Born in Detroit on March 25, 1954, Nathan Lamar Watts was raised an only child on the city’s gritty west side. Inspired by jazz great Lee Morgan, he took up trumpet in elementary school, forming a trio with friends and fellow future session stars Ollie Brown on drums and Ray Parker Jr. on clarinet. When he wasn’t in school, Nathan would stroll over to Motown’s Hitsville Studios to watch through the basement window as the Funk Brothers worked their magic. Another passion was the rock & roll of Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Rare Earth, Mahogany Rush, and Steppenwolf, many of whom played at the nearby Grande Ballroom—“a rock club in the middle of the ghetto.” When Parker Jr. switched to guitar, he and Brown encouraged Watts to pick up bass so they could remain a trio. Nathan made the switch around the time he graduated from Northwestern High School, when he bought a National Bass from Montgomery Ward. Watts learned his first bass line, James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” and began soaking up the influence of Motor City heavies like James Jamerson, Tony Newton, and Bob Babbitt. (“You had to know Babbitt’s bass solo from [Dennis Coffey’s] ‘Scorpio’ to work in Detroit.”) By then, Parker had moved on to join Marvin Gaye’s band, so Nathan joined a local group called the Final Decision. As a backup plan, he went to school to study accounting.
That would all change on a sunny August day in 1974, when his mom yelled down the street to tell him he had a call from Stevie Wonder’s office.