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If you were a Detroit music fan back in the '60s, chances are your favorite records had "Motown" or its "Tamla" subsidiary stamped on the label.
But if you happened to be a Detroit music fan who hailed from the Motor City itself, you may have known a little secret: that there was more to the sound of Detroit than the smooth grooves of Gordy's assembly line; it also reverberated within places like the dilapidated cinderblock studio on Third Avenue that housed Fortune Records.
Founded in 1946 by Jack and Dorothy "Devora" Brown, Fortune's aesthetic was notoriously crude, its artists exotically named, its promotion the trunk of Jack's car. Earthy, spontaneous and often downright bizarre, if Motown was the spiffy Sound Of Young America, Fortune was the Sound of Down and Dirty. The atmosphere reeked of chaos and creativity, producing one-of-a-kind discs like Andre Williams' twisted, hip "Bacon Fat" and Nolan Strong's genre-defying "Mind Over Matter."
Then there was Nathaniel Mayer, a human hurricane hidden in a wiry teenage physique who first rode his bicycle over to Fortune in 1959. Three years later, when his "Village of Love" crashed the pop charts at No. 22 and tore into the Top Ten in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York he was the most successful artist in the label's history, an honor he still holds to this day.
When "Village Of Love" hit, it was as if the true sound of Detroit's backstreets and teen clubs had finally exploded for everyone to behold. As much rock 'n' roll as it was R&B, it sounded like Hank Ballard, Little Willie John and Jackie Wilson stripped to their most essential elements and thrown into a pressure cooker.
Mayer's career at Fortune had started with the ethereal doo-wop of "My Last Dance With You" and wound up six years later with the fractured proto-funk classic "I Want Love and Affection (Not the House of Correction)." In between, from the relentless drive of "I Had A Dream" to the overdriven "A Place I Know," he wreaked sonic havoc with tremolo-damaged guitars, shrill flutes and propulsive drums to create one of the most unusual canons in all of soul music.
So what happened?
"I just stopped recording for 'em," says Mayer. "After I did 'I Want Love and Affection,' I wouldn't record nothing.
"Jack Brown was like a father to me," he continues. "I loved Jack Brown. He always took care of me, he would always show me the best way, always make sure I was alright. But I never had a royalty statement. They would give me maybe five hundred or a thousand dollars, or buy me a new car, but they made more money with me than they made with anybody. I was the biggest thing they ever had. I know it and they know it."
After spending the next three decades in mysterious obscurity, he reappeared in 2002 with a devastating performance at the Detroit Legends Show in Southfield. Within a year, he hooked up with local garage soul combo the Fabulous Shanks, with whom he cut the critically acclaimed I Just Want to Be Held for Fat Possum in 2004. Now, 41 years after his last Fortune Record, he's at it again with Why Don't You Give It to Me? (Alive), a disc touted as the album he should have recorded in 1970.
While I Just Want to Be Held used the grinding, melodic style of Mayer's '60s nuggets like "Leave Me Alone" and "I'm In Love" as a jumping off point, Why Don't You Give It to Me? imagines him in Parliament-Funkadelic mode, backed by Outrageous Cherry's Matthew Smith and the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach on guitars, the Dirtbombs' Troy Gregory on bass and SSM's Dave Shettler on drums.
Mayer's once-sweet soul scream may have deepened to a rasping growl (his nickname is "Nay Dog," after all), but he can still lead a band to the brink of pandemonium, just as he did back in '62. And now, as then, he's a walking instant party. Prepare to testify.
With SSM and the Meltdowns on Friday, Oct. 5, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030. Doors at 8 p.m. $10.
Full disclosure: Michael Hurtt co-authored the liner notes to Vampisoul's recent anthology of Nathaniel Mayer's Fortune recordings.
Michael Hurtt is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.