Motor City Soul Not Named Motown
Detroit has always been known as a soul kinda town. That’s because the biggest ear candy of the genre originated from there. It was formula-driven, specifically geared for the masses. In fact, the style of soul was named after the label that mass produced it—Motown. Catchy? Certainly. Melodies that attached themselves to your brain like leeches? Of course. But when you break it all down, the irony is that Motown was the most soulless of the soul genres. The music was made so any of their artists could be plugged into the song, especially in the label’s early years. The Temptations were as interchangeable with the Four Tops as Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were with Diana Ross and the Supremes. The only artist who had his own unique sound from the very beginning was (Little) Stevie Wonder. (Wonder was also the only artist who actually played an instrument while performing.) Motown’s biggest rivals were Stax and Atlantic, who allowed their artists to make their own respective imprints, rather than following along the path of the Pied Piper. People such as Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Booker T. & the M.G.s, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas and Wilson Pickett (just to name a few) may have been a grittier and dirtier by comparison to their Motown counterparts, but their music and vocals felt… well, real!
So, if you were a soul artist based in Detroit, and you weren’t drinking the Motown Kool-Aid, you were basically cast aside. The soul universe there was quite covert to the rest of the world. Oh, an artist might get lucky and cut a few sides, or even an entire album, but the non-Motown scene was an underground delight—sort of like punk in many ways. The majority of these talented artists never came up to see the light of day, as they made their wages mostly by performing in area clubs. One example of this is Nathaniel Mayer… or was. Now a spry 60, Mayer had a big hit in 1962 on the independent Fortune Records with “Village of Love”. Except for the odd side here and there, that was Mayer’s entire recorded output. Where Mayer earned his living was playing the clubs. He worked the Detroit area, and the locals were always impressed by his stage performance—he’s not what you’d call shy under a spotlight. Mayer is forthright off stage as well. He wasn’t at all shy about contacting Fat Possum Records president Matthew Johnson, and bulldozing his way into a record deal. Johnson, who knew of (and loved) Mayer’s work, was willing to give it a go.
Fat Possum has had to veer off their singular purpose over the last year or so. All Johnson wanted to do was to find blues musicians that other labels wouldn’t touch (most from Mississippi), and get their music out for the masses to experience. A noble concept indeed, sort of a Hill Country version of Broadway Danny Rose, however, there was one slight problem: After finding these artists, and getting them to do their thing, many of them passed away, or became too sick to record and/or tour. Junior Kimbrough, Asie Payton, and Charles Caldwell all died after limited output. R.L. Burnside, one of the label’s cornerstones (along with Kimbrough), had to retire due to health reasons. T-Model Ford (78) and Robert Belfour (62) are still kicking, but Johnson saw that most of the undiscovered gems had been taken… by him. So to keep the label going, he had to diversify just a bit. Though pushed by their then-distributor Epitaph, Fat Possum put out a Grammy winner last year: Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me. Also home to the Black Keys, the label is obviously stretching its boundaries just a tad. One of the newer finds is Detroit blues and soul. The last album of Burnside’s, the remixture of A Bothered Mind featured several Motown folks in the roles of musicians and mixers, including Kid Rock. The Detroit sound has similarities to the North Mississippi Hill Country sound the label favors. Both are hard-edged by nature, and it’s that type of sound that made Mayer so attractive to the label.
I Just Want to be Held is Mayer’s first full-blown album, and it’s a doozy. It harkens back to the days where Pickett and James Brown ruled the roost. This is urban soul at its best. Sure, there are some horns and some keyboards, but the music takes a backseat to Mayer’s charismatic vocal persona. High energy dominates the opener, “I Wanna Dance With You”—you can hear the sweat pouring off Mayer as he sings. The surprise of the album comes in the second slot, as Mayer does a swinging, hard, nasty version of John Lennon’s “I Found Out”. It’s almost as though Lennon channeled himself through Mayer and gave the song a part-skiffle, part-headbanger feel. It nearly lurches out of control several times, but Mayer manages to reign the whole glorious mess back in. It’s one of three covers on the album, meaning that seven of the 10 songs are fresh originals from Mayer.
“Satisfied Fool”, one of the other covers, is loaded with horns (for extra oomph) and Farfisa organ (for a counterpoint). “I’m in Love” is the most upbeat ballad you’ll ever experience in the soul genre, as you’re just waiting to hear chirping birds in the background. “Leave Me Alone” is a pure ass-shaker, complete with guitar solo and an infectious shout-out chorus (“Watch out—you better leave me alone!”) that takes forever to fade out. “You Gotta Work” sounds like Mayer outwrestled Peter Wolf for the mic to sing on what could be a missing J. Geils Band tune. The last cover, “From Now On”, is straight-ahead soul. “Stick It or Lick It” is Mayer at his most playful; it’s easy to imagine him dragging a female up on stage and singing this song directly to her. “You are the One” is a true soul ballad, ratcheted down to slow-dancing speed. Lastly, “What’s Your Name” is Mayer’s attempt to throw a little bit of rock into the mix; it’s not bad, but his vocals towards the end of the song save it from being non-descript.
What a wonderful pick-up for Fat Possum, and what a break for Nathaniel Mayer, who has clearly established himself as a force to be reckoned with outside the Motor City.. These two entities belong together as long as they both shall live. There is life in Detroit soul after Motown, and even if it has to take a detour through Oxford, Mississippi to get noticed, it’s well worth the trek. I Just Want to be Held is an exciting record that will move one’s body, mind, and of course, soul.
// Notes from the Road
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