayer at the Millenium Theatre, 2002.© Leni Sinclair Collection. 114 early deTroıT soul feel like you’d stepped into a time machine when you were in his presence. I had noticed, over the years, that when you mentioned Nathaniel Mayer’s name to people in Detroit, you’d get a variety of reactions. The rock ’n’ roll fans and musicians who discovered him after hearing the Detroit Cobras’ version of “Village of Love” considered him a superstar. The record collectors already knew about him and some of them claimed he’d invented funk when he cut “From Now On” in 1966. Mention him to some of the old-timers from Detroit’s doo-wop and soul scene,and it was a whole different thing.Some people loved him.Some people were just plain freaked out by him.Some maintained that he had blown out his voice. When you’d talk to them about his comeback, they’d react with surprise and look at you like you were crazy. Nathaniel’s long history of drug and alcohol problems was not a secret. It was also not a secret that Nathaniel had been associated with the Errol Flynns street gang. He was a soul singer who had developed a reputation as a wild performer,who was equally wild offstage.In many ways, he had more in common with Iggy Pop than he did with most of his R&B peers. On a purely musical level, Nathaniel Mayer was a powerhouse, an all-around talented guy with amazing energy who could write great lyrics and possessed a distinctive vocal style. And he really knew how to build a groove. Even in his last days, when he could barely walk, let alone dance, he was still able to hypnotize his audiences in a strange way that had more in common with Fela Kuti’s African grooves than with the Motown sound. Nate’s music could be wild, crazy, and over the top, but it was always accessible. His voice reflected the fact that he truly and completely worshipped James Brown, but he had also learned some...


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