Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nolan Strong & the Diablos

Nolan Strong today.
Nolan Strong & the Diablos onstage, mid-50's
Detail From Fortune Records Promo Poster.
Autographs done with felt tipped pens often smear.
NOLAN STRONG & THE DIABLOS, Nolan Strong, 2nd from right, Bob "Chico" Edward w/guitar.
Ethereal, there's no other word for the sound of Nolan Strong and the Diablos. They released twenty one singles and four and a half LP's for the Fortune label and while they never had a big, national hit, they were considered stars in their own hometown of Detroit where they were the primary influence on the young Smokey Robinson, amongst others. Best known for the original recording of The Wind (which is better known here in New York City from the Jesters' cover version), I would rate them as one of the greatest of all the rhythm and blues harmony groups.
The first thing that hits you is the high, reedy, sound of Nolan Strong's voice. You can hear the influence of Clyde McPhatter, star of the Dominoes and the Drifters, and also that of the Orioles' Sonny Til, but Strong's voice was higher, lighter, with a vulnerable quality that made him sound both emotionally fragile and somewhat mystical. On his best sides, Nolan Strong's voice cannot fail to send shivers up your spine. His inflections are subtle, his intonation perfect, his timing superb. The group's harmonies jell under Nolan's lead vocal perfectly, and under that is the raunchy, guitar dominated, greasy, stomp that was the distinct mark of the Fortune Records sound.
The Diablos formed at Detroit's Central High School around 1950, the original members being Nolan Strong (lead singer), Juan Guitierrez (tenor), Willie Hunter (baritone), Quentin Eubanks (bass) and Bob "Chico" Edwards on guitar. Eubanks was soon replaced by George Scott who himself left to join the Midnighters and was replaced by Jay Johnson (who leads the group to this day). Guitierrez was replaced by Nolan's brother Jimmy around '55 (the Strongs were first cousins to Barrett Strong of Money fame). Sometime around 1954 they auditioned for Jack and Devora Brown, proprietors of Fortune Records (and it's subsidiaries HiQ and Strate8) who immediately recorded them, releasing their first single An Old Fashioned Girl b/w Adios My Desert Love (Fortune 510) in 1954.
Fortune was a strange operation, a family run label, they recorded most of their sessions in the back of their Third Ave. storefront, and their crude recording techniques served their artists well. They started out recording hillbilly and polkas but soon moved into blues, R&B, rockabilly, rock'n'roll and later soul. They recorded John Lee Hooker, Dr. Ross, Andre Williams, the 5 Dollars, Johnny Powers, Eddie Kirkland, Nathaniel Mayer, and dozens of others. They may have made more great records than any other label, but the subject of Fortune deserves its own book, today I shall concentrate only on Nolan Strong & the Diablos, probably Fortune's most consistent act.
Adios, My Desert Love sold well enough around Detroit to warrant a second session and their second single-- The Wind b/w Baby, Be Mine (Fortune 511) became their biggest hit, calling card, and one of their greatest recordings. Ethereal, there's that word again, I can't get away from it. The Wind sounds as if some weird radio station picked up a signal from the moon and sent it earthbound on a gentle breeze. The Wind never made the national charts but it was a big seller in the mid-west, and although Fortune sometimes worked with larger labels (leasing Andre Williams' Bacon Fat to Epic, while Nathaniel Mayer's Village Of Love was distributed by United Artists), they would never make a deal for The Wind, or any other Diablos recording, depriving the group of what should have been their stepping stone to stardom.
1955 saw more Diablos releases on Fortune-- Route 16 (a re-write of Route 66) b/w Hold Me To Eternity (Fortune 514) started the year off with a bang, while their next disc-- Daddy Rocking Strong (a thinly veiled cover of Otis Blackwell's Daddy Rolling Stone) b/w Do You Remember What You Did Last Night (Fortune 516) kept up the momentum. They ended the year with The Way You Dog Me Around b/w Jump, Shake and Move (Fortune 516) which matched a ballad with their hardest rocker yet. Jump, Shake and Move was a whomping, blues stomper with a stinging guitar solo from Chico Edwards, and is one of their finest discs. Sales were solid but unspectacular, and Fortune followed it up within weeks with a double sided ballad-- You're The Only Girl Delores b/w You Are, Nolan Strong's name getting top billing for the first time. It was now early 1956 and the Diablos were now working constantly, playing the Madison Ballroom and Flame Show Bar in Detroit, and appearing at the Apollo in New York, the Uptown in Philadelphia, the Howard in Washington D.C., the Regal in Chicago, the Orchid Room in Kansas City as well as appearing on innumerable package shows.
And the flops kept coming. They released one more single in 1956, the rockin' Try Me One More Time b/w Teardrops From Heaven (Fortune 522) when Nolan Strong got his Greetings From Uncle Sam notice in the mail. He was drafted into the U.S. Army, and while the group kept working (brother Jimmy taking over the lead vocals), he could only record when on leave.
In 1957 Fortune issued only one Diablos disc-- Can't We Talk This Over b/w Mambo Of Love (Fortune 525). 1958 brought one of their hardest rockers-- My Heart Will Always Belong To You b/w For Old Time Sakes (529), their only release that year.
In 1959 Nolan Strong was discharged from the service and returned to the group full time, Fortune released two singles in a row to celebrate-- I Am With You b/w Goodbye Mathilda (Fortune 531) followed only weeks later by If I Can Be With You Tonight b/w the incredible I Want To Know (Fortune 523). By now the doo-wop revival was in full swing and The Wind was getting it's second wind, selling especially well on the east coast. Here's an alternate take for you alternate take fans.
Unfortunately, Fortune was never able to cash in, but they kept a steady stream of Diablos product coming, releasing the single--Since You Been Gone b/w What Are You Gonna Do (Fortune 536) and the first Diablos LP-- Fortune Of Hits, (they'd eventually release Fortune Of Hits Vol. 2, Mind Over Matter, The Diablos versus The 5 Dollars (with one side devoted to each group) and finally in 1983 Daddy Rock, an LP with a good percentage of un-issued material including this alternate take of I Wanna Know that may just be their greatest moment.
On the same LP are a cappella versions of Daddy Rocking Strong (called Daddy Nolan Strong) and Jump Shake and Move. These outtakes just hint at what treasures might be on the original master tapes. Speaking of outtakes this un-issued version of The Way You Dog Me turned up on a bootleg in the nineties.
Nolan Strong and the Diablos again came close to having a hit in 1962 with the soul shaker Mind Over Matter (which the Temptations covered doing biz as the Pirates) b/w Beside You (Fortune 546) , but again, Fortune's resources were limited and without national distribution it failed to move outside the Detroit area. One wonders why Mind Over Matter wasn't handed over to UA to distribute, since UA had done pretty well with Nathaniel Mayer's Village Of Love the same year. The Diablos covered Village Of Love on one of their last releases, Fortune 563.
Fortune issued one or two Diablos singles every year into the mid-sixties, the best, and strangest being Fortune 569-- Ali Oochie b/w You're Not Good Looking (But You're Presentable). Most of the Diablos material came from either the pen of Nolan Strong or Devora Brown, and both sides of Fortune 569 were Devora Brown originals. The a-side, is a strange, novelty rocker about a genie, it's pretty cool, but it's the b-side, that for shear perversity makes you shake your head in wonder. I mean, what kind of person would sing a love song to a girl and tell her-- "You're not good looking, but you're presentable"?
Fortune Records was always, in its own way, an extension of Jack and Devora Brown's peculiar world view, they produced every session, and their unique stamp is on virtually every record. They ran the label together until a 1980 car accident left Jack an invalid, and after that Devora took charge until her own passing in the early nineties. Their oddball ways extended from the studio to the way they ran their business, which is probably why they had so few hits.
By the mid-sixties, locked into a contract with Fortune, it became obvious to Nolan Strong that his career would never take off. At one point, while playing an oldies show in New Jersey he and the Diablos were recorded a cappella in a hotel room singing standards like Rockin' Robin and Old McDonald. This hotel recording was eventually released on Relic as the Velvet Angels, and the subject became practically an obsession with Devora Brown. When I interviewed her in the late eighties, no matter what question I asked, her answer would eventually lead back to how Nolan betrayed her and the industry ripped her off by releasing the Velvet Angels, a record that couldn't have sold more than a few hundred copies at best. Her paranoia grew to the point that when Fortune issued its final two LP's-- Daddy Rock and Andre Williams' JailBait LP in '83, she refused to wholesale them to anyone.
Nolan Strong, knowing his chance for stardom had passed started drinking heavily, eventually he passed away in February of 1977 (his brother Jimmy had died in 1970), he was only 43 years old. The Browns would never let Nolan Strong out of the contract he had signed as a teenager, and this must have been a bitter pill for him when he saw his friends and neighbors topping the charts over at Motown, who would have signed Strong in a second if they could have. The Browns (their children took over the label when Devora died) never leased the Fortune masters to another label nor did they make the transition to CD's, losing what could have been a considerable payday as collectors worldwide discovered the wonders of their incredible catalog. They were constantly raising the asking price, at one point they wanted thirty million, the same price Berry Gordy got from MCA for Motown. Once they made a deal with the U.K. Ace label to re-issue their catalog, only to back out at the last minute. Their prudence became their loss when a bootlegger from Boston (who had served time for kiddie porn) simply bootlegged the entire catalog on CD (these are the Regency CD's that flooded the collector's market over the last fifteen years). With the advent of file sharing, the Fortune catalog has lost most of the value it might have had, and because of the Browns paranoia we may never hear the un-issued material, or even the released stuff in decent sound quality taken from the original master tapes. The tapes themselves now seem to be partially lost, some in California, some in Michigan, the result of the younger generation of Browns arguing over their ownership. Hopefully the Fortune masters will surface someday. If Norton, Ace or Bear Family could work out a deal, we would finally see a re-issue program worthy of the catalog, but I wouldn't hold my breath. A few years ago the building on Detroit's Third Ave. that housed Fortune was knocked down, today it's an empty lot. Jay Johnson leads a group called Nolan Strong's Diablos and they appear at doo wop oldies shows every once and awhile. The rest of the original group have passed away. But the Diablos recordings are still here, whether you find 'em on bootleg CD's or original 45's and 78's, Nolan Strong's voice, wavering, timeless, as though it's been out there in the universe for ever, just waiting, ...ethereal.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hound - you be spot on wiv your assessment of Strong and de Diablos. There aren't too many R&B groups that bear listening over da whole LP. Most be (joyous) one-hit wonders. But Strong and co. are da tops. And Smokey Robinson be diggin them da most - as he is never being afraid to acknowledge. Good on ya, Smokey. And thanking you, Nolan.

J.D. King said...

"They were constantly raising the asking price, at one point they wanted thirty million, the same price Berry Gordy got from MCA for Motown."

LOL!!! What maroons!

G-R-E-A-T sound.

RIP, Nolan Strong & The Diablos.

carsonnapier said...

Thanks for this great blog .It's the first time I've heard their stuff . I only know The Wind from Laura Nyro' version . It's tragic that this great label will probably never get the Norton or Ace treatment . All the best , John....

Marshall-Stacks said...

oh CarsonNapier - how lovely to arrive here for the first time and just see the name of Laura Nyro decorating the place.
There's so much great old music, i don't know why anybody new bothers really.

Thanks Hound.
*goes off singing
'ChuckE's in to-o-wn! *

Wayne Pritchard said...

Right on, right on! When I play Nolan Strong stuff for anybody they instantly love it. I used to work for Simpson Granite here in Detroit when I made and installed his headstone. An owner of a local record store and acquaintance named Tony Fusco RIP told me one day Nolan was buried without a marker just a number. So we proceeded to put on a memorial concert to help with the cost and put the word out about Nolan and his outstanding music. You wrote up a great informative blog about Nolan, great job! Wayne

The Hound said...

Wayne,
How did Nolan die?

Wayne Pritchard said...

What I remember hearing was that he died of heart failure brought on by alcoholism. I've "heard" allot of things so I wouldn't quote me. I've heard that he worked as a janitor in a Ford plant the last years of his life and his voice was shot. In the Motown heyday I was told that numerous times Barry Gordy on a slow recording day would ask one of his people to go find Nolan on some street corner or bar and bring him in and see what they could get out of him but he was always in no condition to sing. It was said that before Nolan went into the army he didn't drink, smoke or cuss but when he came out he was a changed man and did all the above. I believe he had a daughter or niece that lived down south that the cemetery had to contact to allow us to place the memorial but wouldn't put us in contact with her. I have some pics of the day I installed the headstone. Jay Johnson and another former Diablo whose name I can't remember showed. I will e-mail it to you.

Juan Ibanez said...

Nolan Strong & the Diablos are the greatest of all Fortune artists... shame they were not bigger during their time.
Shame on the Browns that although they recorded all their stuff also helped ruin their career.

Their Velvet Angels stuff is also brilliant.

Congratulations on a wonderful article!

Juan Ibanez

Anonymous said...

I saw an interview once with Bryant Gumbal of all people who was asked what his favorite song of all time was. Without a beat he said it was The Wind by Nolan Strong and the Diablos! Gotta say I was impressed! -Barry Soltz

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Very worthwhile piece of writing, thank you for the post.

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