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 in Detroit around 1950 and originally consisted… Show more of Strong (lead tenor), Juan Guieterriez (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 in to 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 obviously 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 outing which would establish the group among the 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," Guieterriez 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. Gordy reportedly offered Jack and Devora Brown 5,000 dollars for the Diablos contract, but the Browns countered with 15,000 dollars and the deal never transpired. Later, Gordy would cover the Diablos' "Mind Over Matter" on his Mel-O-Dy label with a group called the Pirates (aka the Temptations).
But where one story ends, another begins. 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.
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 '60s Johnson formed the soul group the Four Sonics, releasing two singles in 1968 on Detroit's Sport label. The group recorded through the mid-'70s. In 2002, Johnson is still an exciting stage performer, and has performed recently with Nathaniel Mayer, reprising his "Village of Love" work.
Jimmy Strong passed away 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. ~ Jim Dunn & Nikki Gustafson, Rovi
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