Friday, February 3, 2012


Nolan Strong. Say that name to doo-wop collectors and they'll swoon. Say that name to soul collectors and they'll swoon. Say that name to nearly anyone else and they'll say, "huh?"

Nolan Strong (1934-1977) with (and without) his group The Diablos, was a Detroit legend, a man who had many big sellers in the Detroit area, a man who Berry Gordy tried desperately to get signed to his fledgeling Motown label, a man who was IDOLIZED by the likes of Smokey Robinson and Lou Reed. But today, he is largely forgotten except in the hearts of aforementioned doo-wop and soul freaks, though the hipsters in Brooklyn probably whisper his name in hushed tones (not that they've ever actually heard his records, natch).

Once you've heard the voice of Nolan Strong, though, you'll never forget it. His voice is usually described as "ethereal" or "spooky" or "angelic". I agree on all counts. Plus, Fortune Records owner Devora Brown would put Nolan's voice through some kind of eerie echo chamber so that he sounded like he was being piped in from outer space while the rest of the Diablos were in Detroit.

The Diablos first formed in 1950 at Central High in Detroit. Influenced by The Orioles and Clyde McPhatter's Dominoes, they practiced and practiced until they felt that they were ready to record. They signed on with a local label, Fortune Records (which, up to that point, were recording mainly polka and country music) and released their first record - "Adios My Desert Love"/"(I Want) An Old Fashioned Girl". The record was released in the spring of 1954, and sold well in the Detroit area. The group was invited back to record a follow-up, and that follow-up became a legend - the original version of "The Wind". The record was a monster. From late 1954 all the way through 1955, "The Wind" sold tens of thousands of copies in the Detroit area, and continued to sell for years afterward (Fortune kept pressing it all the way up into the early 1980s), becoming one the label's all-time biggest sellers - yet the record only charted as high as #114 nationally, and that wasn't until 1960. Therein lies the problem with Fortune Records, and why Nolan Strong has been forgotten.

Basically Fortune Records was a local label who didn't have national distribution. Husband-and-wife team Jack and Devora Brown formed the label in 1947, originally as an outlet to record songs they'd written. They soon found that there was a market in Detroit for polka and country music - in fact, Fortune released records by Skeets McDonald and The Davis Sisters (featuring Skeeter Davis) long before they received national recognition. The records sold well in Detroit, the Browns were making money, and so they felt there was no reason to go national with their label. National distribution meant more costs for pressing, mastering, printing and, worst of all, having to deal with the large distribution houses, who were ALWAYS slow to pay up.

The industry was rough in those days. Distributors had everyone in a choke hold. Small labels would sign on with them to distribute their product to a larger market, but there were pitfalls; the records were shipped directly from the pressing plant to the distribution houses, who would distribute the records and collect the money from the various record shops, department stores, smaller distributors, etc. However, when it came time for the distributors to pay the record labels their fair share, other forces came into play - 1) they would deduct for returned records that didn't sell (and sometimes they would buy stock from other distributors cheaply and count those records as returns); 2) they would deduct a percentage for "free goods" (promotion copies that were given away) and breakage; and 3) sometimes the distributor would actually defer payment to the label on purpose just to see if the label could stay in business - if the label went bankrupt, chances are that said label wouldn't be able to sue for payment owed. As a result, a huge national hit could actually bankrupt a small label!

The Browns knew this, and stayed local. But their distrust of the industry did not exactly serve their artists well. There has never been a legal reissue of the Fortune catalog (though, apparently, Norton is working on a box set) and, as a result, great records by Nathaniel Mayer, The Five Dollars, Andre Williams and Nolan Strong remain relatively obscure.

In Nolan Strong's case, it wasn't just lack of distribution working against him. By late 1955, Nolan Strong and The Diablos were Fortune's biggest act, and their latest single, "The Way You Dog Me Around", was selling in such quantities that the record actually charted on the R&B charts (their only single to do so) on the strength of purely regional sales! But in 1956, the U. S. Army came calling, and Nolan Strong was drafted. Fortune released one single during his Army tenure, "The Mambo Of Love", but it didn't sell well, so Fortune basically waited until Nolan came back from the Army.

Nolan came back in 1958, by all accounts a changed man. Before his stint in the service, Nolan didn't touch anything stronger than soda pop, but after his discharge, he was drinking heavily, and was starting to become unreliable. But Nolan's name was still gold in Detroit, and Fortune continued to release records (now billed to "Nolan Strong and The Diablos" or just "Nolan Strong"). In 1962, Nolan and the group recorded another big seller - "Mind Over Matter (I'm Gonna Make You Mine)" - which hit #1 on the Detroit charts and caught the attention of Berry Gordy at Motown, who not only had earlier recorded Nolan's cousin, Barrett Strong, but also covered "Mind Over Matter" with The Temptations (under the pseudonym The Pirates) on his Mel-O-Dy subsidiary. Gordy wanted to sign Nolan to Motown, but failed. The story goes that Nolan was signed to an iron-clad (and unprofitable) contract with Fortune, though other sources say that Nolan's loyalty to Fortune couldn't be broken, no matter what. In either case, Gordy probably wouldn't have done well with Nolan; as "Mind Over Matter" became a hit, Fortune tried to send Nolan out on a local tour, with the promise of a national tour in the works. But Nolan didn't show up for half the dates, and when he did he was in no condition to sing. One other reason for Nolan's lack of exposure (and a possible reason for his drinking) was Nolan himself; he was, to put it lightly, quite effeminate, and Fortune's reluctance to bring him wider exposure could have been based on that - remember, this was a time when Fortune was making outside deals for Nathaniel Mayer to have Mayer's records distributed by United Artists for the national market, so why not do the same for their biggest star?

Nolan continued to record for Fortune through 1965 (though he and the Diablos "moonlighted" as The Velvet Angels for a few a cappella singles in 1964) and then disappeared, playing the occasional oldies show. Rumor has it that he spent his last years working as a janitor in Detroit. The heavy drinking finally took its toll, and Nolan suffered a fatal heart attack on February 21, 1977. He was 43 years old.

Though Nolan and the group are well-known for their ballads, the selection I've chosen here is one of their hardest rockers. Probably recorded just before Nolan's departure for the service in 1956, this was released as the B-side to their 45 "For Old Times' Sake" in late 1958 as the first "new" Diablos release after Nolan got out of the Army.

Nolan Strong. Gone. Somewhat forgotten. But not here. On The Record.

Nolan Strong and The Diablos - My Heart Will Always Belong To You (Fortune 529) - 1958

1 comment:

  1. Amazing. One of my favourite Nolan Strong and The Diablos songs, along with Do You Remember What You Did and If I (Oh I).
    Interesting read, thanks!