Turn it Down!

A look back at Fortune Records

New book, ‘Mind Over Matter,’ details a legendary Motown pre-cursor

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Back in 1946, Devora Brown decided to go her own way. The Detroit-based songwriter had sent multiple compositions to Tin Pan Alley producers, but never heard back from the song publisher and hitmakers in New York City.

While she struck out in the majors, Brown, along with her husband, Jack Brown, formed Fortune Records. Not only would they sign local talent, but it was also an outlet for her own songs. Much like Sun Records in Memphis, from day one, the fiercely independent Browns did everything in-house in Detroit.

From there, the now legendary label self-recorded and released stacks of brilliant records. From its early days of pressing big-band and polka records, to its eventual slide into raw R&B, blues, gospel, rockabilly and country, Fortune laid the groundwork for Motown and other more prominent Detroit imprints. While its releases sputtered out by the early ‘70s, and the company completely folded in the 1980s, record collectors from across the globe still seek out Fortune’s impressive (albeit sometimes bizarre) discography of vinyl—many of which are insanely rare and expensive.

A hefty new book, “Mind Over Matter: The Myths & Mysteries of Detroit's Fortune Records,” by (the late) Billy Miller and Michael Hurtt, chronicles the entire history of this blue-collar label and humble storefront studio. Over 576 pages, this deluxe hardcover (full-color) tome is essential for anyone interested in obscure, but amazing, records. It not only recounts the birth of the label and it’s unbelievable string of hits, but also the wild stories left behind by its roster of amazing talent. From drunken nights and brawls to uplifting stories of incredible Detroit gospel songs, this book has archived a long-missing chapter of Michigan’s rich music history. Shoot, it’s even where Bob Baldori, of Lansing’s own The Woolies, first recorded as a teen with Maury Dean & The Nite Shift.

Beyond that, blues legends like John Lee Hooker, Eddie Kirkland and Dr. Ross the Harmonica Boss (to only name a few) recorded a string of singles for Fortune, but its biggest sellers were R&B icons like Andre Williams, Nathaniel Mayer and Nolan Strong. Today, those names might not ring a bell for most people, but back in the 1950s and early ’60s, they were all local and regional stars who sold plenty of records and performed in front of huge audiences. While their devoted cult following mostly only know of the records they left behind, the authors of “Mind Over Matter” have documented captivating stories of these Motor City stars. Through countless interviews and tireless research, this new book — published via Miriam Linna’s Kicks Books — finally tells the story of our state’s best-kept secret.

Nolan Strong & the Diablos laid down an enigmatic doo-wop classic, “The Wind”— an eerie 1954 track revered by the likes of Jonathan Richman, who often name-drops Strong as his favorite singer. Ditto that Lou Reed. Another massive hit for the label was the raucous 1961 R&B tune “Village of Love” by Nathaniel Mayer. Only 17 at the time, Mayer went on to record a stack of both wild dance tunes and beautifully sung love ballads. During his final years, Mayer returned to the stage, recorded new acclaimed albums and was championed by the Black Keys and the Dirtbombs.

The rowdy Andre Williams, who also saw a resurgence in the ’90s-2000s, first shot to stardom with a string of oddball R&B hits. Known for his spoken-word approach to vocals, many consider Williams a pioneer of hip-hop, thanks to his edgy, street-inspired singles like “Jail Bait,” “Bacon Fat” and “Cadillac Jack.” During his comeback years, Williams performed alongside the likes of Jack White, recorded many studio albums and frequently toured the world.

This new book, named after the 1962 Nolan Strong hit “Mind Over Matter,” is essential reading for those who want to understand where Motown came from. I mean, after all, Smoky Robinson himself admits the overwhelming influence. In 2008, he told a reporter about his formative years as a youngster in Detroit. “There was a guy who lived in Detroit and had a group called Nolan Strong & The Diablos,” Robinson said. “His name was Nolan Strong. They were my favorite vocalists at that time.”

“Mind Over Matter: The Myths & Mysteries of Detroit's Fortune Records” (Kicks Books) is available at nortonrecords.com

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