Monday, 21 August 2017

Tommy Hunt on Spencer Leigh's On the Beat, BBC Radio Merseyside


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.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Bill Putnam and Universal Recording


One significant name was left out of the recent series of posts about the Flamingos' early work: Bill Putman, who ran Universal Recording. The technical quality of the Flamingos' Chance and Parrot sides reflects the fact that both companies used Putnam's studio at 111 East Ontario Street, situated off Michigan Avenue. He would have engineered their tracks, although presumably label bosses Art Sheridan and Al Benson would have been the respective producers. Johnny Keyes' memoir Du-Wop places Putnam in the studio when the Magnificents were recording Up On the Mountain early in 1956:

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Flamingos # 17: Get With It & I Found a New Baby




The Flamingos had a larger backing band than usual for two numbers in their final session for Al Benson's Parrot Records. The website devoted to the Parrot and Blue Lake labels notes:
They had been recently performing with Paul Bascomb's group at Martin's Corner on the West Side, but Al Benson preferred to use a studio band led by Al Smith on the date. A four-horn front line (Sonny Cohn, trumpet; Booby Floyd, trombone; Eddie Chamblee, tenor saxophone; and Mac Easton, baritone sax) lent a big-band atmosphere to the two uptempo numbers: "I Found a New Baby," which was held back from release, and "Get with It."

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Flamingos # 16: I'm Yours & Ko Ko Mo

[Marv Goldberg]

The Flamingos' second (and final) session for Parrot also yielded some notable sides. The pick of the bunch is the ballad I'm Yours, even though it was only a B side for their cover of Gene and Eunice's Ko Ko Mo.

Flamingos # 15: I Really Don't Want to Know


Some time ago in this very blog I dared to suggest that Robert Pruter's assessment of the remaining song from their first Parrot session was mistaken. Mr Pruter had claimed that the arrangement on the country song I Really Don't Want to Know "drags and sounds confused" - but now I'm inclined to think he may be right.

Flamingos # 14: If I Could Love You



"Swoonsome" is the term which springs to mind for the opening of If I Could Love You, though not in the teen idol sense. Right from the start the combination of guitar (Lefty Bates) and sax make this little number too darned sensual ever to cross over: if there wasn't an "exotic dancer" present in the studio, those boys must have had awfully good imaginations.

Flamingos # 13: On My Merry Way



On My Merry Way was also recorded at the Flamingos' first session for Parrot. Robert Pruter describes it as  "a routine jump written by the ubiquitous Chicago nightclub entertainer Walter Spriggs." There is certainly no crossover potential here: it is as far removed, in subject matter and feel, from Dream of a Lifetime as you could get. After a token attempt at reasoned argument -
I want you by my side
Hey-ey, can't we compromise?
- the song lurches into another area entirely. Imagine Pat Boone trying to wrap his tonsils around lines such as these:

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Flamingos # 12: Dream of a Lifetime


There was no dramatic change to the Flamingos' sound when they switched their allegiance from Chance to nearby Parrot Records. Nate Nelson had not yet joined the group; that awkward jobshare which would ultimately force McElroy out was some months in the future.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Flamingos # 11: Listen to My Plea


Listen to My Plea was one of the last sides the Flamingos recorded for Chance. An earlier attempt at the song during their Christmas Eve session in 1953 must have been deemed unsatisfactory as they remade it the following year. The website devoted to the label states:

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Flamingos # 10: September Song


September Song was well on the way to becoming a standard by the time the Flamingos recorded it in 1953. Written for the 1938 Broadway  musical Knickerbocker Holiday, its fame had recently been boosted by inclusion in the film September Affair (above) although many singers including Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine had already tackled the number in the forties.

It's hard to single out a version which might have served as a particular inspiration for the group. The Ravens' 1948 attempt might seem a likely suspect, given that Robert Pruter has accused them of imitating the Ravens on another occasion, but Sollie McElroy brings more passion to the lyrics than Maithe Marshall's rather dreamy caressing of them, beautiful as that is.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Flamingos # 9: Blues in a Letter & Jump Children


The Flamingos' penultimate session for Chance took place on Christmas Eve 1953 and consisted of four sides: Blues in a Letter, September Song, Jump Children (aka Vooit Vooit) and Listen to My Plea.

The first, "a stone solid blues", is primarily a vehicle for Johnny Carter, as the rest of the group don't have much to do beyond the requisite early 50s R&B vocal group moaning; unlike the similar Plan For Love there is no attempt by Sollie McElroy - or, indeed, Carter himself - to embellish the song with falsetto.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Flamingos # 8: Hurry Home Baby


Hurry Home Baby is the only song from the Flamingos' first session yet to be discussed in this series, although Robert Pruter's succinct dismissal has already been quoted:
... an imitation Ravens number that made nobody forget about the Ravens.

Flamingos # 7: You Ain't Ready


Guitarist Lefty Bates can be heard to good effect on You Ain't Ready, another side from the same August 1953 session as Plan For Love. He may not get a solo, but after the whole band have set up the song he can be heard momentarily on his own before Sollie McElroy's vocal, and later his playing under Red Holloway's exuberant saxophone solo gives it even more bounce and interest; small wonder, according to his own testimony, that everyone wanted him on their sessions.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Flamingos # 6: Plan For Love


Plan For Love is an interesting performance in the context of the Flamingos' other work at this time, although it's not hard to see why this bluesy number wasn't a success when released.

Recorded around August 1953 it is, unusually, a Johnny Carter lead. It's also distinctive because two falsettos are heard during much of the song. Sollie McElroy's is the main one, I believe, with Carter joining him as other duties permit. It's an interesting and unusual effect, although the combination of the two voices is less pleasing,  to my ears, than Carter's solo decoration on so many other sides.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Flamingos # 5: Someday, Someway



As pulpit denunciations of faithless lovers go, Someday, Someway is rather lighthearted, which suggests that Sollie McElroy is buoyed up by the thought that retribution must surely follow:

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Flamingos # 4: If I Can't Have You


If I Can't Have You was recorded by the Flamingos in 1953 and reworked three years later, during their stint at Chess Records. The arrangements on the two versions provide compelling evidence of that musical sea change mentioned earlier:

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The hottest exhibition ever curated?


A Guardian report today about a new exhibition of artefacts associated with Philip Larkin suggests all manner of revelations await its visitors.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

"Virtually mistake-free": a doo wop group in the studio



Following on from the previous post about the Flamingos' Golden Teardrops, here are two accounts of the process of recording a doo wop group in the 50s.

One comes from Du-Wop, the 1987 memoir by Johnny Keyes of the Magnificents briefly mentioned in that post, the other from an interview given by Red Holloway - who backed the Magnificents as well as the Flamingos - to the UK-based Blues Unlimited magazine in 1975. It is included in a recent collection of interviews published by University of Illinois Press - see details at the end.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Flamingos # 3: Golden Teardrops & Carried Away

[Marv Goldberg]

Golden Teardrops, the undoubted masterpiece of the Flamingos' Chicago recording years,  was recorded during their second session for Chance Records, in August 1953.

That's My Desire, from their January date, was "racking up strong regional sales" but King Kolax and his Orchestra were not chosen to back the group again. Instead, Red Holloway and his band turn in a self-effacing performance with some instruments more felt than heard, and no solos; the saxophone is a distant sympathetic murmur. Lead singer Sollie McElroy would later describe the record as "almost acapella," which may be overstating it, but the band is definitely subordinate.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Waterloo Sunset on BBC Radio 4's Soul Music



 [screengrab]

The Kinks classic Waterloo Sunset is fifty years old this year - ample excuse to repost a piece about the song. I don't know what other celebrations may be planned by the Beeb or others, but today it was the first subject of the new series of Radio 4's Soul Music (above). This programme blends personal associations with musical analysis and, as ever, made for a compelling half hour. On first listen, I had the feeling that one story featured perhaps a little too prominently, but on reflection the balance was right - and that particular tale had something important to say about the power of the song.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Lives of Sam (Sam Cooke plays and biopics)



Have just finished The Life of Sam, a 2010 stage play by Robert L. Douglas. An easy and enjoyable read, it was written, we're told in the playwright's introduction, "as an effort to address the dearth of modern day media about the life of Sam Cooke and to elevate his name to its rightful place among America's greatest entertainers."

Friday, 27 January 2017

New play at Theatre 503: Years of Sunlight by Michael McLean



For readers in London, I have just seen a preview performance of Michael McLean's new play Years of Sunlight at Theatre 503 and can recommend it highly. Previews continue until Saturday night and the play starts on Tuesday. You can book at the theatre's website here.

I first became aware of McLean's work with The Ducks, a two-hander which was, for me, a highlight of the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe. That mantra invoked in the previous post, "Complexity not complication", also applies to that piece, which explores the strange relationship which develops between two young men on community service.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

New film features the El Dorados (Manchester By The Sea)


I rarely review films on this blog, but I'd like to say a few words about writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester By the Sea. I've admired Lonergan's work for a long time, and have had occasion to analyse his stage plays Lobby Hero and This Is Our Youth. He exemplifies the mantra of writing guru Tim Fountain: "complexity, not complication." Which is to say that rather than adding extraneous plot material, the focus in Lonergan's work is on the gradual revealing of character.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

What a Crazy World to be shown on TV


I'm delighted to report that Talking Pictures TV, available on Freeview and elsewhere, will be showing What a Crazy World (1963) on Saturday January 7th at 8.05pm and Sunday January 8th at 8.00pm. Its website is here. And for anyone new to this blog, here's an introduction to the film.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

It's Trad, Dad - Deal With It



The British Trad Jazz boom of the 1950s and early 60s has been much on my mind, and in my ears, recently. It started when I came across the soundtrack for Dick Lester's It's Trad, Dad!, his first full length film, and found the whole strangely enjoyable, despite the collision of jazz and pre-Beatles pop.