GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It may have been his long, curly wigs and eccentric outfits that first caught the eye of mid-1990s channel surfers, but it was the Great Daryl Nathan’s gift for entertaining that won him a devoted fan base.
“That’s the magic,” said Geoff Hudson, a former GRTV volunteer who helped launch Nathan’s show, which was taped at the public access channel from 1994 to 1996.
“He had a certain thing that other musicians and performers wish they had, just a natural ability to entertain. Daryl took his work very seriously. He put his heart into it.”
Nathan, 54, died at his Grand Rapids home on July 22 from complications of diabetes.
“I didn’t want it to be real,” said Hudson of Nathan’s death. “I thought it was a terribly sad thing that we don’t have a Daryl Nathan anymore. I was secretly hoping he might one day stage a comeback.”
Nathan moved away from public access television in the early 2000s, playing more recently in a band at his family’s church.
“I did see that there were people who were not so kind to him when they’d see his act, and I always had hoped that he didn’t retreat from the spotlight because of those people, you know? But I never did hear why from him,” Hudson said.
The Community Media Center plans to air a tribute to The Great Daryl Nathan from 6 to 7 p.m. Aug. 25 and asks you to share your remembrances here.
The Great Daryl Nathan Show was launched when he took a class at GRTV, the public access channel that now exists under the umbrella of the Community Media Center.
“He sat down and did his keyboard thing, and everybody was just like, ‘whoa,’ and then from that point on, it was sort of a mission to get this guy on the camera. This is something special,” recalled Hudson.
Nathan, whose bedroom at the home he shared with a relative doubled as his rehearsal hall, played an electronic keyboard and wrote lyrics about the beauty he recognized in everyday things.
“All of his songs were very positive and uplifting,” said Hudson. “And they were all earworms too. They all had a really catchy hook. You couldn’t help but remember them.”
Song titles included “The Leaves Are Falling Off The Trees,” “Fourth of July,” “Rainbow Going Around The World” and “Beautiful World.”
“It’s a beautiful world, the sun’s shining bright. It’s a beautiful world, the moon glowing at night,” sang Nathan from behind his keyboard in one YouTube clip.
“You just get the idea that he’s this very kind and gentle person, and it’s just infectious to be around,” explained Hudson. “He was that way in real life too. It wasn’t an act. He wasn’t a jerk behind the scenes. He was a nice, kind human being.”
Robert S. Womack, a radio personality and Kent County commissioner, described Nathan as a man whose “heart and soul was pure love.”
“We grew up in the same neighborhood, a few streets apart. Every time he came out, just a smile full of sunshine — positive words for everybody. Positive songs. We needed that. The world needs it. He also was the first person to go viral without YouTube,” said Womack.
Womack acknowledged that he was initially concerned about Nathan’s plan to perform on cable television.
“When I first saw him dressed like Peter Frampton, I was like ‘what in the world, you’re not fixin’ to get on TV like that,'” recalled Womack, who said he was worried Nathan would be ridiculed.
“But the first night I saw it on TV, I was like, ‘wow,'” Womack said. “(People) fell in love with it. They enjoyed it. With the wig, it would sometimes catch a little humor, but by the middle of his performance, it would be respect, admiration.”
Womack recalled spinning music at college parties during Nathan’s heyday.
“They’d be like, ‘turn down the music down, the Great Daryl Nathan is on. It’s 11 o’clock,’ and people would just start partying and watching GRTV,” remembered Womack, who said Nathan’s universal appeal drew viewers from all over Kent County.
“Sometimes you’re so trapped in the four corners of your neighborhood that you forget that you’re part of a larger society… (GRTV) heard from (Nathan’s fans) in Sparta, Cascade, Caledonia, Grand Rapids, different colleges, different neighborhoods. It was a beautiful thing.”
Womack doesn’t think Nathan knew just how much he impacted people’s lives.
“I think he died not knowing how big he was,” said Womack. “He’s irreplaceable. We’ll never see another Daryl Nathan. He never knew how much he touched this world.”
Hudson said he often runs into people who grew up watching Nathan’s show.
“I’m always hearing people say, ‘I was in high school and I discovered the show and it blew my mind and I would always look for it,” recalled Hudson. “I think he inspired people to do their own thing. You see a guy like that being himself, living his best life, and you think, ‘maybe I can do that too.’ He was inspiring that way.”