Nick Fortuna was born to play bass guitar, destined to put the rhythm in Rhythm and Blues. Fortuna has a unique style and flair while playing the bass to perfection, feeling every note he plays.
Part of your typical Italian family growing up in Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighborhood, Fortuna was surrounded by music every day. Nick learned to appreciate all styles, from his grandfather’s favorite Italian opera to his older brother’s rock and roll. But one style, rhythm and blues, caught Nick’s attention and never let go.
When The Beatles invaded the United States in 1964, Nick Fortuna was a student at Niles West High School. He wasn’t hard to find, part of a population of self-described “greasers.” With pompadour hair styles, blue jeans and pointed toe shoes, Fortuna’s group was straight out of American Graffiti. But inside his tough exterior was a distinct heart full of soul.
Fortuna liked rock and roll fine, but the lure of brazen R&B songs found on stacks of wax was more important than the smooth R&R melodies of the day. His first guitar was a gift from his grandfather, who saw him admiring it, saying to him in Italian, “take it, it’s yours to keep.” That gift opened the door to his future career.
His first song on that guitar was “Peggy Sue,” but soon he was playing along to R&B songs on the Stax label, while practicing other rock songs of the day. A high school classmate invited him to join a band he was forming, along with his cousin and another friend. At their first practice, leader Jerry Elarde, vocalist/drummer, introduced Nick to Curt Bachman and Jerry’s cousin, Carl Giammarese.
Practicing in the basements of their family homes, the assembled group became a band, with Nick on rhythm guitar, Carl on lead, Curt on bass and Jerry on drums. Their first gig as “The Centuries” was outside an appliance store in Morton Grove. From that appearance, the band quickly developed a following, playing songs by The Hollies and The Beatles. From private parties and weddings in 1964, The Centuries graduated to playing clubs including Like Young, Mother’s, and the Wild Goose.
There, The Centuries would often share the bill with another neighborhood group, The Pulsations, featuring John Poulos, George LeGros, Dennis Miccolis, and Dennis Tufano. After he graduated high school, in between gigs, Nick acquired a barber’s license, ever aware of the importance of a “steady day job” when you’re a musician.
When Curt Bachman left The Centuries to join Saturday’s Children, Giammarese soon left to join The Pulsations. Fortuna followed the music out to Chicago’s Mannheim Road, where a more mature audience favored R&B tunes. He auditioned for a group called Jimmy V and the Entertainers and was invited to join immediately.
When he went to pick up a guitar, the leader shook his head ‘no’ and pointed Nick toward the bass guitar and said, “if you want the gig, that’s what you’re playing.” Fortuna picked up the bass and hasn’t put it down since, enjoying the chance to play Motown, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown signature songs.
Meanwhile, across town, it wasn’t long before The Pulsations needed a bass player and their manager, Carl Bonafede, called Nick to see if he’d consider joining them. They’d been featured on WGN’s All Time Hits Show for 3 weeks with another 9 to go. Fortuna accepted and looked just as home in a tuxedo on television as he did atop the Harley he drove around Chicago. Fitting in and finding his groove was a Fortuna specialty, as they also played to large crowds in the popular Holiday Ballroom, where Bonafede DJ’d.
The Pulsations were known as “The Buckinghams” by week 4 of the TV show. The lineup included Fortuna on bass, Giammarese on lead guitar, John Poulos on drums, and Dennis Miccolis on keyboards, while George LeGros and Dennis Tufano shared lead vocal duties, while Fortuna added a tenor voice to the backing sounds. Riding the wave of the British Invasion, Fortuna and company were now in Carnaby Street-style suits and covering contemporary hits, including the Beatles, while on WGN. At home, Nick was still dialed in to R&B songs, while gaining recording studio experience at the famous Chess Studios for USA Records, laying down tracks for The Buckinghams’ first releases.
1967 was a year that changed everything. The Buckinghams went to a new label, Columbia Records, with a new manager/producer, James William Guercio, and onto the Ed Sullivan Show and the national spotlight, when “Kind of a Drag” hit #1 nationally. Upon signing with Columbia, Fortuna was presented with the 2nd Hofner bass (Paul McCartney’s brand) ever brought to the USA. He played that bass on TV, but eventually moved to a 1966 Fender Precision bass.
For several years, Fortuna was part of The Buckinghams’ whirlwind ride at the top. Not long after Marty Grebb left The Buckinghams, Nick left to join a band called Music Power ’69, where he played soul music 6 nights a week, several shows a day, and thought he’d found his permanent niche. Never one to stagnate, in the 70s, Fortuna formed his own band, Crystal, which featured Nick on bass, Billy Corgan, Sr., guitar, Steve Fultz, lead vocals, Tyrone Green, drums, and Steve Ostoyich on Hammond B-3 organ. This monster band enjoyed immense popularity for their R&B style.
After some personnel changes, Fortuna created another band, Kinky Kids, featuring Billy Corgan, Sr., Steve Fultz, a new drummer, Bobby Mizialko, and John Suchan on keyboards. Nick also has the distinction of having played bass with Chicago legend Baby Huey and the Babysitters during his time away from The Buckinghams, and went from R&R to Funkytown in three notes. This is where Fortuna developed as a premiere bass player, as he adds his style to Buckinghams’ concerts and recordings today.
In 1980 when The Buckinghams reunited for ChicagoFest, Fortuna had moved to a 5-string bass. He’d seen the country on his ’91 Harley Davidson Fat Boy, catching every R&B act that he could hear. He has been greatly influenced by legends Ike and Tina Turner, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, the Tower of Power, the Chi-Lights, and James Brown. But, back in The Buckinghams, it felt like he’d come home.
During the Members’ Only “Happy Together” Tour in 1985, Fortuna’s newest talent, body building, was beginning to show its results. After training with a 3-time Mr. Olympia, Fortuna reinvented himself, and he is faithful to his workout regimen, at home or on the road.
Since 1964, music has been Nick Fortuna’s primary career. A man of steadfast loyalty, he’s never wavered from his devotion to the Chicago White Sox; he’s stayed true to his dedication to R&B music, while remaining a Buckingham all these years again since 1980. From school days watching westerns at the Ideal Theatre, to playing there 20 years later when it was renamed The Park West, Nick Fortuna’s wanderlust has taken him around the country, but his heart’s always been in Chicago’s neighborhoods. Have bass, will travel. That’s Nick Fortuna.