Elegant vocals, musical pioneers, living legends, all terms used by legions of music lovers to describe the Flamingos. The simplest and most direct accolade would be that they were the best vocal group in history. Not the most successful, not having the most outstanding lead or deepest bass, but for breathtakingly beautiful harmonies enveloping and supporting a lead there were none better.
In 1950 cousins Jake and Zeke Carey moved to Chicago’s Douglas community from their native Baltimore, where ORIOLES legend Sonny Til had been a childhood friend and neighbor. 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 cousinsto the Careys though mariage).
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.”
One of the member’s sisters was dating a guy named Earl Lewis (not the CHANNELS lead), who became the group’s lead singer. Johnny and Zeke were tenors, Paul was baritone, and Jake was bass. The quintet called themselves the Swallows for about six months until they got wind of the King Records group out of Baltimore. Each member then submitted a new idea and Johnny came up with El Flamingos, which they changed to the Five Flamingos.
They moved from the streets to house parties and clubs after attending a picnic in the fall of 1952. Another picnicker, Fletcher Weatherspoon, Jr., heard them harmonizing and took the quintet to friend who owned a club called Martin’s Corner. The group entered the Thursday night talent contest and won, a minor achievement considering they were the only contestants. Still, the owner liked them enough to book them the following night. Fletcher started taking the group to house parties to entertain for experience and exposure (in other words, no money).
One night while the Flamingos were playing Martin’s Corner a representative of the King Booking Agency caught their act and recommended them to his boss, Ralph Leon, who soon became their manager. Fletcher brought him to the group at a party, and Sollie became the new lead. Earl was unceremoniously kicked out since he lacked the strict discipline or serious attitude of the others and often missed rehearsals. He went on to sing with the Five Echoes (Sabre, 1953).
By 1952 new manager Leon felt it was time to take his a cappella-trained music machine to a record company audition. He picked the most successful R&B label in Chicago at the time, United Records, bu they weren’t impressed with the technical perfection of the Five Flamingos, wanting a looser R&B group like all their others. The Five Flamingos (who ranged in age from 17, Paul, to 26, Jake) had strived to become qualitatively different (influenced by THE FIVE KEYS, ORIOLES, DONINOES, CLOVERS, RAVENS, and FOUR FRESHMEN but intent on developing their own style) yet they had become too clean-sounding for United. While Leon was preparing his next move, Billboard noted in one of its columns that the Flamingos had signed with Savoy Records in 1952. This was not the same group, and curiously no recordings by an act named the Flamingos ever came out on Savoy.
In February 1953 Leon took the group to Art Sheridan’s Chance label and they issued the ballad “If I Can’t Have You” in the second week of March.
The label read “The Flamingos” even through they continued to perform as the Five Flamingos for almost two years. The quality of their vocals was immediately evident. Jake’s bass notes were round and full. John’s unique falsetto (which took to echo like a duck to water) was atmospheric and chilling, and Sollie’s warm resonant lead was the perfect foreground for the Flamingos’ background.
“If I” did well in Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Columbus, and a number of other markets. The up-tempo flip, “Someday, Someway,” was a good rocker but the group’s true talent was obviously in ballads.
In July their second single came out, the Sammy Kaye hit (#2, 1947) “That’s my Desire,” which was done in a slow, controlled, yet sincere manner. It, too, did well regionally.
The third week of October ushered in the release of “Golden Teardrops,” which many collectors call the most perfect-sounding single of all time. The Johnny Carter-penned ballad opened with the most exquisite of intricate harmonies and soothed the listener with Sollie’s passionate lead; Johnny and Jake roamed freely on top and bottom while Zeke and Paul tied it all together smoothly. In all, it was a breathtaking masterpiece that further spread their fame through the Midwest to the East, though it couldn’t muster white radio interest in those days. (A reissue did go to number 108 on the Pop lists in the summer of 1961.) Unfortunately Art Sheridan felt that paying royalties was an acquired taste he’d never acquired, and the group had to live by their performances.
These were growing due to their new association with ABC (Associated Booking Company). They began doing shows with big jazz bands like the Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington outfits at places like the Regal in Chicago on Christmas 1953 and the Apollo in New York on February 19, 1954.
The Flamingos were not satisfied with just being musically unique and a notch better vocally. They choreographed themselves into a visually exciting performing group that would later be emulated by such R&B artists as THE FOUR TOPS and THE TEMPTATIONS. They also learned early on that to last over the long haul they should polish their skills on instruments; the Flamingos thus became the first musically self-contained R&B vocal group. It’s a good thing, too, because Art Sheridan’s ability to run a record label was far below that necessary to promote the outstanding product he had (Chance also had THE MOONGLOWS and THE SPANIELS). The quality of chance’s releases coupled with their rarity due to Sheridan’’ inept marketing ability have made all vocal group releases on Chance expensive collectibles.
July 1954 brought the release of “Plan for Love,” a straightforward blues number made uncommon by the Flamingos’ pristine harmonies, but it’s doubtful Sheridan sent out many copies. “Cross Over the Bridge” was next in March, but the former Patti Page hit (#2, 1954) had the same fate as “Plan for Love.”
Their last Chance release came in November 1954. “Blues in a Letter” was an okay blues, but the flip, “Voit Voit (Jump Children),” was the group’s best jump tune and one that deserved a better-than-dismal fate. Alan Freed liked it so much he included a Flamingos visual performance of it in his film Go Johnny Go! five years (1959) after the tune’s original release.
One of the Flamingos’ best Chance recordings, “September Song,” was never issued on a single and wasn’t out at all until a 1964 Constellation LP. So beautiful was their rendition that it’s reported whenever Lionel Hampton would hear them perform it he’d break down in tears.
With Chance visibly failing, the group moved over to Chicago disc jockey Al Benson’s Parrot label. Their first of three Parrot singles was a popish sounding ballad called “Dream of a Lifetime” in January 1955.
The Flamingos tackled a variety of musical styles in their recordings and weren’t afraid to venture outside the traditional R&B mold. From pop standards and blues to Latin they traveled, even testing country in their version of Eddie Arnold’s “I Really Don’t Want to Know.” It had a flip that offered the debut of new lead singer Nate Nelson, formerly of a Chicago group known as the Velvetones (not the Aladdin group).
Solie decided to leave; he often felt separate from the group since he was of a different religion and not part of their family. He did join a group with United called the Morroccos and went on to do several fine leads for them, especially on “Sad, Sad Hours” and “Over the Rainbow.” In 1961 he joined the Chaunteurs, of which two members, Eugene Record and Robert Lester, later became part of THE CHI-LITES.
Nate Nelson did a duet with Johnny Carter on the Flamingos’ last Parrot single, “Ko Ko Mo,” which was an attempt to capitalize on what Al Benson felt would be a hit after he heard the Gene and Eunice version in California. The real prize was the “I’m Yours” B side, unquestionably their best Parrot recording, but few heard it since “Ko Ko Mo” was the push side. The group was beginning to do better on the performing scene with tours of the U.S. and Canada arranged by agent Joe Glaser including an appropriate stint in Las Vegas at the Flamingo Hotel.
During this period manager Ralph Leon was arranging a new deal with the Chess brothers’ Checker label when he suddenly died. The group took over its own business activities at this time and closed the Checker deal. They began recording in Checker’s funky office studios and then re-recorded sides like “When” in a real studio. Ironically, the studio sides lacked the warmth of the office tracks, and so their original takes were the ones released on the first few singles.
In the fourth week of April 1955, “When” was released to little response. “I Want to Love You” came in July and when it failed, its flip “Please Come Back Home,” an even more potent ballad than “When,” was released in September. Neither could break the national ice for the group.
Then in January 1956 Checker issued “I’ll Be Home,” supposedly written by disc jockey Fats Washington though New Orleans record distributor Stan Lewis got coauthor credit (Nate Nelson actually wrote all but the first line from his navy experiences). “I’ll Be Home” was the record the Flamingos had been working for. The beautiful ballad, warmly led by Nelson, was a Billboard “Spotlight” pick in their January 14th issue. “The boys blend smoothly and sweetly on a pretty ballad with a relaxed romantic tempo and a stand out performance by the lad singer,” wrote the reviewer. “This one should grab off plenty of attention from jocks, jukes and cross-counter buyers.” It did become their first national R&B charter, reaching number five in March.
Phil Groia, in his book They All Sang on the Corner, states that during Nelson’s navy days he would, when on leave in Newport News, Virginia, sit around, drink, and talk with an unknown vocal group who loved to sing Sonny Til and the Orioles songs. When Nate returned from overseas the local group had become THE FIVE KEYS.
Just before the release of “I’ll Be Home,” the Flamingos performed the song on a Tommy Small show which also included the nemesis of all R&B artists, Pat Boone. Several weeks after the show his pasteurized version came out and cancelled out the group’s early crossover airplay, monopolizing the pop charts at number four. Decades later his version is virtually forgotten and rarely if ever played on oldies radio while the Flamingos’ version is acknowledged as an R&B ballad standard.
“A Kiss from Your Lips” was their stunning balled follow-up with haunting harmonies reminiscent of THE DIABLOS’ “The Wind.” Billboard’s May 12, 1956, reviewer didn’t think much of the song, however, stating, “Though the material on both sides is below par for this fine group the renditions should carry them into the money. This one’s a ballad with an especially tender voice handling the lead throughout.” It reached number 12 R&B in June.
Two more love songs followed (“The Vow” and “Would I Be Crying”) but mysteriously missed their mark. Still, Alan Freed made sure to include the Flamingos in his movie classic Rock, Rock, Rock in 1956 performing “Would I Be Crying.” Freed, who loved the Flamingos, sensed their greatness and wanted them immortalized on celluloid even though they didn’t have a hit at the time. (He also included “The Vow” in his 1959 film Go Johnny Go!) Others sensed their greatness as well. In 1956 Irving Feld was packaging the first integrated rock and roll show, which was akin to hiring the first African-American to play in the big leagues. They had to be the best of the time, justifying the continuation of integrated music into the future. The bill included Bill Haley and the Comets, THE PLATTERS, FRANKIE LYMON AND THE TEENAGERS, Clyde McPhatter, and artists of equal caliber. Oh yes, and the Flamingos.
After “Would I Be Crying” the group broke up due to Zeke and Johnny’s draft commitment.
In 1957 they regrouped with Jake Carey, Nate Nelson, Paul Wilson, and former Five Echoes member (Sabre) Tommy Hunt. For the first time the group was a quartet. They signed with Decca Records, who then put a major promotion campaign together for their first 45, “The Ladder of Love,” in July. Checker, however, still held a contract on Nate and effectively killed the chances of that single and subsequent Decca releases with legal entanglements; it was a truly unfortunate set of circumstances for the group and their pretty ballad. It’s reported that around this time Nate moonlighted as lead on Steve Gibson and the Red Caps’ ABC – Paramount single of “Silhouettes” (Rays).
In August 1958 Zeke Carey returned while Johnny Carter eventually went on to sing with THE DELLS. Zeke, knowing of George Goldner’s interest in the Flamingos, mediated an arrangement between George and Chess Records thereby freeing up Nate and allowing the group to sign with End Records in late 1958. Though collectors and purists consider their best works to have been the Chance and Checker sides, the End recordings were some of their finest, most beautifully sung songs, the main difference stemming from the Flamingos’ decision to change from recording originals to old standards in their full harmony style. This was Goldner’s idea, according to Zeke Carey, who reports “George came up with the concept of an LP of standards for us. It was the only album we ever did that he picked every single song.”
Their first End single, however, was a Paul Wilson-Isiah and Terry Johnson original (Terry was the group’s guitarist and additional tenor) titled “Lovers Never Say Goodbye.” One of the most beautiful of all doo wop love songs, “Lovers” reached number 25 R&B and became the Flamingos’ first pop success, lifting their voices to number 52 in the spring of 1959.
“But Not for Me” was the next single, setting the stage for (as Zeke put it) the Flamingos’ national anthem (and their favorite), “I Only (Shoo Bop Shoo Bop) Have Eyes for You.” The 1934 Eddy Duchin recording (#4), written by Al Warren and Harry Dubin, was a spectacular ballad as done in the inimitable Flamingos style, awash in echoing harmonies, Nate’s buttery delivery, and Terry Johnson’s flowing falsetto. “Eyes” charted Pop on June 1st and R&B June 15th. By mid-summer it was a national hit, missing the Pop top 10 by one notch while flying to number three R&B. The record received international acclaim and even made the Australian charts at number 32. Those rehearsals in their rooms at the Hotel Cecil (118th Street and 7th Avenue) in Harlem had truly paid off. All this excitement caused Decca to continue releasing the 10 sides they’d recorded, coming out in May with “Kiss-A-Me” while Checker repackaged “Whispering Stars” b/w “Dream of a Lifetime” and put out an LP under the latter title’s name.
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 performance ever heard from Bo, and the Flamingos’ prominent harmonies seem to have mellowed the rocker. Zeke maintains he was not on the Diddley backup though he did recall backing Gone artist Ral Donner with Jake on one lone-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 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 Tommy Hunt had left to pursue a solo career; he came up with a few minor hits for Sceptor including “Human” (#48, fall 1961).
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. (Proving the group’s greatness no matter what some wacked-out A&R man handed them, the Flamingos recorded “Lover Come Back to Me” [Polydor, 1970] as a funk balled and still came out sounding good.)
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? Right! “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 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.
Though they’ve had only one national top 20 hit and only 11 national charters all told, the artists they’ve influenced (including THE TEMPTATIONS, Diana Ross and THE SUPREMES, THE JACKSON FIVE, THEAPINNERS, 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. After almost 40 years it’s good to know the best are still around.
Both prolific and seminal in their influence and impact, the Flamingos may have been the greatest harmonizing vocal ensemble ever, and were certainly among the premier units of the doo wop/R&B era. Cousins Jake and Zeke Carey moved to Chicago from Baltimore in 1950. They met Paul Wilson and Johnny Carter at the Church of God and Saints of Christ Congregation, a black Jewish church. They began singing in the choir, and the foursome met Earl Lewis (not the Channels’ lead vocalist) through one of the members’ sisters, who was his girlfriend at the time. They originally called themselves the Swallows, but had to change names when they found out that a Baltimore group already had the name. Carter suggested El Flamingos, which was changed to the Five Flamingos, and later the Flamingos. Ralph Leon of the King Booking Agency eventually became their manager.
Sollie McElroy replaced Lewis as their lead singer in the early ’50s, with Lewis joining the Five Echoes. They recorded with Chance in 1953, and “If I Can’t Have You” attracted some attention and did well in the Midwest and on the East Coast. “That’s My Desire” and “Golden Teardrops” were marvelously sung numbers, particularly “Golden Teardrops,” with its sweeping harmonies on top and bottom framing McElroy’s wondrous lead. But none of their great Chance recordings generated enough national attention to make the R&B charts, nor did the three numbers they recorded for Parrot. McElroy departed and was replaced by Nate Nelson. They enjoyed their first chart success with Checker in the late ’50s, scoring a Top Ten R&B hit with “I’ll Be Home” in 1956. In 1956 Zeke Carey and Johnny Carter were drafted into the army and were replaced by Terry Johnson and Tommy Hunt who performed with Nate Nelson, Jake Carey and Paul Wilson. Zeke Carey returned in 1958, and they signed with End late that year.
“I Only Have Eyes for You” in 1959 was their biggest hit, peaking at number three R&B and number 11 pop. It was a cover of a song that had been a huge hit for Eddy Duchin in 1934, and was the start of a productive period that saw the Flamingos issue four albums for End and get two more R&B Top 30 singles, one the Sam Cooke composition “Nobody Loves Me Like You” in 1960. Hunt left in 1961, and the group returned briefly to Checker in 1964. They later recorded for Phillips, Julman, and Polydor, but couldn’t regain their former standing. They remained among the genre’s most beloved groups, and anthologies of their material on Chance and Checker have been reissued. In 1993, The Flamingos Meet the Moonglows was reissued by Vee-Jay.
— Ron Wynn