THE FLAMINGOS (By Steve Walker)
Sollie McElroy (lead) [later, Nate Nelson]
When the Flamingos hit the international hit parades in 1959 with the deeply romantic "I Only Have Eyes For You" it was the first that I had heard of them (although there had been earlier UK releases). This was probably the case for most record buyers outside the USA, and yet this group of beautifully harmonizing individuals had been laying down mood music on disc since 1953.
In 1950 cousins Jacob (Jake) and Ezekial (Zeke) Carey moved to Chicago's Douglas community from their native Baltimore, home of Orioles legend Sonny Til, who they saw perform several times in 1948 and 1949. They joined the local black Jewish Church of God and Saints of Christ congregation on 39th and State and met Paul Wilson and Johnny Carter (later cousins to the Careys through marriage).
The foursome began singing in the choir, eventually spilling out onto the streets near 35th and 36th and Lake Park, the same area where the Highway QCs and Sam Cooke sang. The group owes part of its uniqueness to their early singing of Jewish hymns. Minor key melodies were prevalent, giving the music a feeling of foreboding or sadness, perhaps contributing to the eerie quality of the group's later singing on ballads like "Whispering Stars."
The four founder members recruited Earl Lewis as a lead singer and called themselves the Swallows, then El Flamingos, then the Five Flamingos and finally just the Flamingos. At a club called Martin's Corner on the South Side, the young singers were discovered and signed by manager Ralph Leon, who in turned signed them with Chance Records, Art Sheridan's new South Side label, after being turned down at United Records. By this time, Sollie McElroy had replaced the unreliable Earl Lewis as lead singer.
They released their first single, "If I Can't Have You," in March 1953 and "Golden Teardrops" in October of the same year. The latter song became a strong regional hit in Chicago and New York and later kicked off the doo-wop collecting craze when it became the first 45 to sell for $20 at the legendary Times Square Records stall in a Manhattan subway. "Golden Teardrops" is often quoted as the most perfect group harmony record ever released and regularly tops polls from aficionados of this style of music.
In November 1953 they made a winter tour with Duke Ellington that took them to the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. and the Apollo in New York City. During this time the group developed an on-stage choreographic act that thrilled their audiences with its departure from the typical five-guys-around-a-microphone routine. They also began learning instruments to reduce their dependence on pick-up backing bands.
Chance Records faded away in 1955 and after a hit-less stop at Al Benson's Parrot Records, where they recorded the first version of the classic "Dream Of A Lifetime", the group signed with the South Side's biggest label, Checker/Chess Records, where the harder-edged Moonglows were hitting the high-spots with "Sincerely".
Sollie McElroy had left the group to form the Moroccos, but Nate Nelson (a cousin of the Orioles' lead singer, Sonny Til) took over the lead vocal duties and catapulted "I'll Be Home" into the top 10 of the R&B charts in 1956. As so often happened in those days, Pat Boone recorded a blander version and enjoyed a top 10 pop hit with the song.
"We got very hurt by that song," Zeke Carey says in the liner notes to "The Chess Masters." "He [Pat Boone] sold many times more records than we did. We had worked so hard to get through and we knew that it was going to be a bona fide hit. We had done a show with Alan Freed in New York, and Pat Boone was also on the show. Our song had been out about three weeks. About two weeks after that show, his record came out and swamped ours. It was a devastating, painful experience."
Three more of the Flamingos' finest recordings followed: "A Kiss From Your Lips"; my own favourite, "The Vow"; and "Would I Be Crying" (which was the Flamingos first UK release on London-American 8373 in February 1957).
The Flamingos appeared in the 1956 Alan Freed movie, "Rock, Rock, Rock," performing "Would I Be Crying" (Freed also included "The Vow" and "Jump Children" in his 1959 film "Go Johnny Go!"), but when Zeke Carey and Johnny Carter were drafted that summer, the group lost its momentum.
After a brief, hitless period with Decca, they reorganized as a sextet with three founding members - Paul Wilson and the two Careys - joined by Nate Nelson, Tommy Hunt and vocalist/guitar player/arranger Isaiah Terry "Buzzy" Johnson (Johnny Carter had joined the Dells upon his demob).
The rejuvenated group signed with End Records in 1958, where Buzzy Johnson's ability to read charts and arrange music proved invaluable. He co-wrote the beautiful ballad "Lovers Never Say Goodbye," (a modest hit) with lead singer Paul Wilson and then came up with the arrangement for the group's biggest hit.
"George Goldner wanted us to go in another direction than regular R&B," Johnson said. "He wanted us to do standards like the Platters, who were doing songs like 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.' I was open to the idea, because I wasn't raised on R&B; my parents listened to Patti Page, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots and Bing Crosby. When George said he wanted me to change the structure of the songs and give them a nice flavor, I was excited because it was such a good challenge for me."
"I Only Have Eyes for You" was the hit, but the Flamingos also recast tunes such as George Gershwin's "Love Walked In" and Ray Noble's "Goodnight Sweetheart" into their own unique brand of melodious harmony. They were even able to put a jazzy spin on rock 'n' roll songs such as Sam Cooke's "Nobody Loves Me Like You" and Doc Pomus' "Your Other Love."
In 1958 the Flamingos did a rare backup for Bo Diddley on an even rarer ballad performance for Bo titled "You Know I Love You," which was not released until 1990 when MCA put out a special Bo Diddley boxed set. It was the most subdued performance ever heard from Bo, and the Flamingos' prominent harmonies seem to have mellowed the Diddler. Zeke maintained he was not on the Diddley backup though he did recall backing Gone artist Ral Donner with Jake on one long-since-forgotten single.
1959 to 1961 was the group's most prolific period chart- and album-wise. End put out four LPs in four years, ("Requestfully Yours", "Flamingo Favorites", "The Sound Of The Flamingos" and "Flamingo Serenade"), along with such outstanding singles as "Love Walked In" (#88 Pop, July 1959), "I Was Such a Fool" (#71 Pop, November 1959), "Mio Amore" (#74 Pop, #26 R&B, June 1960), "Your Other Love" (#54 Pop, November, 1960), and "Time Was" (#45 Pop, June 1961).
By 1961, however, the group was falling apart again. Tommy Hunt left for a solo career; Nelson and Johnson formed a rival group called the Modern Flamingos.
In the spring of 1964 the Flamingos returned to Checker for a few sides. They recorded an incredible Latin-rhythmed version of Oscar Hammerstein's "Lover Come Back to Me" that would have established a whole new legion of Flamingos followers had radio given it a chance to be heard.
In 1965 the veterans joined Phillips Records and released a funk/doo wop version of Bing Crosby's 1934 (number three) hit "Temptation."
In early 1966 they applied an "I Only Have Eyes for You" treatment to Hoagy Carmichael's song "The Nearness of You" and the effect was brilliant. It was the flip, however, that got the action: "The Boogaloo Party," a catchy dance tune sung mostly in unison, became their first R&B charter in six years (#22, #93 Pop). (trivia question: out of all the fantastic Flamingos recordings ever made, which is the only single ever to make the British charts? Answer: "The Boogaloo Party" (#26, and it took three and a half years to get there, charting in June of 1969).)
By late 1966 Nate Nelson had left Atco, where he had recorded one excellent single with the Starglows (a Flamingos sound-alike) called "Let's Be Lovers." He shifted to Musicor Records as lead of the Platters, and one of his first singles was a beautiful remake of the song he'd sung years before with the Flamingos, "I'll Be Home."
The Flamingos' last charter was a 1970 ode to the black cavalry soldiers of the 1880s titled "Buffalo Soldier" (#86 Pop, #28 R&B). A few singles for Roulette, Worlds, Julmar, and their own Ronze label (including three LPs shifting between an old and new sound) and the Flamingos were finished with recording.
In the early '90s they were still performing with Zeke and Jake at the helm along with relative newcomers Archie Saterfield, Kenny Davis, and Ron Reace, and singing a wider variety of material than ever. Sadly, as far as I can tell, none of the original Flamingos are now with us in 2004.
Though they've had only one national US top 20 hit and only 11 national US charters all told, the artists they've influenced (including the Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jackson Five, the Spinners, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and Gladys Knight and the Pips to name just a few) testify to their significance.
When Dick Clark wanted the best for his "Rock & Roll: The First Twenty-Five Years on TV," the Flamingos were there. When the 1988 Grammy Awards wanted the best of the '50s, the Flamingos were there.
Their timeless recordings live on forever. Recommended CD's:
Further reading: "American Singing Groups", Jay Warner (Billboard Books)
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