‘There was a guy who lived in Detroit and had a group called the Diablos. His name was Nolan Strong. They were my favorite vocalists at that time’ (Smokey Robinson)
‘If I could really sing I’d be Nolan Strong’ (Lou Reed)
Some songs, some voices creep up on you incrementally winning your affection the more you hear them. Others like the song, ‘The Wind’ and the voice of Nolan Strong immediately, inescapably, haunt your imagination.
In this case haunt may be too timid a term – it would be more accurate to say that, ‘The Wind’ in all its mysterious majesty took Possession of my imagination and held sway there for many months from the moment I was first exposed to its eerie brilliance. The only other song that’s had this effect on me was the late Nick Drake’s spectral, ‘Pink Moon’ which seemed a threnody from a drowned soul five fathoms down in an unforgiving sea.
‘I know she is gone but my love lingers on,
In a dream that the wind brings to me’.
The Wind reminds me yet again that the musical instrument that has the greatest power to affect my emotions and my spirit is the human voice. A voice like Nolan Strong’s calls out to the soul in a way that admits no explanation that can be understood in technical analysis using terms like pitch, tone and decibels. Nolan Strong’s voice can only be appreciated in terms of stilled heartbeats, stilled breath, cradle memories …..
In the song Nolan’s universe unlocking high tenor lead is supported by his colleagues in The Diablos. They had formed In 1950 at Central High School in Detroit when Nolan met fellow singers Juan Guieterriez (Tenor), Willie Hunter (Baritone), Quentin Eubanks (Bass) and Bob Edwards a guitarist.
They listened in particular to the wonderful and immensely influential recordings of Clyde McPhatter with The Dominoes. Nolan Strong like Elvis Presley and scores of other singers was deeply impressed by the glorious élan of Clyde’s vocals – a song sung by Clyde was given wings and soared thrillingly into stark distant spheres of the sky above us all.
Practicing and practicing and practicing and performing anywhere they were allowed The Diablos honed their sound as 1950 became 1951 then 1952 then1953 and then 1954. Eventually they fetched up at an address that would be part of the legend of the Detroit music scene. Not 2648 West Grand Boulevard where the entrepreneurial genius Berry Gordy would establish the sound of, ‘Young America’ in 1959 but 11629 Linwood the home of Fortune records run by Jack and Devora Brown.
Fortune was a, ‘Mom and Pop’ operation set up in the late 1940s hoping to make hits from Devora Brown’s songs and the talent pool latent in Detroit’s huge African-American population. The Browns were short on cash and the recording facilities at Fortune were primitive even by the standards of the time. Yet Fortune had imagination and in Devora a distinctive songwriter.
The first Diablos recording was a Devora song, ‘Adios, My Desert Love’ which charmed Detroit with its Latin rhumba accents and the intricate interplay of the harmony vocals underpinned by castanet and piano accompaniment.
Their next single was Fortune 511, ‘The Wind’ co-written by Devora and The Diablos. The recording features acoustic bass, vibes and electric guitar in addition to the delicate orchestral blend of vocals surrounding, cushioning, the astounding lead of Nolan Strong which both in its sung parts and the recitation prefigured the soundscapes conjured up later by Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson.
The first fifteen seconds of instrumental introduction establish an otherworldly atmosphere which is retained throughout the duration of the recording. The Diablos when they enter establish an anchor for our ears before Nolan enters taking us to uncharted realms with the heaven rending purity of his vocal. Nolan’s vocal contains both the comfort of the cool summer breeze and the chill of lost love’s memory. His vocal caresses us as once his lover caressed him. What could be more tender than Nolan’s vocal here?
There are some days in our lives we can never forget. Days which become emotional touchstones which as the years go take on a hallucinatory power when recalled – sometimes voluntarily, sometimes emerging unheralded into our startled consciousness. I believe in the collective unconscious and it is clear to me that Nolan Strong and The Diablos dived deep into it when recording, ‘The Wind’.
Listen to the last dying fall of the song and you will know that this is a dream that will always linger on. As long as we have hearts that beat and minds that dream it will linger on. Even until the heavens above can no longer shine. Even until then.
Nolan strong died at 43 in 1977. His voice will always be with me and if you listen to any compilation of Nolan Strong and The Diablos I am sure it will stay with you as well.
Songs to particularly look out for include, ‘Daddy Rockin Strong’, ‘The Way You Dog Me Around’ and, ‘Mind Over Matter’.
I also recommend that you listen to Laura Nyro’s cover of The Wind from her essential album, ‘Gonna Take A Miracle’ which she recorded with the vocal group Labelle. Laura, whom I will write about often here, records the song as a tender homage to her days on New York street corners singing songs like The Wind which seemed to hang bright in the evening skies like the moon.