Mayer of the Motor City

Call the cops! Nathaniel Mayer’s back in town, and he’s looking for just one more hit.

The former slugger for Detroit’s legendary Fortune Records — who scored big in 1962 with “Village of Love” and made an indelible mark on rock ’n’ roll history three years later with “Love and Affection” — has come out of semiretirement to stake his claim as one of the Motor City’s forerunners of rock and soul.

And while what he wants out of his 59-year-old life doesn’t even exist anymore in the same way it did decades ago when three-minute wonders ruled AM radio, Mayer is determined to revive that old hit-record feeling — live, in person and for the record.

“I want to get one more hit. Just let me get one more hit,” Mayer says, with his hands poised for prayer and his eyes directed toward the heavens. “Go out with a bang, man … Moving, grooving. That’s the way I want to go out.”

Interest in Mayer’s song and dance was recharged last year when Mayer agreed to appear at old friend Gino Washington’s Millennium concerts in Southfield.

Word soon got around that Mayer stood out among more than a dozen Detroit old-school performers including Washington himself, and Naydog — Mayer’s moniker of preference — is now fueled-up and road-ready once again.

Since the Millennium shows, Mayer’s been tearing up stages with increasing frequency. He’s gone down to New Orleans for the annual rock ’n’ roots celebration, “The Ponderosa Stomp,” and up to Ottawa for the Canadian capital’s annual blues fest.

He’s booked to play in Detroit this month with subsequent club dates in New York, Cleveland and Memphis. He’s planning a return trip to the Big Easy in the fall, much to his pleasure.

“When it’s time for me to sing, that’s my world, man. When I get up there, I’m energized. I’m happy,” Mayer says. “I can be mad at you about something, but when I get up on that stage, I’m happier than hell.”

Before we go any further, I must offer a disclosure in that I’m Mayer’s current drummer. As a member of the Shanks — who fortuitously became Mayer’s backing band in June when Mayer’s former group refused an eight-hour trek to Ottawa — I watch Mayer’s every onstage move. Or at least I attempt to as he twists and turns, all flapping arms and legs, immaculate tuxedo tails aflutter.

In Ottawa, Mayer quickly put away both band and audience, which included rapt members of the Sights.

For Mayer, the blues festival itself gave back everything he put into it. He scooped up complementary food and drink, helped himself to a massage, and partied loud and long in his hotel room, which he instantly transformed into a side venue for the Naydog show.

Mayer wandered the festival’s 10 stages over a two-day period like an adolescent Marco Polo, paying special attention to the Detroit bands the Sights and the Dirtbombs.

“I like the Dirtbombs, but I think I liked little Eddie (Eddie Baranek of the Sights) even better,” Mayer says. “’Cause he be acting. Jumping around the stage and stuff. I don’t like an entertainer to just stand there. And the Dirtbombs, they’re crazy.”

Good Fortune

More than four decades ago, a 15-year-old Mayer rode his bike to Fortune Records armed with songs in his head and a deep yearning to replicate the success of teen idols Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Frankie Lymon and Hank Ballard.

Fortune was just one of the local label doors that the Eastern High School student pounded on, because in its pre-Motown day, Detroit was a virtual hotbed of music with scads of labels including Ric-Tic, Wheelsville, Groovesville, and Golden World.

At age 15, the Detroit-born Mayer had already experienced music-biz heartbreak when his relationship with King/Federal records soured. The budding star penned a song that was given to another group to record.

“I was 14 when I wrote my first song,” Mayer explains. “It was called ‘Silly Millie.’ They switched it around, got two girls and three guys and recorded it. … That’s when I got mad and left, and never came back.”

Mayer subsequently signed with Fortune, but not before making sure everybody knew he was responsible for “Silly Millie.”

“I was on Channel 2, when they had the dance party on there,” continues Mayer. “Me and my buddy would go down and dance, right? And I come to see a group singing my damn song — ‘Silly Millie.’ I jumped up on the stage and said I wrote this song! The next day in school, I was famous.”

Mayer had better luck at Fortune, where he first recorded a self-penned tune called “Little Darling” and then a tune written by label owner Devora Brown called “My Last Dance,” which became the first Nathaniel Mayer record to hit the charts.

“I took off,” Mayer says. “That’s what got me going. I did all the record hops, for all the DJs. Jack the Bellboy, ‘Frantic’ Ernie Durham, ‘Jumping’ Joe Holland.”

Mayer said it was local DJ Ernie Durham who first played the record.

“We went to his station and dropped off the records — me and Jack Brown — and he played it while I was there. But I couldn’t hear it ‘cause I’m on the radio talking, right? But while we were on our way back to the studio we listened to him on the radio, and he played it again. I was so glad, I cried.”

Except when it came to getting paid, Mayer says, working at Fortune was a lot of fun. Fortune owners Jack and Devora Brown and their roster of artists became family, which meant taking the good with the bad.

Mayer shared the label with artists like dapper R&B legend Andre Williams, rockabilly cats Eddie Stapleton and Dell Vaughn and the indefinable Nolan Strong, who taught Mayer the ropes.

“Me and Nolan Strong, we had an apartment together,” Mayer says. “Me and him was cool. We had our ups and downs. You know at Fortune, we’d get along, we’d argue. We’d fight.

“I didn’t make all the money I was supposed to make,” he continues. “I got cheated out of a lot of money, but I liked Jack Brown. Until I found out he was a crook.”


And with all the present blather about garage rock — whence it sprang and where it’s headed — it should be noted that Fortune Studios, which stood behind a storefront on Third Street near Wayne State, holds claim as being one of Detroit’s premier sonic sources of the garage sound.

“It was a garage with eggshell boxes around on the walls. Rugs, all kinds of stuff,” Mayer says. “But they got a sound out of it. It was something else.”

“One track. We cut all that stuff on one track,” Mayer recalls. “First time I cut on four tracks, I didn’t know it was me.”

While he got a taste of success with his earlier releases, Mayer took flight with “Village of Love” in 1962, which peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard pop charts. The song happened after a high-school friend, singer Lawrence Brown, taught Mayer simple chords on the piano and supplied him with the song’s title.

In writing his version of the song, Mayer also took liberties with Ray Charles’ wordplay. Instead of sending his girl packing back to the Razorback State, as in Charles’ “What’d I Say,” Mayer and his darling one would make the trek together to the Village of Love, evidently located somewhere in Arkansas.

The song landed Mayer on “American Bandstand.”

“I was in the back yard at my buddy’s house, playing basketball,” Mayer recounts. “And this girl named Margaret hollered out the window, ‘Nathaniel! Dick Clark said you’re going to be on his television show in Philadelphia next week.’ I said, ‘You’re lying.’ But the next week I went straight to Philadelphia. That’s what I always dreamed of. You know what I’m saying?”

1965’s “Love and Affection,” which foundered on the charts, was the final record Mayer cut for Fortune. In the past, the label had no qualms about leasing “Village of Love” and “I Had A Dream” to United Artists and Chess respectively, but Mayer says greed had taken over.

“They wouldn’t let nobody have it [‘Love and Affection’],” Mayer says. “They were holding back, trying to get more money.”

Mayer left Fortune over the “Love and Affection” tiff and he now refers to the song as his “underground hit.” In one sense, Naydog himself went underground in the ensuing years.

For a decade, Mayer hosted his own revue at Detroit-area clubs that featured Mayer and a slew of Detroit soul icons, such as Spyder Turner and Emmanuel Lasky. But by 1975, the gigs were starting to dry up.

“Then shit started going down for me,” Mayer says, “but I was still doing cabarets once or twice a month.”

With the exception of the 1968 Gino Washington-produced, Mayer-penned “Bald Headed Woman” (released for the last time this year on a Norton reissue), and a one-off self-produced 1983 single: “Super Boogie/Raise the Curtain High,” on Mayer’s own Love Dog label, the performer has been a stranger to the recording studio since bailing on Fortune’s nearly 40 years ago.

But even if it’s only been on a subsistence level, he claims he’s survived solely on his music.

“I’m always all right, and I’m still rich,” Mayer grins. “I just don’t look like it.”

Mike Murphy is an area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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