NOLAN STRONG AND THE DIABLOS
(By Steve Walker & Ken Gordon)
Born 22 January, 1934, Scottsboro, Alabama
Died 21 February, 1977, Detroit, Michigan
Nolan Strong & The Diablos were, without knowing it, the forerunners of the Detroit rhythm and blues sound. They merged Latin, blues, and modern rhythms into a style that later on influenced the mighty music machine at Motown.
In common with many of his southern contemporaries born in the 1930’s, Nolan Strong moved with his family to Detroit at a young age. He started singing soon after arriving in Detroit and formed his first Diablos group with Bob 'Chico' Edwards in 1950. Backing up Nolan's natural tenor voice were Juan Guieterriez as second tenor, Willie Hunter singing baritone, Quentin Eubanks as bass and Edwards on guitar, all from Detroit’s Central High School. The name Diablos is said to have come from a book, 'El Nino Diablo' (The Little Devil) that Nolan was reading for a high school book report.
In late 1953, the Diablos went into Detroit’s Fortune Records to cut some demo sides, with the hopes of furthering their career by taking the resulting demos to one of the hot r&b labels of the period – maybe Chess, King or United. Their hopes were realized even more quickly than they expected. The recordings obviously impressed Jack & Devora Brown, owners of Fortune, who immediately signed the group up. Their first recording for Fortune was the Devora Brown-penned 'Adios My Desert Love' c/w 'An Old Fashioned Girl' and this was released in April 1954. The group were accompanied by Joe Weaver and his Blue Note Orchestra. But it was their second Fortune outing which would establish the group among the r&b legends. Written by the group members, 'The Wind' had a haunting sound, with the group chanting 'Blow Wind' in harmony behind Nolan’s delicate tenor lead, and smooth-as-silk talking bridge. Sales were brisk in Detroit, Chicago, Toledo, New York and Cleveland, although poor distribution, a constant problem for small labels, kept it from the national charts. The recording was arranged and directed by Maurice King, long-time impressario and leader of the house band at the Flame Show Bar for many years. Music critic Dave Marsh ranked 'The Wind' as No. 67 in his book 'The Heart Of Rock & Soul - The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made'.
Over the next two years the Diablos, with various changes of personnel, would turn out several more fine records, including 'Route 16', 'Do You Remember What You Did', 'Daddy Rockin’ Strong', 'The Way You Dog Me Around', 'You Are', and 'A Teardrop From Heaven'. All of the Diablos' records were engineered by Devora Brown: 'Everything that Nolan did, I recorded. I’d be running in and out from the control room to the studio.' said Devora in a 1986 interview with Dan Nooger for 'Goldmine' magazine.
The poor quality of the Fortune Records recordings that have been released to date are due to the fact that compilers (see Ken's discography below), have had to be content with dubbing from 45s and 78s. Sheldon Brown, who owns the original tapes, has been unable, to date, to find a satisfactory partner through whom to release the original recordings. Matters may have not been helped by the fact that the Browns, allegedly, couldn't always afford virgin vinyl so they would "reprocess" previously recorded records, paper label and all.
The quality of Fortune's recordings released on CD has often been likened to having someone frying food in the background. Devora Brown: 'I wasn’t frying burgers on sessions. We did have a little hot plate in the room where the furnace is. I used to warm up coffee and bring burgers from home, but I very seldom cooked over there. My husband, Jack, used to go over to the office real early, maybe 8 o’clock and Nolan would be there. Jack would give him some money and say, ‘Go out and get something to eat.’ Nolan would say, ‘No, tell Ms. Brown to bring me a sandwich, I like hers better.’ So I’d quickly put on some hamburgers and bring them down. Then he knew that when he was there, I’d bring some down. When we were recording he’d stick his head out of the studio door and say, ‘Ms. Brown, got a sandwich?' We had him over to our house for dinner a lot of times. After he had a dinner at our house, he used to tell everybody how good it was. We treated him really like a son, even though he used to aggravate us sometimes. We knew that he was great, that he had something that would last.'
'Nolan’s father was mostly white,' Devora Brown related. 'His mother was very black. His father had a beautiful voice like Eddie Fisher. Nolan brought him around a few times, and if he’d brought him around more often I might have recorded him. His mother had a real high voice, though I never really heard her sing. That’s the reason Nolan had such a wonderful voice. It’s true that Nolan didn’t have the money for his first demo. Jack was out of town, and when he heard it, he said, ‘I never heard such a high singer, he might be too high.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so, it might be an extra point for him that he sings so high.’
In late 1956, Nolan received a call from Uncle Sam and was soon off to the service for a two year stint. While Nolan was in the army, the Diablos released one single without him. This was 'Harriet' b/w 'Come Home Little Girl', and featured baritone Willie Hunter on lead.
After Nolan came back from the service, honourably discharged in 1958, things weren’t quite the same. Perhaps in keeping with the times, more of the attention was being focused on Nolan and not the group. Back in 1954, records showed 'The Diablos featuring Nolan Strong'. Then the billing changed to 'Nolan Strong & The Diablos'. And by 1962, when 'Mind Over Matter' was climbing the charts, the label just read 'Nolan Strong', although the Diablos were most definitely on the record as prominent as ever. This lack of recognition along with financial inequities (lack of royalties & unequal pay to the group members vs. Nolan), inevitably had to lead to the group’s demise.
Nolan Strong, who cited Clyde McPhatter as a major influence, because 'he was so smooth', had one of the most sensitive and beautiful falsetto voices ever (the opinion of Jay Warner in his fine book, 'American Singing Groups'). He was very influential in the vocal styling of Smokey Robinson, who cut a rough demo of 'Adios, My Desert Love' in 1954 and was known to have jammed with the Diablos when Nolan was in the army. Smokey knew all the Diablos tunes and was very good at emulating Nolan’s style. 'Smokey and I used to go see Nolan all the time at the Warfield Theater over on Hastings,' Bobby Rogers of the Miracles is quoted as saying. 'He was a great singer. I don't know, some people are just ahead of their time.'
Berry Gordy had wanted to bring the Diablos into his fast growing Motown complex and is said to have offered Jack & Devora Brown $5,000 for the Diablos contract, but the deal never transpired, much to the disappointment of the group who felt that Motown could have done a better job in promoting and recording them. Another angle on this is related by Sheldon Brown, son of Fortune Records founder Devora Brown. Sheldon recalls the day that Gordy tried to lure Strong to Motown in early 1962. 'Berry had invited him down, so Nolan said he was going down there, but he wanted me to come over later and drive him back - he didn't have a car. Nolan came out and said he didn't want to go with (Gordy). He said Berry Gordy wanted him to jump the contract with us, but he wasn't going to pay him anything up front. He told Nolan he wouldn't get in any trouble because he had lawyers who would protect him.' Later, Gordy would cover the Diablos 'Mind Over Matter' on his Mel-O-Dy label with a group called the Pirates (a.k.a. Temptations). There was a further Motown connection in that Nolan Strong and Barrett ('Money') Strong were first cousins.
After Nolan Strong scored with 'Mind over Matter' in late '62, the hits started slowing down dramatically. Sheldon Brown claims that a local DJ boycotted Strong's records when the singer didn't show up for a sockhop at the Walled Lake Casino. But Strong was also disheartened that Fortune's paltry national distribution had been outstripped by Gordy's powerhouse on Grand Boulevard.
Although bandmates remember that he didn't drink or smoke during the Diablos' heyday, Sheldon Brown claims that the singer drank heavily in the later '60s. 'My mother [Devora Brown] would try to tell him to stop,' he says. 'Nolan was a guy with a real persona,' Brown says. 'He was a tall, handsome guy, completely in control of the Diablos, they would do everything he wanted. He had a special way with his singing. I can't say he was the greatest singer of all time, but he was one of them. I got the idea he was really a solitary guy, all he wanted was music. He kept on recording till five years before his death. That's what broke his heart, he knew he wasn't the same singer he was before.'
Regarding the problems that dogged Nolan’s career, Devora Brown attributes their genesis to Strong’s time in the military. 'He was fine for the first two years. He didn’t drink. In 1956, he was called into the Army and it brought all his vices together. When he came back, he was an alcoholic and a pill taker. We used to say to him, ‘You gotta stop it, it’s gonna hurt you,’ and sometimes he’d stop for a while. One day he brought us his vial, gave his pills to my husband and said, ‘Jack, take them.’ The next day I said, ‘Let’s throw them away,’ and he said, ‘No, he’s not going to let that go, he’ll come back for them,’ and about three days later he came and wanted them back. We argued with him, but finally gave them back. I didn’t think he’d hurt me, and he didn’t, but still you have to be careful.' Nolan Strong died on 21 February, 1977 at the age of 43.
Discography by Ken Gordon: Nolan Strong/The Diablos
- Motor City - Detroit Doo-Wops - Vol. 1 Regency RR111 The Diablos
- Motor City - Detroit Doo-Wops - Vol. 2 Regency RR112 The Diablos
- Itty Bitty Treasure Chest Vol. 3 - Various Artists. 5 Diablos cuts - Regency RR123
Vinyl LPs: - Fortune of Hits, Vol. 1 - Nolan Strong & The Diablos - Fortune LP 8010
- Fortune of Hits, Vol. 2 - Nolan Strong & The Diablos - Fortune LP 8012
- Mind Over Matter - Nolan Strong With The Diablos - Fortune LP 8015
- From The Beginning To Now - Nolan Strong & The Diablos/The Five Dollars - Fortune LP 8016
- Daddy Rock The Legendary Nolan Strong With The Diablos - Fortune LP 8020
YouTube audio selection:
The Wind: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIVKaayaNaY
Since I Fell For You: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npoVxFkiyaI
Blue Moon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c31jxGragNQ
Daddy Rockin' Strong: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfPN3oWAn7E
The Way You Dog Me Around: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itKkxHmqN60
I Wanna Know (1954 version): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDDKzlk5pXs
My Heart Will Always Belong To You: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bx7GiB91H3I
Further reading: Jay Warner's 'American Singing Groups' (p. 153-155).
Devora Brown's quotes are taken from 'Fortune Records' Devora Brown Speaks!', a 1986 Goldmine story by Dan Nooger
Sheldon Brown's quotes are taken from 'Reversal of Fortune - Bulldozer takes away a Detroit R&B connection', an article by Susan Whitall of The Detroit News following the demolition of the Fortune Records building at 3942 Third Avenue.
Steve Walker and Ken Gordon, May 2012