Sunday, 18 October 2015

Flamingos # 1: Cross Over the Bridge

Listening to the audio clips in a recent post about Clyde McPhatter, here, I was struck by the difference between the Dominoes and the Flamingos. While Sollie McElroy's voice is not unlike that of Clyde McPhatter, hearing You Ain't Ready immediately after those McPhatter-era Dominoes records was mildly disconcerting: it felt like there was something missing, something I hadn't been aware of before. I had always believed that the Flamingos' records for Chance, jump blues and ballads alike, were uniformly superb.

This sent me back to Robert Pruter's book Chicago Doo Wop for guidance and succour. Here's what he says:
Like all R&B groups of the fifties, the Flamingos did an equal number of jump tunes ... but these are less successful than their ballad material-they’re too controlled. Peppy, up-tempo numbers seem to require a little more spirited anarchy.
Which puts it pretty good and offers a degree of comfort. "Spirited anarchy" was never what the Flamingos were about, even in their earliest days. The Five Keys' recording of Red Sails, also to be found in the McPhatter post, is much closer in spirit to the Dominoes' performances, not too far from potential chaos at certain moments. The Flamingos' best known uptempo tune from the Chance days, Jump Children (aka Vooit Vooit), has what I can only describe as a kind of jazzy relaxation about it: even the scatting sounds rehearsed.

Which is not to say that they are inferior to the Dominoes. There are other pleasures to be found in those recordings, and what I propose to do, as time and inclination permit, is to write about those Chance sides one by one, in between such other topics as may momentarily divert me from my labours. (Round Britain Quiz is resuming on Monday for a kickoff - that cannot go unremarked.)

For this first post I'm going to take Cross Over the Bridge. It was written by Bennie Benjamin and George David Weiss, who also wrote Wheel of Fortune, another song popular with doo wop groups. Both Benjamin and Weiss had long careers, also working with other collaborators; Benjamin's was one of many hands who wrote I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire, popularised by the Ink Spots. "Unusually for the time, Benjamin was black and Weiss was white," says Marv Goldberg, who has kindly supplied the picture below:

Patti Page's version of Cross Over the Bridge was released in January 1954; the Flamingos' version followed in March. Another cover, by the Chords, followed in April on Atlantic subsidiary Cat, although it was the irresistible flip side, Shboom, which was to usher them into doo wop posterity.

It's interesting to compare the three versions. Here's Patti Page's original hit:

The bump'n'grind brass arrangement (orchestra conducted by Jack Rael) could seem at odds with the content of the song: essentially lighthearted advice to a man to reform and seek the one true way. "Cross over to the Lord" is the obvious inference (the giveaway word "redeemed" is used) although this is not presented as a gospel song, and the transition being urged is merely to that of a monogamous relationship: the "promised land" is the land of Love, with lessons taught by Life, not the bible.
If you're a guy who's had a girl in each and every port
And you've forgot the rules of love that Life has always taught
And if you broke as many hearts as ripples in a stream
Well, brother, here's the only way that you can be redeemed

Cross over the bridge
Cross over the bridge
Change your reckless way of livin'
Cross over the bridge
Leave your fickle past behind you
And true romance will find you
Brother, cross over the bridge

If you have built a boat to take you to the greener side
And if that boat is built of ev'ry lie you ever lied
You'll never reach the Promised Land of love, I guarantee
'Cause lies cannot hold water and you'll sink into the sea
I'm not sure whether Benjamin or Weiss was responsible for the lyrics, but I will charitably assume that the slipshod rhyming in the first verse was deliberate in order to reflect the lighthearted nature of the song. Might the perpetrator have had Noel Coward's 1945 effort in mind?

She refused to Begin the Beguine
Though everyone besought  her to
And in language profane and obscene
She cursed the man who taught her to
She cursed Cole Porter too

Moving swiftly on, possibly the brass in the Page recording is being used to suggest the hellfire subtext to this sermon masquerading as one-to-one advice. The term "brother" is used, which in this context suggests the Salvation Army, and there is a video clip of Dorothy Collins singing the song on a TV show called Your Hit Parade in what appears to be army garb. According to a website devoted to Collins, Your Hit Parade, a TV version of a longrunning radio programme, "featured the top seven songs of the week [and] attempted to dramatize the songs, with skits, beautiful sets and a multitude of performers."

This treatment of the song (her accompanists are Oliver J. Dragon, Beulah Witch and Madam Oglepuss from the Kukla, Fran & Ollie show) offers further evidence that this was intended as a pop novelty with no aspiration to be anything else. According to Albin Zak (in his book I Don't Sound Like Nobody: Remaking Music in 1950s America):
Cross Over the Bridge ... bore the sturdy and familiar earmarks of professional songcraft: artful manipulation of the title metaphor and expert handling of contemporary musical conventions.
This is borne out by the ultimate twist in the final verse:
I know it isn't easy to resist temptation's call
But think of how your broken heart will hurt you when you fall
'Cause some day you will find that you are hopelessly in love
And she'll belong to someone else as sure as stars above
Hardly an impassioned gospel song, then, nor yet the sort of slow ballad which could be drenched in reverb a la Golden Teardrops. The intricacy of the lyrics doesn't offer much opportunity for vocal acrobatics from the lead singer. The Chords' version tries for a Dominoes-style performance, but you can hear the lead struggling: too many words to fit in, no real opportunity to let loose.

"The grown-ups at Atlantic", Zak says,  couldn't imagine that Shboom would be a hit, but DJs such as Huggy Boy in Los Angeles started playing the "zany come-on", as Zak describes it, in preference to the A-side.

The lasting appeal of Shboom is, I suppose, about the immediacy of that rendition: as a piece of craftmanship it may not be up to much, but as a spontaneous-seeming expression, whether of love, lust, sheer joie-de-vivre or some compound of the three, it cannot be faulted. I recall reading (can't remember the source) that the lead singer's bit of scatting seems to bubble up out of his throat, unbidden.

Which leaves us with the Flamingos' version. Presumably the group, or Chance Records, were drawn to this song, at least in part, for commercial reasons: an R&B version of a proven hit, which was probably also the reasoning behind the Chords' recording the song at Atlantic. (Released the following month, was that a conscious attempt to "kill" the Flamingos' record?)

Which is not to say that the Flamingos considered themselves to be slumming it by such a release. In their early club days before they began recording they were already singing songs associated with Patti Page, as Marv Goldberg explains in his highly recommended R&B Notebooks feature on the group, here:
Their material was influenced by the places they played: mostly mellow, with a few jump numbers thrown in. But, according to Sollie [McElroy], they stayed away from blues, because that wasn't the kind of music that got people to sit down and buy drinks. Sollie said that the material was mostly picked out by Zeke and Jake [Carey], who tried to come up with songs that fit Sollie's voice.
Marv goes on to quote McElroy's description of their early act:
We would get up there. We had a couple of songs that we did. The one that was real popular that they [the Ink Spots] did: "We Three." You know how Bill [Kenny; lead singer of the Ink Spots] used his hands and everything? Well, this is what people wanted to see. They weren't into Rock & Roll as yet, so we had to do such things as "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window," some other things by Patti Paige... "September Song." In other words, it was quiet music. You stand up clean: you had your makeup on, you had your hair done, your shoes were perfect. And you had one guy on a mike, four on another. So, everything was blending together. You sang. You used your hands to express [waving around a zircon ring his mother had given him - in the same way Bill Kenny waved around his diamonds]. And that's how we became known as balladeers. And that's how we got into the better clubs. We didn't play no juke joints. The only time we played small clubs in the city was in between gigs, for some pocket money.
So they were used to singing pop. And as I will discuss more fully in later posts, the Flamingos did not come from a background in gospel singing, which was perhaps an advantage in dealing with a strange kind of hybrid number like this. Sollie McElroy, singing lead, delivers the song clearly, and although Red Holloway's Orchestra is looser and jazzier than the musicians on Patti Page's recording, the instruments do fall completely away as McElroy delivers the payoff line to each verse: it's all about serving the lyrics, in other words.

Well maybe not quite all. While the song is a clever bit of craftsmanship, treated with due care and attention in the lead singing and the band arrangement, it's what might be termed the unnecessarily beautiful harmonising which continues to make this recording listenable.

Ah. I see that Marv Goldberg has listed Sollie McElroy and Johnny Carter as joint leads. I assumed in Carter's case that referred to the falsetto weaving in and out of the verses; listening again it may be that Carter is singing lead on the verses, though McElroy is undeniably prominent on the choruses. There are other Chance recordings where there is a kind of falsetto doubletrack effect so either McElroy or another group member was capable of switching.

Alright, let's hear it now:

Update: since writing the above I got in touch with Marv, who said that he wasn't sure about who is singing lead on the verses but agreed that it was Sollie McElroy on the chorus. Marv kindly contacted Billy Vera, who said:
I think your original guess is correct. In the verses, we hear Johnny's falsetto behind Solly's lead. In the choruses, no background falsetto, then Solly comes in on top of Johnny's chorus where there's no room for a breath.

Other posts in this series here.

Doowop: the Chicago Scene by Robert Pruter
Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks page on the Flamingos
The Chance Label (website) - Robert Pruter, Armin Buttner and Robert L Campbell

Special thanks to Marv Goldberg and Billy Vera

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