Ten years in the making, a beautiful new book by Billy Miller and Michael Hurtt, Mind Over Matter: The Myths and Mysteries of Detroit’s Fortune Records, opens a window onto one of the most important early indie labels in rock ‘n’ roll history. This mom-and-pop operation ran out of storefront record shop, with the studio in the back. Fortune recorded just about any genre that walked in the door, including blues, hillbilly, doo wop, R & B, jazz, and, of course, rock’n’roll. Among their artists were John Lee Hooker, Nolan Strong & the Diablos, Andre Williams, Eddie Kirkland, Skeets McDonald, Johnny Powers and many others. James Marshall talked with Michael Hurtt and links to a 2-part “Fortune Story” he compiled on his The Hound radio show.
By James Marshall
“If I could sing I’d be Nolan Strong”- Lou Reed
“This Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame? Now there’s some serious bullshit…I ain’t saying put Andre Williams in your building. But come on, rock’n’roll wasn’t built by superstars. Rock’n’Roll was built by strugglers”— Andre “Mr. Rhythm” Williams.
True dat as the kids say. Such pearls of wisdom which emanated from Zephire Andre Williams (1936-2019) with stunning accuracy for most of his waking hours represent just a tiny part of the incredible body of knowledge, both historical, and mythological, found in this 552-page hardcover treatise on everything great to be found in postwar American popular culture. Mind Over Matter: The Myths and Mysteries Of Detroit’s Fortune Records by Billy Miller and Michael Hurtt (Kicks Books), with foreword by Lenny Kaye and afterword by John Sinclair, is the Rosetta Stone of rock’n’roll, and the greatest and most important book on popular music to be published in this century…maybe ever. It’s also a lot of fun, and a beautiful work of publishing as art.
To the novitiate, Fortune Records (and its subsidiaries Hi-Q, Strate8, and Reknown) was a mom-and-pop label in the truest sense, the mom and pop being Jack and Devora Brown, who ran the label from a Detroit storefront (record shop in front, recording studio in the rear) from 1946 until the 1980’s. They recorded pop, blues, hillbilly, bluegrass, gospel, sacred (white gospel), doo wop, rhythm and blues, rock’n’roll, soul, jazz, polka, traditional gypsy, honky tonk, and every imaginable combination of those sounds together could produce.
The Browns recorded John Lee Hooker, Nolan Strong & the Diablos, Andre Williams, Eddie Kirkland, Dr. Ross, the Davis Sisters, Roy Hall, Kenny Burrell, the 5 Dollars, Nathaniel Mayer, Skeets McDonald, Johnny Powers and many, many others. Fortune only produced four hit records in its history— “The Wind” and “Mind Over Matter” by Nolan Strong & the Diablos, “Bacon Fat” by Andre Williams (which was eventually leased to Columbia subsidiary Epic) and “Village Of Love” by Nathaniel Mayer. But hit records do not tell the story of rock’n’roll. Not by a long shot.
It’s the ultimate collector’s label in that, and I don’t think they did this on purpose but their records were almost collectable the minute they came out.
Mind Over Matter tells more than the story of a record label, it tells the story of a culture, the hybrid amalgamation of Southern blacks and whites who headed north to find work in the the auto factories, as well as Eastern European immigrants— Romanians, Gypsies, Russian Jews, of neighborhoods now gone like Paradise Valley and Hasting Street. And the crazy characters who inhabited it— The Mad Russian record distributor, the cross-dressing record store clerk cum piano player, gangsters and teenagers, and the entire underground world of Detroit and its environs.
Over ten years in the making, Mind Over Matter was co-written by Billy Miller, a legendary collector, president of Norton Records and editor of Kicks Magazine, who passed away in November of 2016, working feverishly into his final hours, and Michael Hurtt, a Detroit-based writer, collector and musician (whose credits include backing Fortune stars Andre Williams and Nathaniel Mayer). To put it into what you might call some kind of context, I called Michael Hurtt:
Nolan Strong & The Diablos: “Mind Over Matter”
JM: Congratulations. I must say this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen. The printing, the paper, the bindings, the color plates….it’s incredible. Just the amount of research…it’s a real testament to doing it yourself. No publisher would ever have gone for something this elaborate. Fortune was the true mom and pop record label of all time.
Michael Hurtt: Yeah, it was all family. Even if you were on the outs, you were still family. People would always find their way back to Fortune, even if they hadn’t recorded for ten years. One of the many interesting things, is the eccentricity of it all, it’s just mind boggling.
But hit records do not tell the story of rock’n’roll. Not by a long shot.
JM: Eccentric doesn’t quite say it…maybe perverse is the word. I mean, Devora the little old Jewish lady putting out all these dirty hillbilly records…
Michael Hurtt: Right, exactly. How did it happen? One of the things that helped the Browns was a sense of humor, a warped sense of humor. The Browns had this vision. They were coming from a Tin Pan Alley background. Eddie Cantor would have been what they were listening to at home, and aspiring to put onto a record. They tried it with “Jane, Sweet A Summer Rain” and a few other records, and then they get wind of, because they have this record store on Linwood that they’re in the middle of Detroit and there’s all these cultures coming together— Appalachian hillbillies, jazz guys, doo woppers from Central High School across the street, blues men, Romanian Gypsies, all these cultures coming together in mid-20th century Detroit and there they are and they’re smart enough, or maybe ignorant enough to capture it all. There’s so many records that would not have been made, artists who would have never been recorded, if it wasn’t for Fortune being unwittingly openminded. They weren’t trying to make a killer hillbilly record or a killer blues record; they didn’t even know what it was. I think that helped them so much.
JM: They certainly weren’t afraid of distortion.
Michael Hurtt: Right, they weren’t afraid of distortion, they weren’t afraid of the raw performance. I feel like they didn’t know what it was supposed to sound like. But they learned, over the years, and they developed their own taste, and that’s where those hillbilly party records come in. They had their own particular sense of humor with the idea of being able to sell these things as jukebox records, the sort of under the table party records that would be sure fire hits on jukeboxes in these bars all over town. It energized them in that direction.
JM: It must have been some of their most successful stuff—Skeets McDonald-“Birthday Cake Boogie” and Roy Hall “Dirty Boogie” are among the easiest Fortune sides to find.
Roy Hall-“Dirty Boogie”, on Fortune Records:
Michael Hurtt: Skeets McDonald’s “Tattooed Lady” and Roy Hall’s ‘Dirty Boogie” were hits. Underground hits, but steady sellers over the years. One of the things we go into and tried to tell in the book was the history of underground Detroit music and all these stories that are so near and dear to me and Billy through the prism of Fortune Records because when we scratched the surface, the more we dug, everything was connected to Fortune.
JM: This book is kind of a Rosetta Stone for…well, everything!
Michael Hurtt: That was the intention. Rosetta Stone, that’s the perfect term. One of the stories- the York Brothers and the story of Mellow, Hot Wax and Universal, which are these three weird, kind of murky labels that existed on the east side of Detroit starting in 1939 owned by this guy Edward Kiley. He seems to have sold or given masters to the Browns when he cashed in after World War II, including “My Hamtramck Mama” and “Highland Park Girl,” masters which became hits anew, they were a hit in ’39. The York Brothers were on King by this time and on the Grand Ole Opry. That kicks off the whole party record milieu with a bang. The story is so interesting because this guy, there’s not a whole lot known about Edward Kiley but did this guy influence the Browns? Or was this just a thing in Detroit? Did more people make these kind of records? There’s a lot of hillbilly party records from the era but the Fortune and the Detroit ones in general really stand above everything.
JM: There’s always been a sense of extremity about Detroit’s music, which unfortunately Motown polished the edges off of…even going into the rock era with the MC5 and the Stooges.
Michael Hurtt: The musical DNA of Detroit is always one of extremes it seems. It’s hard to put your finger on, but I think of the Falcons with that clanging guitar locking in behind their harmonies. The hard edge of the Midnighters…those are just the obvious examples. It really permeates all forms of Detroit music whether country, rock’n’roll, soul, doo wop. Nathaniel Mayer is a perfect example of that- his records are cataclysmic. The races colliding with all the influences. The white garage bands backing up the black soul singer and everything comes together and explodes on wax. That’s the cool thing to me, I’ve always been fascinated by that because Detroit…when I lived in New Orleans I didn’t know that much about it, but I always thought of Detroit as the Mecca because of the architecture and the music. After I got up here in the wake of the hurricane in 2005 (Katrina) I noticed how segregated it is here, but nobody told the musicians that back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. All these guys played together. Even in New Orleans where everyone lives together you didn’t have the musicians playing together. Either onstage or behind closed doors, but in Detroit you had that all over the place. Nathaniel Mayer and Gino Washington are the two best examples of that that I can think of. Even though Gino was not a Fortune guy, he might as well have been. That sound and spirit. The period where there was practically a record label on every block. This was the sound of the city.
JM: All the little indie labels, all the one stops*…
Michael Hurtt: There was record row on Woodward Avenue, where the HiQ Record Mart was, a couple of blocks over from Fortune where a lot of these labels like King had a Detroit office. There’s a really fascinating one stop run by this guy the Mad Russian. Sheldon Brown in his madness mentioned him to me a couple of times and I just kinda blew it off and then I was talking to Marsha Battle Philpot, Joe Von Battle’s daughter and she mentioned him too. The Mad Russian of Hasting Street, one of the last people to leave when they were digging up Paradise Valley for the Chrysler Freeway. The whole neighborhood of Paradise Valley is a major thread in the book, the whole culture having to be upended and moved to another part of town. This old Yiddish guy who was kind of grumpy but he loved kids. He would give her and siblings the latest Temptations record or whatever, knowing that Joe Von Battle would never want to carry that jitterbug music in his store, he just wanted blues and gospel. But he was always trying to help people out. The one thing we learned doing his book is that no matter what people say, no matter how crazy, it just might be true. And you just might miss it if you don’t take it seriously.
JM: The truth in the Fortune story is so much wackier than anything you could make up. What was your biggest surprise in your research? The connect-the-dots factor in the book is so incredible…
Michael Hurtt: I guess Rufus Shoffner. He got into this altercation with a guy, back down South. In self-defense, he killed a guy. He had a trial. It was always sort of whispered about later by his friends but they didn’t really want to talk about it. Then at some point I just randomly discovered the front page newspaper headlines about the whole thing- the entire story in full detail from when it happened with all the characters and it reads like the best dime store detective novel you can ever hope to stumble across. This is truly stranger than fiction that this guy went through this then came up here and started a new life. Something that might have put someone else on the railroad track to hell.
The one thing we learned doing his book is that no matter what people say, no matter how crazy, it just might be true. And you just might miss it if you don’t take it seriously.
JM: Right out of Night Comes To The Cumberlands [Harry M. Caudill’s 1963 classic book on violence and mayhem in Appalachia].
Michael Hurtt: That’s exactly what it is! To get a window into that world. It was the Middleborough Daily News that published the whole thing. Often old news stories can be so vague but this was in such detail it was cinematic. You could picture the whole thing, what was going on, what it smelled like, who was there, what the general store looked like, guys in there playing cards. There was one part we didn’t get in the book, that one of the guys was holding a Nehi bottle in his hand. An incredible window into that world.
Then there’s the whole Robert Johnson connection with Rev. C.L. Morton. The whole trip with Robert Johnson and Calvin Frazier coming to Detroit riding the rails and becoming the musical accompaniment to C.L. Morton over CKLW. Doing revivals with him. Then the Flying Clouds become his accompaniment and they go on to influence all these gospel quartets and are the grandfathers of the whole Detroit gospel scene that is very extreme, very intense, like all Detroit music. It’s very much alive today. It’s very interesting that there’s this direct connection to Robert Johnson.
It’s very interesting that there’s this direct connection to Robert Johnson.
JM: The Rosetta Stone factor again. Hanging over the book is this ghostly specter of Nolan Strong. Nothing much was known about him until this book, his birthday, death date and his records.
Michael Hurtt: Specter is the right word. The specter of his ghost really hung over Fortune Records pretty much since the day they (Jack and Devora Brown) met the guy. There was always this hope that they would be able to do something really revolutionary. Of course, to us, they did but on a worldwide level. He certainly had the potential.
JM: They were so paranoid about losing him, they sort of sabotaged his career.
Michael Hurtt: Right, there’s that, and also whatever personal demons that all of us have, back in the day when clinical depression wasn’t even a term. A guy like Nolan goes into the service, whatever his experiences where there he came out a changed man. He never drank before that, never took pills; in fact, he would fine members of the Diablos for having a sip of wine. When he came out of the Army, everyone who knew him said he was a different guy. It became increasingly harder to get him to produce on a consistent level. He’d come into the studio and he’d be distracted, you couldn’t really nail the guy down. Another thing about him is that weird ethereal spirit— I think they were chasing it, I won’t say they enjoyed chasing the spirit but it certainly creates intrigue. The more they chased it, the more difficult it became to capture.
JM: They got a lot a great records out of him. The last thing Fortune ever put out, the Daddy Rock LP of outtakes by Nolan Strong & the Diablos, has that alternate take of “I Wanna Know”, he sounds like a ghost singing.
NOLAN STRONG & THE DIABLOS- “I Wanna Know”, alternate take:
Michael Hurtt: That’s really good. I hope you write that.
JM: Devora Brown played the echo like an instrument.
Michael Hurtt: We could have gone on about Nolan Strong even though there’s four chapters, he’s such a compelling character and such a major force in the story. In a sense it’s a personal tragedy; he was so young when he cashed it in and he died at a young age. In a sense he had a purity to him in that he didn’t want to be a star, really. Therefore, he was his own worst enemy, the music business just demands…you’re not allowed to just make your own music. You have to always be on the rise, you have to always be going for the brass ring, blah blah blah. But I think he was a guy who just loved music and loved to sing. That was one of the biggest surprises. Tracking down Lee Alan the DJ. People always said when Nolan didn’t show up for the gig at the Walled Lake Casino in the wake of Mind Over Matter being a hit, that was the turning point in his career, that no one would play his records. Well, come to find out I couldn’t find anyone who ever asked Lee Alan about this so I finally did get to sit down and talk to him and he didn’t know anything about the story. He said it was absolutely untrue. Those dances were so successful that if someone canceled it was going to hurt. So that’s one of the myths we were able to debunk. There’s other ones like the dirt floor (in the studio). Some people swear there was a dirty floor, some people swear there wasn’t. There were some mysteries we tried to solve and some will probably never will solve.
JM: When I talked to Devora in the ‘80s, she was still up in arms about the Velvet Angels thing, I couldn’t get her off the subject.
Michael Hurtt: They did belabor every past imagined wrong, which did hold them back. They would seize upon these things that happened or that they imagined happened, and that seems to be a family trait. What could have been, what should have been, in terms of Nolan. It’s really quite charming, in a way, that she had such belief in this guy but at the same time, the singular focus, especially when they had a pretty big catalog they could have exploited, it always seems they were focused on Nolan, and for good reason. But they had a lot of other talent coming in and out of there, who knows what could have happened?
JM: They certainly didn’t exploit the John Lee Hooker recordings.
Michael Hurtt: Well, nobody would have thought you could sell something that sounded that crude, then “Boogie Chillen” becomes a hit on Modern in ’49.
JM: And they still don’t release his recordings. It took them ten years.
Michael Hurtt: Right. It wasn’t like Hooker wasn’t jumping from label to label. They could have gotten away with it. The York Brothers, they didn’t record them after “Hamtramck Mama” because they were signed to King. But Hooker,, most of the labels he’s on are people they had relationships with anyway. Like Chess, it was an insane job to unfuck his discography, trying to track his doings for a decade starting in 1948. There are Chess records that were recorded at Fortune, and Fortune Records that were done other places. I don’t know if they traded masters or what they did. There was Bernie Bessman at Sensation, it was like they were trading Hooker masters, but Fortune didn’t trade masters with anybody. They sold the Davis Sisters “Jealous Love” to 4-Star. They leased, or sold Epic “Bacon Fat” by Andre Williams. There’s two versions of “Bacon Fat”, the Epic version and the Detroit version— the blue label Fortune. You have to listen to the records to realize like “Tattooed Lady” by Skeets McDonald, four different versions, same master number and same label. Cherokee Chief, Bobo Jenkins, the 78 versions are different from the 45’s.
“We’re All God’s Chillun”-“Sir” John Lee Hooker, Fortune Records:
JM: The ultimate collector’s label.
Michael Hurtt: There’s a certain innocence with Fortune, were they in this for commercial reasons? For fun? For a hobby?
JM: They were making a living off of it.
Michael Hurtt: Yeah, it was their livelihood for sure. It was their life and they had so much fun with it. They put out records that….I don’t think they expected “Drunk Driver’s Comin’” by the Richard Brothers or “I’m Glad You Didn’t Say Goodbye” by Shorty Frog & the Spacemen to be breaking into the top ten. The put out records that were so unique that they had to have just believed in the artist, believed in the record. It’s the ultimate collector’s label in that, and I don’t think they did this on purpose but their records were almost collectable the minute they came out. It’s why some of this stuff is so hard to find, a lot of early record collectors realized what they were doing in real time. As opposed to coming back later and rediscovering it. A lot of the doo wop and rockabilly stuff was bought by (Pittsburgh dj) Mad Mike and those types of people. Music fanatics who picked up on it when the records were new. But Jack and Devora valued what they did, they sold their records for full price, always. They were crazy enough to think the music they recorded was worth something.
*- a “One Stop” was a distributor of various independent record labels. They no longer exist.