Doo wop group
In 2001 the list of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included such superstars as Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, and Aerosmith. Further down the list in terms of public recognition were the Flamingos, who were best known for the 1959 hit “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Although the doo wop group was not technically a one-hit wonder—it followed “I Only Have Eyes for You” with one other top 40 single on the pop charts the following year, “Nobody Loves Me Like You”—the group’s name was generally unknown to music fans by the time it joined better-known acts in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A closer took at the Flamingos’ impact on popular music, however, showed that the honor was richly deserved. They not only added a standard doo wop ballad to American popular music but also ranked as one of the most sophisticated doo wop groups in American popular music.
The Flamingos had their origins in 1949 in Chicago as a group formed by cousins Jake Carey and Zeke Carey, along with Johnny Carter and Paul Wilson, who were also cousins, under the name the Swallows. The four were all members of the Church of God and Saints of Christ, a denomination that combined the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity with elements of African
Members include Jake Carey (born Jacob Carey on September 9, 1926, in Pulsaski, VA; died on December 31, 1997), bass vocals; Zeke Carey (born Ezekiel Carey on January 24, 1933, in Bluefield, WV; died on December 24, 1999, in Washington, D.C.), tenor vocals; Johnny Carter (born on June 2, 1934, in Chicago, IL), tenor vocals; Tommy Hunt (born on June 18, 1934, in Pittsburgh, PA), vocals; Sollie McElroy (born on July 16, 1933, in Mississippi; died on January 15, 1995), vocals; Nate Nelson (born on April 10, 1932, in Chicago, IL; died on April 10, 1984), vocals; Paul Wilson (born on January 6, 1935, in Chicago, IL; died on May 4, 1988), baritone vocals.
Group formed as the Swallows in Chicago, IL, 1949; changed named to the Five Flamingos, then the Flamingos, early 1950s; released singles on Chance label, 1953-54; signed with Parrot Records, 1954; signed with Checker Records, 1956; also released singles on the Decca label; released biggest hit, “I Only Have Eyes for You,” on End Records, 1959; continued to record and perform, 1960s-1990s.
Awards: Induction, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Collectables Records, P.O. Box 72, Narberth, PA 19072, website: http://www.oldies.com.
American nationalism. Their religious affiliation set them apart from many of their neighbors, but it also gave them a distinctive musical training that would become a hallmark of the group’s sound. In an interview later quoted in Stars of Soul and Rhythm and Blues, Nate Nelson, who joined the group in 1955, said, “Our harmonies were different because we dealt with a lot of minor chords, which is how Jewish music is written.”
The teenagers were soon joined by Earl Lewis, who remained with the group until 1951. During this period, the group also changed its name from the Swallows to the Five Flamingos. As the Five Flamingos they gained a reputation in the Chicago area as exceptional live performers, with outstanding vocals backed up by polished dance moves. In addition to earning some money performing at house parties in Chicago, the band began circulating on the talent-contest circuit. With Sollie McElroy replacing Earl Lewis, the fivemember group—now known simply as the Flamingos—secured a recording contract with Chicago-based Chance Records in 1953.
The Flamingos released a half-dozen singles on the Chance label in 1953 and 1954, beginning with “If I Can’t Have You.” None of the releases were national hits, but they were popular with Chicago music fans who knew the group from its live performances. Despite the Flamingos’ lack of success on the charts, however, they were invited to tour with some of the major acts of the era, including the Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington orchestras. The group took another stab at the charts in 1954 and 1955 with a new record label, Chicago-based Parrot Records, but their three singles—“Dream of a Lifetime,” “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” and “I’m Yours”—again failed to have much impact. After another frustrating run at the charts, McElroy left the Flamingos in 1955; Chicago native Nate Nelson took his place.
With a style that mixed blues, ballads, and R&B, the Flamingos may have been a bit ahead of the times with their first releases in the early 1950s. By the mid-1950s, however, doo wop was reaching its peak on the charts. As outlined by Anthony J. Gribin and Matthew M. Schiff in their books The Complete Book of DooWop and Doo-Wop: The Forgotten Third of Rock ‘n Roll, the “classical doo-wop” period beginning in 1954 brought dozens of vocal groups to national prominence. Typically these groups featured vocal harmonies that used falsetto and bass parts to highlight the lead vocal, usually a tenor. With the often-complex vocal arrangements in the forefront of the song, the lyrics and instrumentation were usually kept simple; in fact, the most popular doo wop hits of the day almost always included nonsense syllables. Indeed, the name of the genre itself, “doo wop,” came from one of the most popular phrases added to a song.
The Flamingos finally broke through on the R&B charts in 1956 after they signed with a third label, Checker Records. Their fourth release on the label, “I’ll Be Home,” reached number five on the R&B charts and its follow-up, “A Kiss from Your Lips,” reached number 12 later that year. Although “I’ll Be Home” was a major hit, the Flamingos suffered a fate shared by many R&B groups of the era. Singer Pat Boone—who had already scored a number-one pop hit by recording a cover version of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” in 1955—now covered “I’ll Be Home,” which raced up the pop charts to number four, possibly preventing the Flamingos from enjoying similar success. Boone later covered such classics as “Tutti Frutti” and “I Almost Lost My Mind,” sealing his reputation as a cover artist of R&B hits.
The group also suffered a setback when Zeke Carey and Johnny Carter were called to stints in the military beginning in 1956. Carter eventually left the band for good and was replaced by Tommy Hunt. Upon Carey’s discharge, the group tried to regain its momentum with a series of single releases on Decca Records in 1957 and 1958. The releases did not match the success of “I’ll Be Home” or “A Kiss from Your Lips,” but the group had better success with its first release on New York City-based End Records with “Lovers Never Say Goodbye.” The song hit the top 30 on the R&B charts in early 1959. The group also gained a higher profile by appearing in two rock ‘n’ roll films produced in association with deejay Alan Freed: “Rock, Rock, Rock,” and “Go Johnny Go!”
Under End Records owner George Goldner, the Flamingos took the unprecedented step of recording an entire album for which they had almost total artistic control of the arrangements. The standout track was a cover version of an old Tin Pan Alley tune from the 1934 movie Dames called “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Although a singer named Ben Selvin turned the song into a number-two pop hit in 1934, the Flamingos’ 1959 version was strikingly modern. As authors Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker wrote in their book Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, it had “a very avant-garde arrangement featuring an echo chamber, a strange falsetto soaring above parts of the song, and sophisticated vocal harmonies that would never be heard on any corner in the world, executed with breathtaking precision. It was the apotheosis of the doo-wop sound, and in its own way the end of an era.” Becoming a top-three R&B hit, “I Only Have Eyes for You” reached number eleven on the pop charts in June of 1959. It would turn out to be the group’s most successful single and a classic doo wop ballad.
The Flamingos scored another crossover hit in 1960 with a song written by Sam Cooke, “Nobody Loves Me Like You,” which reached the top 30 on both the R&B and pop charts. Another 1960 release, “Mio Amore,” also hit the R&B top 30. However, the group would only have two other hits, “The Boogaloo Party,” a top 30 R&B hit in 1966, and “Buffalo Solider,” the group’s final top 30 R&B hit in 1970. The band remained a popular concert act during the rest of the decade, even after Hunt and Nelson left the band in the mid-1960s. Led by Jake Carey and Zeke Carey, the Flamingos continued to release singles through 1990 on their own label, Ronze Records.
Jake Carey died in 1997 and his cousin followed him two years later; thus, they did not live to see the revival of interest in the Flamingos’ music that accompanied the announcement that the group would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On March 19, 2001, the cousins were remembered along with the other members of the Flamingos in a presentation by doo wop singer Dion, who was himself inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989. As the official biography of the group on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s website sums up, “With their elegant, intricate, and flawless vocal arrangements, the Flamingos are widely regarded as one of the best vocal groups in music history.”
The Flamingos Meet the Moonglows, Vee-Jay, 1953.
Flamingo Serenade, Collectables, 1959.
The Flamingos, MCA, 1959.
Flamingo Favorites, Collectables, 1960.
Requestfully Yours, Collectables, 1960.
The Sound of the Flamingos, Collectables, 1962.
Their Hits Then and Now, Philips, 1966.
The Chess Sessions, Chess, 1972.
The Doo Bop She Bop, Rhino, 1990.
The Fabulous Flamingos, Collectables, 1992.
Only Have Eyes for You: The Best of the Flamingos, Sequel, 1994.
Gribin, Anthony J., Matthew M. Schiff, Complete Book of Doo-Wop, Krause Publications, 2000.
Gribin, Anthony J., Matthew M. Schiff, Doo-Wop: Forgotten Third of Rock ‘n Roll, Krause Publications, 1992.
Hildebrand, Lee, Stars of Soul and Rhythm and Blues, Billboard Books, 1994.
Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes, Ken Tucker, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1986.
Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2001.
“The Flamingos,” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, http://www.rockhall.com/hof/inductee.asp?id=1140 (December 7, 2001).
Weekend All Things Considered, National Public Radio, January 2, 2000.
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