restricted access Fortune Records for Truly Great Music
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3 early d eTroıT soul THE PRE-MOTOWN SOUNDS 98 ı t was the “shoulda, woulda, coulda” of Detroit record companies. It should have achieved the iconic status of a Chess Records, or a Specialty, or a King—but it didn’t. It would have had better success if it had secured national distribution—but it didn’t.And it could have had that distribution,and sold millions upon millions of records, if only the owners had had more foresight and vision—but they didn’t. The contender in question is Fortune Records, Detroit’s influential independent label of the ’50s and ’60s. At its worst, Fortune’s approach to recording was amateurish and clichéd.At its best— which was often—Fortune made records that were raw, immediate, and compelling.The Fortune sound hit you in your face with its originality. For decades, fans of Detroit music have been able to easily identify a Fortune production by a particularly earthy, primitive, focused tone that seemed to leap out of the grooves of the record and into the ears of the listener. Although accidental, the limitations of Fortune’s crude studio and basic equipment created a powerful mix like no other label had. Fortune Records for Truly Great Music S. R. Boland Fortune Records, 2002. © Leni Sinclair Collection. 99 S. R. Boland Cub Koda, noted music historian and member of rock band Brownsville Station, once remarked: “Fortune Records is the great secret record company in the history of Detroit rock ’n’ roll. They’re the missing piece in the Detroit rock ’n’ roll historical equation. Any discussion . . . without mentioning them is totally inaccurate and incomplete.” Fortune was started in the fall of 1946 with a $3,000 investment by Jack and Dorothy “Devora” Brown,awhiteJewishcouple.Jackwasanaccountant by trade, and Devora was an accomplished pianist andsongwriterfromCleveland;theymetinthemid- ’40s. Having started a music publishing company with Devora’s brother—Trianon Publications—to manage Devora’s songwriting talents, the Browns launched Fortune as a recording arm of their enterprise. Jack jokingly told Devora that they’d make a fortune off her songs when casting about for a name for the record label—and with a couple of different breaks or decisions, they might have made that fortune. In the long run, Fortune’s revenue probably did put food on the Brown family table—there were children, Janice and Sheldon, to provide for—but not much more than that. Jack Brown was a friendly, likable man. He developed connections all over town and would personally make calls on disc jockeys and distributors to hawk his new recordings. With his wife nearby, he would often poll customers on which side of a current Fortune single they preferred. After the customer passed judgment, Jack’s dismayed exclamation would usually be, “See, Devora, I told you—we’re pushing the wrong side!” Devora Brown wrote many of the songs recorded by the artists, especially in the early days, and engineered most of the recording sessions. Devora’s songwriting often focused on the exotic: spiritualism, magic lamps, gypsies, crystal balls, the Orient, and Latino culture. She has been characterized as a well-meaning but naïve woman who viewed her roster of artists as her children. Fortune was but one of many independent (nonmajor) Detroit-based labels in that era; others were JVB (owned by black record-store proprietor Joe Von Battle); Von (again, owned by Von Battle); Sensation (run by Bernie Besman and John Kaplan); Staff; and Prize. However, Fortune would have the biggest impact of any Detroit indie until the rise of Motown Records. Generally speaking, rock ’n’ roll was birthed by the four groups that mainstream, middle-class America didn’t want (or at least didn’t want to acknowledge): blacks, hillbillies, Italian Americans, and Jews.The artists of the genre usually came from the first three groups; the independent label owners usually belonged to the last category. In Detroit in the ’50s, Fortune’s artists and owners pretty much followed that same paradigm. What made Fortune different from a typical New York or Los Angeles indie was that the label was very much an amateur operation. The Browns ran it almost as a hobby, a cottage industry, with a paternalistic approach to its artists. Often, Devora Brown would bring homemade soup or sandwiches into the studio for the artists to eat during a break. But the Browns also had a limited outlook,were fiercely protective of their assets, and were fearful— some would say...


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