Have just heard, and strongly recommend, a fascinating interview with Tommy Hunt, one of the two last surviving members of the Flamingos from their glory days, on Spencer Leigh's ever-dependable On the Beat programme on BBC Radio Merseyside. It was broadcast yesterday and will be available on BBC iplayer for another 29 days; it's radio rather than television so I believe US readers can also access it; the iplayer page is here.
As ever, Spencer's wide-ranging musical knowledge helps him draw the best out of his subject, a man who is an important part of several strands of music history - and, remarkably, still performing at the age of 84. He will be appearing at London's 100 Club in October.
He was born, we learnt, in a carnival tent in Pittsburgh - his father was a jazz drummer - but he is now living in Pontefract in Yorkshire, of all places, having fallen in love with a woman at a theatre in Wakefield. The marriage has not survived but he is still there - a perfect location for a Northern Soul legend.
As mentioned in recent posts, two of the Flamingos were drafted in 1956, and Hunt was one of the singers brought in to replace them. There was no animosity from his previous group, the Five Echoes (of Lonely Mood fame), who assured him there would still be a place in the group for him when the drafted singers came back. In the event, however, Hunt went on to solo fame when friction within the Flamingos helped force him out, partly because of religion: he says that other group members were keen that Hunt and Nate Nelson, their two "outsider" leads, convert to the Church of God and Saints of Christ, commonly known as Black Jews; Nelson, a devout Baptist, was having none of it.
Hunt had, we learnt, a range of skills, being able to dance and play piano as well as sing (he's one of the group members dancing during a speeded up version of Jump Children in the film Go Johnny Go!), and it was interesting to hear that he had a keen sense of what suited his voice and what didn't. In his own words, "I sang big, big Roy Hamilton songs," so he complemented the smoother-toned Nate Nelson. He may not have sung like Johnny Carter but he took over Carter's role in the sense of being an alternative lead, helping the Flamingos maintain their versatility.
When Hunt left the Flamingos to go solo, Luther Dixon of Scepter Records regarded Human as a throwaway song, intended as a B side, but Hunt regarded the intended A side, Parade of Broken Hearts, as a "dirge". And, presented with I Don't Know What To Do With Myself, he told Burt Bacharach: "The strength I need for my voice is not there in the song." In statements such as these, however, he didn't come over as arrogant, merely a man keenly aware of what he can and cannot do. He did admit that he was relieved when Dusty Springfield had a hit with the song, as it took the heat off him.
The other replacement member of the Flamingos was Terry "Buzzy" Johnson, who joined at the end of 1956, and it was interesting to hear Tommy Hunt's account of the creation of I Only Have Eyes For You, significantly different from that often told by Johnson. Readers may remember that, as Johnson tells it, the arrangement came to him in a dream, ready made, and the group members were summoned in the middle of the night to hear it. Hunt's account suggests a more communal effort, and he, Tommy, claims he was the one who suggested those immortal "shoo-bop-doo-wops" to Zeke Carey, who seemed to be leading the discussion about the arrangement rather than Johnson.
What is the truth of it? Who knows; both stories may have some truth and it could be they refer to different stages in the arrangement's conception. But certainly, brought out by Spencer Leigh's questioning, a picture emerged of a humble man who was genuinely surprised to be told that there was a star (ie him) living in his Yorkshire village, so I'd be inclined to accept he was involved in the arrangement's creation - and he does say that Johnson's falsetto made the record. He even spoke well of Art Garfunkel's rendering of the song, even though it's modelled very closely indeed on the Flamingos' version.
All credit to Spencer Leigh, then, for securing this alternative telling of an important story. Spencer's style is not confrontational, but he is so immersed in musical history - equally at home, on this occasion, with the doo wop and the soul sides of Hunt's career - that you can feel his subjects warming to him. At one point Tommy Hunt even tells him:
When I heard your voice on the phone I said wow, he's nice - I'm gonna like him.We also learnt that he good news is that there a forthcoming documentary about Hunt, and not before time.
Which brings me to a more general thought about the importance of On the Beat. Watching some footage of doo wop shows from the 80s on youtube recently, I was struck by the fact that so many great voices from that era have now been silenced. Not only as singers but as figures able to bear witness to their times, the making of popular music as we know it today. So all hail Spencer Leigh, I say, not only for seeking out these voices from the 50s and 60s before it's too late, but for providing them with the platform they deserve. The programme gave us far more than the outline of Tommy Hunt's career; there was a sense of him as ... well, I want to say "Human", but that'd be too corny.
Yet it's the easiest way to sum up what Spencer Leigh does on his show time and again: he humanises these icons for us by treating them seriously, giving them a context which allows listeners who may not know much beyond the basics to understand and appreciate them all the more.
Spencer Leigh's On the Beat is broadcast on BBC Radio Merseyside every Sunday - page here.
Details of shows can be found on Spencer's own website here.
Post mentioning the Five Echoes here.
Post about Spencer Leigh's On the Beat show with Little Anthony here.