Friday, 24 August 2012

The Flamingos on Decca

More thoughts about the Flamingos - in particular their time at Decca Records (image from Marv Goldberg's highly recommended Flamingos page).

In between their stints at Chess Records in Chicago and George Goldner's End Records in New York, where they recorded the smash I Only Have Eyes for You, the Flamingos recorded a few sides for Decca in 1957-58, without much success.

What's odd about this is that even though the material is public domain in the UK it has not been issued on CD, as far as I know, with the exception of Ladder of Love, which can be found on the Jasmine CD Dream of a Lifetime (Rhino, willing to license material, had already issued it in the US on their Best of compilation). The Jasmine CD set is otherwise comprehensive for the group's pre-End work, so the omission is surprising.

I hadn't heard any of the other Decca sides till today but now I think I may have an explanation for their absence from CD. From the evidence of what's available on youtube, with the exception of Ladder of Love they're - well, variable, to put it kindly.  Some of the material and arrangements, are square. Like, uh, L7, Daddio. Kiss-a-Me and Helpless have female backing singers (white?) added to sweeten the mix. Kiss-a-Me isn't too bad but the climax of Helpless is dire: the voices of the Flamingos themselves are inaudible. It's a pity, because you can imagine how those songs might have been done with more restraint at Chess.

Which is not to say that the decisions were wrong for the time. Survival is the name of the game and the Flamingos always covered a wide range of material, from country music (I Really Don't Want to Know) to September Song. They were always more than R&B. And you can still try to enjoy the voices when they aren't being swamped.

Even so, it's harder to imagine some of the other Decca numbers being redeemed by a producer or arranger's restraint: The Rock'n'Roll March is embarrassingly corny and Ever Since I Met Lucy is disposable pop which could have been sung by anyone and gives little chance for the group to show off their trademark harmonies. By contrast, Hey Now! is very spare, a straightforward jump number in the manner of Jump Children.

Perhaps some of the blame can be laid at Terry Johnson's door as he took over arranging duties when Johnny Carter was drafted. Marv Goldberg's Flamingos page says:
Since Terry had grown up listening to Pop music more than R&B, this took the Flamingos in a new direction. Terry arranged all the Decca and End cuts (up to sometime in 1961). "I was producing and didn't even realize it!"
But I don't know how much would have been dictated by forces outside the group when signed by a major company like Decca. And if we're being generous then the Decca stuff, with its sweetening, is no worse than some of Sam Cooke's early attempts to cross over after he and Art Rupe parted company. In fact, in the seventies I used to own a copy of the cassette below and got a fair amount of pleasure from it. There - I've said it and I'm glad.

And there's no doubt that the combination of Terry Johnson and George Goldner (at End Records) later gave the Flamingos a continued lease of life, something denied many groups who had success in the fifties.

Anyway, why don't you make up your own mind? Below are links to the Decca sides currently on youtube. I will add more if they turn up. There is a discography if you scroll to the bottom of Unca Marvy's page, here. Perhaps Helpless and Kiss-a-Me are closest to the quality of Ladder of Love. And listening to it again, Hey Now! sounds too spare: you miss the backing band of the Chance/Parrot days. But it sounds so unlike the other Decca sides could it have been a remake for End?

Rock'n'roll March
Ever Since I Met Lucy 
Hey Now!
The Ladder of Love

Decca sides not currently on youtube:

Where Mary Go (hear the Diamonds sing it here)
Let's Make Up
My Faith In You

According to this site the Diamonds' version came before the Flamingos' version. The Diamonds recorded it for the film The Big Beat and a studio recording was apparently only released in Australia at the time.
That same year, ’58, The Flamingos released “Where Mary Go” for Decca Records. Nothing particularly special  about that except that their recording appears to be a “cover” of the earlier Diamonds’ version. The Flamingos’  version was released after the Diamonds’ and has an almost identical arrangement. What a turnaround! - The  Diamonds, who covered many black artists recordings, were themselves covered by the Flamingos, a black group. A real twist to the normal trends of the time!

It certainly is. Incidentally, the lack of success of the Decca sides may not have been down to a discerning audience. Jay Warner writes on the site:
After “Would I Be Crying” [released in 1956 on Chess] 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.  [...]  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.  
I have now heard the other Decca sides, albeit in some cases in lo-fi form. They are agreeable enough, but there is no hidden classic among them. Let's Make Up is uptempo, with a gutsy lead (Tommy Hunt) and what sounds like fuller backing than the similar Hey Now! No female choir that I can hear, unlike My Faith in You which is blighted at the end. Jerri-Lee, with a lead by Nate Nelson is mid tempo, quite pleasant. There is no long-lost classic here, but I'm glad to have had a chance to hear them.

Post about various Flamingos CD compilations here.

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