Nolan Strong & the Diablos
Nolan Strong & the Diablos were a Detroit-based R&B and doo-wop vocal group best known for its hit songs "The Wind" and "Mind Over Matter." The group was one of the most popular pre-Motown R&B acts in Detroit during the mid-1950s, through the early 1960s.
Strong has also been an influence on rock and roll bands. In December 2009 Lou Reed, of the influential '60s band the Velvet Underground, told Rolling Stone Magazine editor David Fricke, "If I could really sing, I’d be Nolan Strong" - during an interview at the New York Public Library.
The Diablos were inducted into the United In Group Harmony Hall of Fame in 2003. In March 2008 the group was inducted into the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame of America.
In September 2010 Daddy Rockin' Strong: A Tribute to Nolan Strong & the Diablos, an LP, was released by The Wind Records, with distribution by Norton Records. The album features 13 new Diablos covers by a cast of rock and roll, punk and garage rock bands. It features the Dirtbombs, Reigning Sound, Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby and Mark Sultan, among others.
Nolan Strong was born in Scottsboro, Alabama, on January 22, 1934, and moved to Detroit at a young age. He started singing soon after arriving in Detroit and formed his first Diablos group in 1950. Nolan was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1956 and was honorably discharged in 1958.
Nolan died on February 21, 1977 at the age of 43 in Detroit. Little is known about the last years of his life.
The Diablos, with their 1954 classic "The Wind," are revered among R&B and doo wop lovers. The group had a unique sound, centered around the high ethereal lead tenor voice of Nolan Strong. Besides "The Wind," the Diablos were known for many songs, such as "Adios My Desert Love," "Can't We Talk This Over," "Mambo of Love," "If I," "Harriet," "I Am With You," "Goodbye Matilda," "I Wanna Know," "Beside You," "Mind Over Matter," and many more.
The group formed at Central High School in Detroit around 1950 and originally consisted of Strong (lead tenor), Juan Guitierrez (tenor), Willie Hunter (baritone), Quentin Eubanks (bass), and Bob "Chico" Edwards (guitar). The Diablos name is said to have come from a book, El Nino Diablo (The Little Devil), that Strong was reading for a high-school book report. In 1954, the Diablos went into Detroit's Fortune Record Studios to cut some demo sides, with the hopes of furthering their career. Their hopes were realized even more quickly than they expected. Those demos impressed Jack and Devora Brown, owners of Fortune, who immediately signed the group to record for their label. Their first recording for Fortune was the Devora Brown-penned "Adios My Desert Love," a cha cha-flavored tune.
But it was their second Fortune record that established the group as R&B legends. Written by the group members, "The Wind" had a haunting sound, with the group chanting "blow wind" in harmony behind Strong's delicate tenor lead, and smooth and sexy talking bridge. Following the release of "The Wind," Guitierrez and Eubanks left the group, to be replaced by Nolan's brother Jimmy on tenor and George Scott on bass. Over the next two years this configuration of Diablos would turn out several 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." 
By late 1956, more changes were in store for the Diablos. Scott decided to leave the group about this time to join Hank Ballard & the Midnighters - and again the Diablos were in need of a bass. Enter Jay Johnson, who was introduced to Strong through fellow Fortune artist Andre Williams. Although not quite 17 at the time, Johnson was already a veteran singer, having sung bass with Williams' "new" group on "Bacon Fat," "Just Because of a Kiss," "Mean Jean," and "Bobby Jean." (Williams' "new" group consisted of Gino Parks, Bobby Calhoun, Steve Gaston, and Johnson.)
Strong was impressed and the Diablos had their new bassman. Johnson's first session with the Diablos was on "Can't We Talk It Over" and "Mambo of Love," recorded in late 1956 and released in 1957. By the time the first Fortune of Hits album came out, Johnson had already replaced Scott with the group. Unfortunately, the picture on the album cover didn't reflect this change, and shows the group with Scott instead of Johnson. This oversight may be a factor in many believing that Johnson didn't join the group until several years later. In fact, Johnson is heard on bass on more Diablos recordings than either Eubanks or Scott. Among these are: "Beside You," "Mind Over Matter," "Everything They Said Came True," "Welcome Baby to My Heart," "I Wanna Know," "If I Could Be With You," "Since You're Gone," "Harriet," "Harriette It's You," "I Am With You," "Are You Making a Fool Out of Me," "You're My Happiness," "Village of Love," "For Old Times Sake," "My Heart Will Always Belong to You," and "Come Home Little Girl." On "Village of Love," Johnson also provided the bass on the original Fortune version by Nathaniel Mayer & the Fabulous Twilights.
Also in late 1956, about the time Johnson joined the group, Strong received a call from Uncle Sam and was soon off to the service for a two-year stint. While Nolan was in the service, the Diablos released one single without him, "Harriet," backed with "Come Home Little Girl," featuring Hunter on lead. Without Strong, the Diablos' magic seemed to be missing and the record received little fanfare. After Strong returned from the service, the group recorded "Harriette It's You." But when Nolan came back from the service, things weren't quite the same. Fortune was focusing more of their attention on Strong, and not the Diablos group. In 1954, records showed "The Diablos Featuring Nolan Strong." Then 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 on the record, as prominent as ever. This lack of recognition along with financial inequities (lack of royalties and unequal pay to the group members versus Strong), inevitably lead to the group's demise.
Just as Strong had been influenced by Clyde McPhatter, he in turn would be influential to Smokey Robinson. And Robinson was not the only one at Motown to have an appreciation for Nolan Strong & the Diablos. Berry Gordy had wanted to bring the Diablos into his fast-growing Motown complex. The deal never happened.
In 1964, the group disbanded. Calhoun indicates he went south and did some work with Stax Records. Iverson and Hunter returned to Detroit. Johnson stayed on for a time in New Jersey, continuing to perform solo at the Tender Trap, but also found his way back to Detroit. Upon his return, he joined Detroit's Five Monarchs, but did not record with them. In the late 1960s Johnson formed the soul group the Four Sonics, releasing two singles in 1968 on Detroit's Sport label. The group recorded through the mid-1970s. In 2002, Johnson is still an exciting stage performer, and has performed recently with Nathaniel Mayer, reprising his "Village of Love" work.
But where one story ends, another begins. In 1964, as the Diablos were dissolving, the Velvet Angels were forming. The group would include Diablos alumni Johnson and Hunter along with Calhoun (baritone) and Cy Iverson (tenor). Iverson had gone to high school with Johnson, and Calhoun had recorded with Johnson as part of Williams' "new" group on Fortune. Tired of being devils (diablos is Spanish for devils), they decided angels would be a better name. Velvet was added to describe their smooth and velvety harmonies, calling to mind groups like the Mills Brothers and Ink Spots.
The Velvet Angels performed at clubs around Detroit and across the border in Canada, while perfecting their material. They then traveled to New Jersey in search of greater opportunity. Soon after setting up residence in Jersey City, they found an ad for a talent show in the local paper. As luck would have it, they performed at show and won! Frank Sheldon, the show sponsor and owner of the Tender Trap club in Fairview, NJ, was looking for this type of group. The Velvet Angels were talented and versatile doing a mix of R&B, pop, gospel, and soul music, and doing them all a cappella. Things were starting to happen for the Velvet Angels; they were hired to do commercials for Lionel Trains, but unfortunately their manager became ill and that deal fell apart.
And right about here is where the Velvet Angels' story gets very interesting and also somewhat confusing. Nolan had remained on good terms with Hunter and Johnson and had talked about reuniting with them. In 1963, Strong came to New Jersey and spent some time with the group, rehearsing and appearing with them at the Tender Trap. Some of these rehearsal sessions at their hotel (the Madison Hotel in Jersey City, NJ) were recorded on a basic home tape recorder. A young man named Angelo Pompeo made the acquaintance of some of the group members and eventually purchased some of the rehearsal tapes. Johnson was not there at the time of the "deal," nor aware of it until after the fact. The tapes soon found their way to Eddie Gries, who would issue some of the tunes as singles on his Medieval label.
And so in 1964 "I'm in Love" b/w "Let Me Come Back" was issued as Medieval 201. Both sides highlighted the bass work of Johnson, with a bass lead on "Let Me Come Back," and an incredible driving bass on "I'm in Love" (also released as Co-Op 201). Interestingly, the Medieval record credits "Strong" as the writer while the Co-Op version credits "Calhoun-Hunter-Johnson-Iverson." The singles were well received at the time by a subculture of doo wop collectors that had developed in the metropolitan New York City area, but garnered little notice elsewhere. And yes, Strong is heard on these tapes but mostly as a background singer, although he did lead vocal on "Fools Rush In." More Velvet Angels material was released later through Gries on the Relic Best of Acapella series, as well as his Acappella Showcase Presents the Velvet Angels LP, also on Relic. The picture of the Velvet Angels that appears on the Relic Velvet Angels album incorrectly identifies Johnson (third from left) as Strong.
Jimmy Strong died January 29, 1970, at age 34. His brother Nolan would join him on February 21, 1977, at age 43. Hunter, Edwards, and Eubanks are also deceased.
The other members of the original group were Juan Guitierrez (later replaced by "Big Jim" Strong, Nolan's brother), tenor; Willie Hunter, baritone (March 24, 1936 - April 1978); Quentin Eubanks (first replaced by George Scott and then by J.W. "Jay" Johnson), bass; and Bob "Chico" Edwards (died March 11, 2001) on guitar.
J.W. "Jay" Johnson, the last surviving member of the Diablos, reformed in The Diablos in 2007 with new vocalists, including: Bobby Turk, Art Howard, Mike Clark. The group, "Nolan Strong's Diablos," is booking shows in the United States.
Influence on Smokey Robinson
In a 2008 interview with Goldmine, Smokey Robinson said: "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."
Nolan Strong & the Diablos
|1954||509/510||Adios My Desert Love / An Old Fashioned Girl||Each side of the release had a different number|
|1954||511||The Wind / Baby Be Mine|
|1955||514||Route 16 / Hold Me Until Eternity|
|1955||516||Do You Remember What You Did / Daddy Rockin' Strong|
|1955||518||The Way You Dog Me Around / Jump, Shake And Move|
|1956||519||You're The Only Girl Dolores / You Are|
|1956||522||Try Me One More Time / A Teardrop From Heaven|
|1957||525||The Mambo Of Love / Can't We Talk This Over||this 45 was put together from previous recorded sessions|
|1958||841||Come Home, Little Girl / Harriet||this 45 was put together from previous recorded sessions|
|1959||531||Goodbye Matilda / I Am With You*||* cover of a 1951 recording by the Dominoes on Federal 12039.|
|1959||532||If I Could Be With You / I Wanna Know|
|1960||536||Since You've Gone / What Are You Gonna Do|
|1962||544||I Don't Care / Blue Moon|
|1963||553||You're My Love / Everything They Said Came True||There is also a release # 553 by Nolan Strong with a different B-side|
|1964||564||Are You Making A Fool Out Of Me / You're My Happiness||backed by Tony Valla & the Alamos|
|1964||574||The Way You Dog Me Around / Jump With Me|
|unknown||Pyramid 159||White Christmas / Danny Boy|
- Nolan Strong
|1958||529||My Heart Will Always Belong To You / For Old Time's Sake|
|1962||546||Mind Over Matter (I'm Gonna Make You Mine) / Beside You|
|1963||553||You're My Love / I Really Love You||There is also a release # 553 by the Diablos with a different B-side|
|1963||556||(Yeah, Baby) It's Because Of You / You're Every Beat Of My Heart|
|1964||569||(What Did The Genie Mean When He Said) Ali-Coochie /
(You're Not Good Looking But) You're Presentable
- The Velvet Angels
Members: Nolan Strong, Bob Calhoun, Cy Iverson, Willie Hunter and J. W. Johnson
|1964||Medieval 201||I'm In Love / Let Me Come Back|
|1964||Medieval 207||Baby I Want To Know / Since You've Been Gone|
- [dead link]
- [dead link]
- "Music: The 100 greatest Detroit songs ever!". Metro Times. Retrieved 2012-09-07.
- "Nolan Strong Biography & Awards". Billboard.com. Retrieved 2012-09-07.
- Carson, David A. (2005). Noise, and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock 'n' Roll. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-11503-0.
- "FORTUNE numerical listing discography". 78discography.com. 2009-12-11. Retrieved 2011-12-30.
- "DetroitLabelsFORTUNElist". Capitolsoulclub.homestead.com. Retrieved 2011-12-30.
- Nolan Strong bio
- 100 Greatest Detroit Songs in Metro Times
- The Diblos bio
- Smokey on The Diablos
- Fortune Records bio
- All Music Guide bio
- Diablos bio
- Smokey Robinson on Nolan
- The Velvet Angels bio
- Doo-Wopp Hall Of Fame Of America
- Nolan Strong Billboard bio
- Listen to Nolan Strong Blog
- Buy the Nolan Strong tribute record