Around the time he left Warwick in 1970, Mayer was gaining a reputation as a jingle writer. He penned tunes for keyboardist Les McCann, Nancy Wilson and even Barry White ("Don't You Know How Much I Love You," heard on White's Greatest Hits album with the Love Unlimited Orchestra). He spent time as the accompanist for the Manhattan Transfer. But by 1976, he'd soured on the world of commercial music and instead plunged headlong into running his then-wife's LA-based cosmetics business.
"I was very ambivalent about doing it, but I had success and made some money," he says. "It was exhilarating to know that I could succeed at something else, but it was also dangerous. As soon as I started getting money, I got mischievous again."
Back on drugs, Mayer went to New York, drove a limo and began to waste. "I sank deeper and deeper. It seemed like music was no longer available to me." In 1991, at his lowest point, Mayer boarded a plane to Los Angeles with the intent of giving himself a week to get his life in order or face the consequences.
"I got lucky, made some calls, got into a sober community," Mayer says. "I had incredible good fortune, which is 99 percent attributable to the people in my 12-step program. At that point, I was ready to listen to somebody, anybody, other than what was being said in my head."
Mayer got his chops together playing a regular gig at the LA restaurant Asylum. He joined keyboardist and old friend Les McCann's band after McCann suffered a stroke in 1994 and needed someone to play what he no longer could. In 1996, he recorded his first album, Round up the Usual Suspects (Pullen Music), with the heavyweight rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Billy Higgins.
The title of his new CD, Rip Van Winkle (Fresh Sounds), with longtime colleagues bassist Bob Maize and drummer Harold Mason, reflects the roughly 15 years that Mayer spent outside music dealing with his demons. "I identify with this man," Mayer writes in the album's liner notes, "as I too 'fell asleep' for something short of 20 years. . . ."
But Mayer's now back with a vengeance. "In many ways, it's like I'm a young man again," he says. "When you spend years stoned, your emotional growth stops. When you clean up, you grow again. Now I'm playing catch-up."
The Jon Mayer Trio performs with guest vocalist Stephanie Haynes at Steamers Café, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-8800. Fri., 8:30 p.m. $5. All ages.