New tribute album celebrates unsung Detroit R&B star Nolan Strong
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Music legends as diverse as Lou Reed and Smokey Robinson have sung the praises of Detroit vocalist Nolan Strong, and yet his star remains tarnished and dusty 33 years after his death. Next Tuesday’s release of ‘Daddy Rockin’ Strong: A Tribute to Nolan Strong and the Diablos’ will rectify that omission, dishing out 13 modern interpretations of the dirty, doo-wop-flavored R&B that, for a time, made Strong one of Motor City’s biggest stars.
‘When it comes to Detroit music, Nolan deserves to be mentioned alongside Motown, Iggy Pop, the MC5 and the White Stripes,’ said Rich Tupica, whose label, The Wind Records (itself named after one of Strong’s biggest hits), will release the compilation.
Strong and his backup band, the Diablos, were barely out of high school when they signed with Fortune Records in 1954. Thanks to the family-owned label, which magnanimously recorded everything from lowdown local blues to bouncing polka ditties, Strong and the Diablos charted nationally with ‘The Wind’ and scored a No. 1 local radio hit with ‘Mind Over Matter.’ The good-looking, charismatic Strong was soon tooling around town in a brand new Cadillac, hounded by smitten female fans and hunted by jealous boyfriends.
But by the early ‘60s, the times they were a’changing. Local stars such as Strong and label-mates Andre Williams and Nathanael Mayer found their primitively recorded R&B supplanted by the shiny, synchronized pop soul pumping out of Berry Gordy’s hit-making Motown Records. ‘Fortune was a big label in Detroit for a hot minute, until Motown put a cigarette out on them,’ Tupica said. ‘Nolan faded off, which made it easy for people in Detroit to forget about him.’ His legacy had diminished to such an extent that he was buried without a headstone when he died at age 43 in 1977.
Although it took decades for Motor City musicians to raise enough money to properly mark Strong’s grave, Tupica’s carefully selected compilation draws together a cross section of current musicians who have been influenced by Strong’s haunting high tenor. From Mark Sultan (of King Khan and BBQ Show fame), who provides an eerie, effects-laden cover of ‘The Wind,’ to the Reigning Sound’s booming rock interpretation of ‘Mind Over Matter,’ to Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye’s Velvet Underground-influenced ‘I Wanna Know’ and Stiff Records alumnus Wreckless Eric’s dub-flavored ‘I Want to be Your Happiness,’ each cut is a tender love ballad to an overlooked legend.
Even Strong’s former friend Andre Williams provides a rollicking version of ‘The Way You Dog Me Around’ as well as heartfelt liner notes about his long-gone colleague. ‘I am proud to be a part of this collection,’ he wrote. ‘Hearing these Diablos songs reinterpreted today just proves how timeless Nolan’s music will always be.’
‘I put the record together because Nolan Strong’s voice is criminally overlooked,’ Tupica said. “None of Nolan’s records have been in print for over 20 years. In fact, they never made it to CD. The goal of this record is to get people interested in seeking out some of his dusty old 45s.”
Compare and contrast: Play Strong’s original version of “Mind Over Matter,” followed by Reigning Sound’s cover from ‘Daddy Rockin’ Strong: A Tribute to Nolan Strong and the Diablos.’ Look for the album Sept.14 from distributor Norton Records.
-- Jason Gelt