See ya, Nay-Dog

See ya, Nay-Dog

A Nathaniel Mayer collaborator looks at the life that was

by Matthew Smith

Nathaniel Mayer died on Nov. 1, 2008, at 3:15 p.m. at St. John Hospital in Detroit. He was 64 years old, trying to recover from a series of strokes that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. Every time he'd make a bit of progress toward recovery, he'd be set back by further complications that arose as he was shuttled back and forth between intensive care, hospital rooms and various convalescent homes.

This turn of events was tragic, to say the least, especially since Nathaniel had energetically returned to doing the thing he loved most: singing. Both on stage and in the studio, Nate found a renewed sense of purpose working with younger musicians and reaching a young, hip audience.

But Nate was much, much more than a reactivated '60s soul icon. His creative spark was undimmed by all the years of hard living, very hard partying, disappointing business dealings and other difficult situations that characterized Nate's existence after having a monster hit with "Village of Love" in 1963. During his 40-year "sabbatical," he never stopped singing, but he kept such a low profile that his comeback startled and delighted anyone who knew who he was. Nate, or Nay-Dog, as he was generally known on the streets of Detroit, was not your run-of-the-mill, one-hit soul singer kind of guy.

Nate walked and talked music at all times.

You could actually see the rhythm in his every movement, whether he was walking down the street, eating a hamburger or just sitting in the tour van singing along with whatever was on the tape player, whether it was the Temptations, Roxy Music, Steppenwolf or whatever. The only person I've ever witnessed who possessed a similarly visible aura of perpetual rhythm was Miles Davis.

Nate's voice was tough like James Brown, unpredictably melodious like Marvin Gaye, and sometimes as emotionally intense as Nina Simone. He was a star with the magnetism of Iggy or Jagger. His ability to hypnotize an audience was something to behold. He would dance and improvise, talking with his audience the whole time, building a groove until the entire room was on its feet. When a girl approached him at a gig to tell him she'd been playing his records on the radio in the Republic of Ghana, Nate was overjoyed: "Did you hear that? She's been playin' my records on the radio in Africa! Man, that's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard." And he really meant it. He was a man who knew a lot of musical secrets, and to be a musician in his band was a unique experience of exploring rhythms and energies beyond your wildest expectations.

Nathaniel Mayer was a product of Detroit. The ups and downs in Nate's life, over more than half a century, in many ways paralleled the ups and downs of the city itself. Although he sometimes regretted not achieving the level of success of his friends and peers — people like Jackie Wilson and the Miracles — he was grateful to have found a new audience in the 21st century. Nate rehearsed, performed and recorded with the energy and determination of a teenager. Even after a minor stroke and a painful knee injury made it difficult for him to walk, let alone dance, he'd never complain. He'd just get in front of that microphone and activate that transcendent, funky thing that gave his life so much meaning.

I first met Nate early one summer morning (noon is early for musicians) at a UAW picnic near Warren and Trumbull. Nate was wearing a heavy blue tuxedo in 100-degree heat and pouring all of his energy into his performance. He was trying so hard, giving it everything.

From that moment on, I felt that Nathaniel Mayer embodied everything that I admire and respect about great musicians. And once Nate discovered that you could really play your instrument, he'd intensify his performance so that you were challenged to keep up with him. When he toured as an opening act for the Black Keys, his professionalism and discipline were a learning experience for everyone around him. This tour led to the Why Don't You Give it to Me? LP, where the energy of those shows was captured in the studio.

Nate managed to reinvent himself as, well, himself. He loved the old music, but he was not an "oldies act." He was a great musician. Getting older just added more depth to his craft. In an age where the calculated and the artificial hold sway, Nathaniel Mayer came back and gave us something real that we've become accustomed to finding absent in everything around us. Nate would call it soul.

Matthew Smith is an area music and producer who leads Outrageous Cherry among other bands. He played on and produced Why Don’t You Give it to Me? — Nathaniel Mayer's last album. Send comments to
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