By Charles Sercombe
Since most of us are semi-quarantined in our houses, without much to do during this COVID time, may we recommend a book to dig into?
Go get yourself a copy of “Mind Over Matter: The Myths and Mysteries of Detroit’s Fortune Records.”
This incredible music tome of 500-plus pages pays homage to the legendary Fortune record company label, which during the heyday of Detroit rock and soul music in the 1950s and 1960s, was an incredible well of talent that captured multiple musical styles within its cinderblock walls.
You could say they were the small label “standing in the shadow” of Motown.
But this was no roster of “B” acts.
If you haven’t heard of singers and groups like Nolan Strong & The Diablos, Nathaniel Mayer, Andre Williams, The York Brothers, Eddie Kirkland, Gino Parks (and so many more), get yourself to youtube.com right now and check them out.
And, there is a Hamtramck connection. Co-author Michael Hurtt is a Hamtramck resident. He, along with writing partner Billy Miller, of New York City, spent over a decade working on, and pondering over, this labor of love.
Miller, unfortunately, passed before the book was completed. RIP, Billy.
It is both a book about the Fortune label, and its mighty roster of artists, as well as a look at the social dynamics of Detroit back in the day.
Lots and lots of informative history here, folks.
One of those Fortune recording stars includes Tony Valla, of Tony Valla and the Alamos fame.
There’s another Hamtramck connection with him.
Eric Villa (yes, Villa, not Valla), also of Hamtramck, who has an impressive musical pedigree himself, has been in charge of making The Alamos ride again. He plays bass in Tony’s new band.
Tony is in his 80s now, and he’s still sharp as ever. We were at his west-side Detroit home when Michael Hurtt presented him with his own copy of the book, which has a chapter about Tony and his band.
Hurtt is no stranger to Hamtramck. His band, the Haunted Hearts, annually plays at the Hamtramck Labor Day Festival. He’s a mighty fine singer and guitar strummer as well, and has a number of recordings out there to enjoy.
We sent questions to Hurtt for him to say a few words about his book. As it turned out, Hurtt has more than a few words – and it’s all a good read.
Here’s what he emailed back to us:
I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, but moved to my “adopted home town” of New Orleans when I was in my early twenties. Growing up in Indiana, I was always fascinated by Detroit.
The blend of music, manufacturing and amazing architecture led me to view it as something of a Mecca of the Midwest. South Bend was kind of a mini-Detroit, in that it was also a faded auto town — its main industry was Studebaker — and there was a lot of under-appreciated urban history amongst the rust belt ruins.
I first visited Detroit just before moving to New Orleans. My brothers’ band, the Church Key Five, was playing at the Old Miami for a Fourth of July bash with the Gories, the Covingtons and the 3-D Invisibles.
At the time, Fortune Records was actually still fully intact a few blocks away on Third Avenue!!
But I didn’t find out about it until a few months later, when Fred from the Covingtons came to visit me in Indiana with some tapes that (late Detroit taste maker) Tony Fusco had made for him.
From the moment I heard them, I was obsessed!! Sandwiched between such hillbilly madness as Roy Hall’s “Dirty Boogie” and Rufus Shoffner and Joyce Songer’s “Every Little Raindrop” was a song by the York Brothers called “Hamtramck Mama”!!
Little did I know that a few decades later I’d be co-authoring a book on Fortune Records while living in Hamtramck! (For the most part that is, although we started it when I lived in Corktown. I moved to Hamtramck after getting a Kresge Grant in 2012).
I began playing music in high school, and formed a garage R&B band, the Royal Pendletons, upon moving to New Orleans. Detroit was a spiritual destination for our first tour, and remained a continued stop over the years.
I then formed the Haunted Hearts, in order to branch out into more countrified sounds like honky-tonk, western swing and hillbilly blues and, between the two bands, Fortune’s disparate genres and sounds have been a big influence.
When I landed in Detroit in 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — and then wound up staying here, because my house was flooded, and I lost nearly everything — the Haunted Hearts became a “band of two cities,” so to speak, with lineups in both places that often worked with one another.
As a guitar player, I’ve been very lucky to have backed up a handful of my favorite Fortune artists, including Andre Williams, Nathaniel Mayer, Eddie Kirkland, Melvin Davis and Spyder Turner. Each and every one of these guys have taught me so much, and playing music with them definitely gave me a more immersive angle when it came to the book.
In the case of Andre, Nathaniel and Eddie, I played with them in both New Orleans and Detroit, so there were years of incredible experiences that I treasure with those cats.
What is the book about, and why is it so important?
The book is about Fortune Records, a tiny mom-and-pop label founded in Detroit in 1946, that not only had its own, one-of-a-kind sound (and was active for 40 years) but released hundreds of records in a variety of genres, including risqué hillbilly, be-boppin’ jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll of all stripes and colors — from doo-wop to rockabilly — as well as gospel, soul, bluegrass and even Gypsy and polka music.
Despite being a proving ground for Motown’s Funk Brothers, and having a direct influence on almost all of Detroit’s early rock ‘n’ soul pioneers — including Smokey Robinson and Mitch Ryder — Fortune is still relatively unknown.
Hopefully this book will kick start the conversation about a part of Detroit’s history that is still very much alive, not only through its recordings, but through the stories we bring to life within its pages.
How long did it take to write and compile?
The book took 10 years to write, but many of the interviews were done prior to that.
Both Billy and I had such a longstanding fascination with Fortune, and all the underground and “lost” Detroit music scenes in its orbit, that we were researching and digging up info, and talking to people, long before we made the hard decision to actually do a book.
This gave us a good pathway when we started, because we could both bring a lot to the table.
Almost right away, we realized that there were so many musical tributaries that ran across the threshold of Fortune, that rather than write a straight history of the label, we should write a love letter to the essence of Detroit music, told through the prism of Fortune Records.
It was also important that every photo, record label and shred of ephemera that we could get our hands on be integrated with the text in full color. Hence the five-pound, hardcover, 550-plus page finished product, which has also been nicknamed “The Brick.”
On Billy Miller (co-author):
Billy was the perfect partner in this project, because we were on such a similar wavelength when it came to music—how we experienced it and how we thought its history should be presented—that we were really of a singular mind every step of the way.
Billy and his wife Miriam Linna, our publisher, were very inspiring influences on my writing style, from the moment I picked up my first copy of their incredible rock ’n’ roll magazine, KICKS, back in the ‘80s, so our approaches dovetailed perfectly with one another.
Billy and I both loved to dig for unknown records, and then dig for the stories behind them.
We had a lot of kindred spirits in Detroit, and two in particular that I miss so much are Jim Shaw and Larry Ray, who were as fascinated with Fortune and its entire Detroit milieu as Billy and I were. I met Jim before I moved here — and had already known his brother Steve for years previous to that — but upon my arrival in Detroit, he and his wife Sandy were so welcoming to me in so many ways.
I met Larry at the long-lamented (and now legendary) Roseville record show within weeks of arriving in Detroit. He was truly one of my favorite things about the city, as was Jim, and I wish these guys could have lived to see this book.
The fact that Billy passed away before the book could be finished was an absolutely brutal part of the journey, but we had discussed every element of what we’d planned in such detail that I never had any doubt about how it should be completed.
Even after he left the physical plane, Billy’s spirit presided over this book in a truly cosmic way, and made its publication even more important to all involved.
On Tony Valla:
Tony was a perfect example, in a way, of how Billy and I worked together.
First, we enthused over what made the guy so special, how cool his records were and the fact that he’d done so much behind-the-scenes work at Fortune, with his bands the Orbits and Alamos backing some of the label’s most iconic artists: Nolan Strong, Doctor Ross, Nathaniel Mayer, the Delteens and the Creators.
Then Billy, who’d just joined Facebook, contacted his very first Facebook friend, Tony’s daughter Florrie. She gave him Tony’s number, and Billy called him up and interviewed him.
Then I went over to Tony’s house and interviewed him as well.
So we had two very long and detailed interviews to draw from, which fit our vision of the book perfectly, because one of our first rules of thumb was to let the artists tell the stories in their own words whenever possible. To basically get out of the way and let these folks have the floor.
One thing that fascinated us about Tony, that we didn’t know until I visited him, were the details of his musical heritage in San Antonio, and the teenage band he had with Flaco Jimenez.
There’s this whole incredible Tejano-fueled rock ‘n’ roll and R&B scene from San Antonio that Doug Sahm (later of the Sir Douglas Quintet) came out of, and Tony had left Texas right before that took off, but he talked about one of the earliest bands that fused this stuff together, Conjuto San Antonio Alegre, who started playing rock ’n’ roll, and took the name Mando and the Chili Peppers.
So we were able to use that world, as well as his arrival in Southwest Detroit and early exploits in Mexicantown, as jumping off points — and reference points — to his story.
In this way, so many fascinating yet disparate worlds connected together, which in a nutshell is not only the story of so many of his fellow Fortune artists, but the story of Fortune Records itself — and on a grander scale, the story of Detroit music.
Where can the book be purchased?
“Mind Over Matter: The Myths and Mysteries of Detroit’s Fortune Records” by Billy Miller and Michael Hurtt is available at all record stores in Hamtramck: Lo and Behold, The Record Graveyard, Detroit Threads, as well as in the metro area at Street Corner Music, Book Beat, Third Man Records, Peoples Records, Solo Records and Cold Truth Soft Serve Ice Cream.
It can also be ordered online from Kicks Books/Norton Records at nortonrecords.com, where everything on the website is 20% off through New Year’s Eve.
When it comes to good food and great times, Hamtramck has plenty to offer. In this column, we talk about the people who live here, and what’s happening at our bars, restaurants and other events throughout the city.
Posted Dec. 11, 2020