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Why Won't You Let Me Be Black?

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Album Review

Nathaniel Mayer's big moment in the spotlight didn't last long — his sole hit, the truly wild "Village of Love," climbed the charts for a few months in 1962 and he never had a follow-up. But when Mayer returned to recording and performing in the new millennium, he didn't waste time — after the release of I Just Want to Be Held in the fall of 2004, Mayer kept himself busy touring and recording, releasing Why Don't You Give It to Me? in 2007 and regularly playing shows in America and Europe until he was sidelined by a stroke in the spring of 2008 (complications would claim his life before the year was out). While the sessions for Why Don't You Give It to Me? only lasted two days, there were six tunes left over, and combined with two acoustic performances from radio broadcasts, they've been released as Why Won't You Let Me Be Black? (The title comes from something Mayer told a French promoter after he got tired of the haute cuisine regularly served to him backstage.) Several of the tracks on this album sound more like spontaneous jams than songs, in particular "Mr. Tax Man" and "The Puddle," and Mayer's voice sounds worn and frayed on many of these songs. But if the flesh is weak, Mayer's spirit is strong and confident on these recordings, and he has a marvelous rapport with his band (which features Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Matthew Smith of Outrageous Cherry, and Troy Gregory of the Witches and the Dirtbombs); even on the tunes that sound spontaneous, his vocals merge beautifully with the tough guitar-centered sound of the musicians. And Mayer's songcraft is inspired; "You Are the One" and "The Girl Next Door" are the sort of soulful, passionate love songs they just don't write anymore, and "Mr. Tax Man" and "The Puddle" are compelling '70s-style rock-funk hybrids that sound smart and streetwise as Mayer sings about war, economic injustice, drugs, and homelessness. Why Won't You Let Me Be Black? may be a collection of loose ends, but these are loose ends well worth hearing, and they're a striking reminder of how strong and passionate an artist Nathaniel Mayer was right up to the end.

Customer Reviews

Latter-day recordings from early ‘60s soul legend

Nathaniel Mayer is best known among early soul fanatics for his 1962 hit “Village of Love,” a few other early ‘60s sides and the cult status he developed during a nearly forty-year absence from the music scene. He resurfaced briefly in 1980 with the single “Raise the Curtain High,” but it wasn’t until Norton Records issued the vault side “I Don't Want No Bald-Headed Woman Telling Me What to Do” in 2002 that he was prompted to return in full for 2004’s I Just Want to Be Held. With the soaring soul voice of his early records reduced to a bluesy rasp, Mayer’s showmanship and feel for music remained fully intact. Whether his latter-day voice is burnished or shot is in the ear of the listener, but the way he strutted through up-tempo numbers and drew out ballads recalled the artistry of his younger years. In 2007 Mayer released Why Don’t You Give It To Me?, backed by a collection of players from the Black Keys, Outrageous Cherry, SSM, and Dirtbombs. The heavy blues arrangements paired nicely with the edginess of Mayer’s voice, providing bottom end and pushing him to sing hard. This posthumous release (Mayer passed away in 2008) adds eight more tracks from those same sessions, expanding upon the weathered crooning, pained blues, and neo-psychedelic soul. The album also includes two acoustic performances from a 2007 radio interview on which Mayer’s vocals are completely revealed; the simple guitar backings leave the wear and tear to speak volumes. It’s hard to draw a line between the voice on “Village of Love” and these latter day recordings, but the artistry and soul are easily identifiable. 3-1/2 stars, if allowed fractional ratings. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]


Born: February 10, 1944 in Detroit, MI

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

Nathaniel Mayer is best known for "Village of Love," a 1962 hit for Detroit's Fortune Records, a small independent label run by Jack and Devora Brown. Mayer was only 18 at the time, yet his vocal on this classic track was a worldly and gritty croon, while his backing band, the Fabulous Twilights, exploded behind him with a sort of raw garage soul, making "Village of Love" somewhat of a magnificent lost nugget. A Detroit native, Mayer had a couple other memorable sides to his credit, including "I...
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Why Won't You Let Me Be Black?, Nathaniel Mayer
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