Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Flamingos 1953-1962

Below are my reviews of the two Flamingos compilations as posted on a well-known shopping website. They don't really contain anything which hasn't already been said on this blog, but they may be more concisely expressed.

Dream of a Lifetime 1953-1959

This unique collection assembles all the Flamingos' classic recordings for their first three Chicago-based record labels (Chance, Parrot and Chess), plus a brief selection of early sides for New York-based End Records.

The compilers had to stop at 1959 for legal rather than aesthetic reasons but if, like me, you're not such a big fan of the aural valium of their later, luxuriantly string-laden recordings for End Records, public domain restrictions work out just fine in this particular case: the final track on disc 2 is I Only Have Eyes For You, bringing matters to a neat conclusion.

Before now you'd have had to buy about four or five CDs to assemble this material, and other groups would have been part of the deal (the Parrot sides are currently available on a CD which also features the Crests, for example, and the Chance sides have previously been paired with the Moonglows' recordings for the same label).

The only significant omission from this compilation of their fifties material is their time at Decca in 1957, hence the docking of one star; like Rhino's Best of the Flamingos only one track, Ladder of Love, is included.

If you are only familiar with I Only Have Eyes For You, the earlier Flamingos were closer to rhythm and blues, alternating jump tunes with sublime balladry (Golden Teardrops is widely regarded as one of the best doo wop records of all time). Their vocals have always been exceptionally polished but there's a looseness about the instrumental backing by jazz musicians on the Chance and Parrot sides which offers an additional pleasure.

Other buying options are available. For guaranteed good sound, you might consider The Complete Chess Masters (part of the Chess 50th Anniversary series) - I own it and the audio on almost all the tracks is superb.

Rhino's The Best of the Flamingos has good sound and some later cherrypicked End recordings as it's not hampered by public domain restrictions. But there are only eighteen tracks in all and half are from End, so although well chosen it's hardly comprehensive. A deleted Charly CD (on their budget label Instant) entitled I'll Be Home offers a wider selection of recordings for all three Chicago labels but the sound is so-so.

A more interesting purchase which allows you to hear the Flamingos' Parrot recordings in context - ie with other artists on this small Chicago label including the superb Orchids (Newly Wed) backed by the same musicians - might be the Relic CDs The Golden Era of Doo-Wops: Parrot Records Vol 1 & 2. Sound quality is good, although comparing the transfer of Get With It to the track on the Chess CD you can hear that Chess must have acquired some of the Parrot masters and retained the tapes. The two Relic CDs are deleted but still available, and there are some other Parrot compilations around.

Overall the sound on the Jasmine discs is reasonably good, especially when you consider all you're getting for such a modest outlay. The official MCA-issued Complete Chess Masters CD is noticeably better, however, for the Chess sides, though the Parrot sides are, I'd say, about on a par with the transfers found on the two deleted Golden Era of Doowops CDs issued by Donn Filetti's Relic Records.

The Chance sides are alright, although those which also feature on The Best of the Flamingos sound brighter and clearer on the Rhino CD and on a 1993 CD issue on the resurrected Vee-Jay label of a vinyl album entitled The Moonglows Meet the Flamingos on the Dusty Road of Hits, expanded to include all the Chance sides of both groups. I obtained this very recently and sound is excellent throughout. (Do not confuse this with a similar compilation on the UGGH label which is not recommended.)

In general on the Jasmine compilation, there seems to have been some top end filtering, but setting that against the difficulty of obtaining much of this material, let alone in such a handy two-disc form, this seems a good purchase for the casual listener. Diehard fans who already know the worth of these recordings are advised to explore some of the above alternatives. Prices vary wildly for these deleted CDs, so shop around (to quote another group with its roots in doo wop).

To sum up: for top notch audio go with the Chess 50th Anniversary CD and the 1993 Vee-Jay CD. If there is a CD of comparable audio quality containing all the Parrot sides I haven't heard it. (Did Chess acquire everything the Flamingos recorded for the Parrot label?)

One minor goof: Get With It, the Parrot side acquired by Chess, crops up again on the second Jasmine disc as though it were a Chess remake; it's the same recording. The only alternate take that I know of on CD is on the Charly/Instant compilation referred to above.

To read about the Flamingos' early recordings I recommend Robert Pruter's Doowop: the Chicago Scene.

Time Was: The Sessions 1957-1959

For fans this CD set is notable for including the group's Decca sides - the first time, as far as I am aware, that they have been issued on CD with the sole exception of Ladder of Love, so this new collection really is something to celebrate. The bulk of the collection is made up of End tracks which haven't exactly been rare on CD in recent years, though it's certainly convenient to have them together so cheaply. I will therefore only discuss the Decca material in detail.

The mystery is why the Decca sides haven't been issued on CD before in the UK. They've been in the public domain for several years now, after all, so (assuming they had been able to source them) Jasmine could have included them in their earlier Dream of a Lifetime.

That may have been a canny marketing decision: opting to end the previous collection with a selection of End recordings meant that Jasmine were able to include I Only Have Eyes For You as the final track, perhaps to ensure the collection had the widest possible appeal.

Whatever the reason, this new 2CD rectifies matters and provides the missing End sides so it's the perfect complement to that other collection.

The Decca recordings - tracks 1-9 on CD One - are fascinating to listen to and have considerable charm but it has to be said that, as recorded, they aren't exactly neglected masterpieces.

Some sides are heavily marred by overproduction. Helpless, for example, has the group's sound sweetened by what sounds like a white female chorus and a ludicrously OTT climax, as though the group are being squeezed into being a more commercial proposition. Maybe it's to do with the fact that Decca were a big company, not a small indie, and there was greater outside control. And songs like the Rock and Roll March just sound dreadfully square - now and, I suspect, then.

The best of the bunch, balladwise, is Kiss-A-Me, where Nate Nelson's voice transcends the female backing, but it's still frustrating to think of what might have been had it been recorded during their Chess period with a sparer, more sensitive arrangement. (As some readers may know, Chess/Checker put out the demo version of I'll Be Home, recorded in an office, because the studio version sounded "plastic.")

Jerri-Lee is pleasant, however, and Where Mary Go (originally recorded by Canadian group the Diamonds then covered by the Flamingos, which is a bit of a turnaround) is okay in a Harry Belafonte vein. It's only Hey Now!, however, which gives anything like a flavour of their frenzy on Chance Records in the old days.

Track 10 is the old chestnut Music Maestro Please and it's obvious we have moved into the End era. As I said in my review of the earlier Jasmine set I prefer the earlier R&B sides, but I can certainly appreciate that this new phase of the Flamingos' careers feels like a natural development of aspects of their style rather than something imposed from outside on their sound.

Certainly, Terry Johnson was happy to go along with label boss George Goldner's wish for them to do standards with a twist: "I was open to the idea, because I wasn't raised on R&B; my parents listened to Patti Page, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots and Bing Crosby. When George said he wanted me to change the structure of the songs and give them a nice flavor, I was excited because it was such a good challenge for me." (You can read more on Marv Goldberg's highly recommended R&B Notebooks site.)

The End sides will never be as exciting for me as their earlier output, but there is no denying their appeal as late night listening. Couple that with the chance to hear those less than perfect but wholly fascinating recordings on Decca I will give this four stars but really fans and collectors will want this whatever, and the more casual browser should start with the earlier Dream of a Lifetime compilation. Considerations about sound quality seem of less import in the current case given the rarity of the first nine tracks.

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