Sunday, February 13, 2005

R&B from The Twilight Zone: Nolan Strong & The Diablos

Singular, resonant guitar notes, like the ponderously slow, nightmarish ticking of a clock in an ominous film noir, presage urgent mystery. A zombified base vocal insistently chants the word "wind...wind...wind...", melding with an ethereal, phantom tenor which escalates and glides eerily in a lonely summer breeze. It is 1954, one year before Rock and Roll begins its ascent to the heights of fame, and Michigan songsters, the Diablos, create an interstellar R&B masterpiece, The Wind, an ode to the denial of lost love.

With exotic titles such as Adios, My Desert Love, and Hold Me Until Eternity, The Diablos helped tiny, homespun Fortune Records, begun in 1947 by songwriter Devora Brown, become a landmark of the Detroit music scene. Owing to the superlative high tenor of lead Diablo Nolan Strong, Fortune Records scored its third national hit, The Wind, considered to be one of the all-time masterpieces in black vocal group harmony.

Strong, inspired by the silky tenor of Drifters vocalist Clyde McPhatter, was born on January 22, 1934, in Scottsboro, Alabama, and was one of the premier musical influences on a youthful, pre-Motown Smokey Robinson. At the age of 16, Strong assembled the first Diablos grouping, consisting of himself, Willie Hunter, Quentin Banks, Juan Guitierrez, and guitarist Bobby Edwards, while attending Detroit's Central High School. With the advent of newly emerging Rock and Roll, as the Diablos booked on-going gigs throughout the mid-western and northeastern U.S., group members Banks and Guitierrez were replaced by musicians Jim Strong (Nolan's brother) and George Scott.

Because the Diablos had achieved notoriety prior to the insurgence of Rock and Roll and they hailed from a record label which could not compete with the promotion given to rising stars like Chicago's El Dorados, or nationally known artists such as Little Richard, The Moonglows, or Etta James, they never achieved their deserved commerical stature. Their majestic creation, The Wind, was covered by New York Doo-Woppers, The Jesters, who, in 1960, eclipsed The Diablos' version in terms of airplay and popularity. Times had changed and although the Jesters' version of The Wind was considered critically inferior, a new generation of listeners, many of whom did not know of the Diablos, were exposed to the Jester's version via the myriad rock and roll radio stations which had not existed in 1954.

Though the Diablos never achieved nationwide hit record status on Billboard and their name was changed to that of the Velvet Angels when some of their material was re-released in the early '60s, they remain as legends of the R&B and Doo Wop world because of the haunting intonations infused in their 1954 classic The Wind. Nolan Strong, whose soft, agile, fawnish voice sounded like a past-life Michael Jackson, died at the relatively young age of 43 in 1977 but his legacy continues on more than a quarter of a century after his death.


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