It's 4 p.m. when I make the call. "Guess where I am right now?" asks 60-year-old Nathaniel Mayer when he picks up the phone. "Uh, at home?" I guess before the Motor City soul legend interrupts in his sandpaper voice. "Baby, I'm in the bed," he guffaws. "This is where I stay. I eat in the bed, drink in the bed, watch TV in the bed, and just rest until it's time for me to take care of business."
For Mayer -- or Nate Dog, as he prefers to be called -- business involves a sweaty stage show fronting his young punk-rock-meets-R&B group, the Shanks. "I like to give my audience their money's worth and a little bit more," Mayer says. "I wanna be top dog, not just Nate Dog!"
While Mayer is not the first Detroit soulster to revive his career via a more youthful music scene (Andre Williams and Sir Mack Rice have both benefited from similar exposure), he's certainly up to the challenge. "Put me back on the map," he demands playfully. "I didn't get to be 60 being a square -- I've had my share! It's my turn to burn! I'm coming to please -- not to tease!"
The first time around, Mayer cut a handful of hits for the Fortune label, including unforgettable sides such as "Village of Love" and "I Want Love and Affection (Not the House of Correction)," beginning in the early 1960s when he was still a teenager. For the last two decades, however, he has languished in near obscurity.
"Back in 2002, I saw Nate play a Motown revue at the Millennium Center here in Detroit," explains Shanks guitarist Jeff Meier, who co-produced Mayer's comeback album, I Just Want To Be Held, released this month on Fat Possum Records. "Everyone else was doing karaoke, and Nate stole the show." He landed Mayer a gig at the 2003 Ottawa Blues Festival with the Shanks as the backing band, and the rest is history.
"Nate's basically a teenager," Meier says. "It's his attitude. He's still living the life he led back then. When he performs, it's not like going to an oldies show. He's really current and accessible. It's just a frame of mind, but this guy's got it!
"The first time I went to pick him up, I pulled in front of his house and honked. He opened the car door, stuck his head in, and asked if I was a bad motherf*****," Meier remembers. "He grilled everyone with the same question when he got to the rehearsal. I knew we'd get along just fine."
After Fat Possum honcho Matthew Johnson heard Mayer and the Shanks play in Memphis, he signed them on the spot, Meier says. I Just Want To Be Held -- Mayer's first full-length album -- was recorded at the Money Shot, Fat Possum's Water Valley, Mississippi, studio last spring. Memphis musicians Adam Woodard and Jack Yarber (Meier's former Compulsive Gamblers bandmate) played on the sessions, alongside saxophonist extraordinaire Suzi Hendrix.
Two tracks -- "Leave Me Alone" and "From Now On" -- were culled from Mayer's Fortune output, while the up-tempo "I'm In Love" was a tune Mayer had originally penned for fellow soulster Nolan Strong. A cover of John Lennon's "I Found Out," stripped down to a raspy, menacing blues-based foundation, renders the Plastic Ono Band's version utterly useless, while Mayer's take on Yarber's "Satisfied Fool" could stand toe-to-toe with classics like "Village of Love." Granted, Mayer's hoarse pleadings are an acquired taste, but he stays on key throughout this inspired workout, allowing the triple threat of Meier, Yarber, and Dale Beavers to stretch out on their respective guitar parts as the rhythm section smolders underneath.
Live, Mayer is a force to be reckoned with. Dressed in his trademark tails, he spins, kicks, shimmies, and shakes his way across the stage, wiping perspiration from his silvery mustache every few minutes as the band behind him threatens to explode.
"The Shanks make me feel young," Mayer says. "They're one of the best groups I've ever had. They don't miss a note, and although they weren't even born when I first started singing, they're for real with the music."
With that remark, Mayer yawns, threatening to slip back under the covers. After all, he's got to save his energy for the Shanks' upcoming tour. Before he nods off, however, I squeeze in one more question: Where is the village of love?
"It's where you make it, wherever you're happy," Mayer explains. "It's about making love and finding someone who will treat you right. The village of love is life." He chuckles, then softly hangs up the phone. •
Nathaniel Mayer & the Shanks perform at the Hi-Tone Café Friday, October 1st.