Sunday, 27 March 2016

Flamingos # 2: That's My Desire

The opening blast of unison singing may seem to herald a performance more suited to rowdy boozer than the "dim cafe" of the lyrics, but the Flamingos' rendition of That's My Desire, a song best known via Frankie Laine's earlier hit, is mainly an exercise in emotional restraint. Discreetly aided by a sympathetic backing band, passion is allowed to build gradually, in stark contrast to some later doo wop recordings of the tune.

The side comes from the group's first session for Chance Records in 1953, so could the introduction have been an attempt to capitalise on whatever airplay the fledgling recording artists could get? Easy to imagine that raucous, attention-grabbing start cutting through the static of an AM signal and the competing wails of other groups, when the disc was first spun by Chicago DJ Al Benson or whoever (Benson himself certainly took notice as he later signed the Flamingos to his own label).

Alternatively, it could be that the introductory roughness was prompted by their rejection, on two separate occasions, by another Chicago company, United Records, according to Robert Pruter's Doowop: The Chicago Scene. Zeke Carey, quoted in that book, says:
We were told we didn't sound black enough. We weren’t raw enough. The harmony was too close, too perfect.
But whatever the reasons behind ther choice, the arrangement works. It's like the aural equivalent of a film shot thrusting a face into sharp focus - in an instant the others fade and there is only the angelic Sollie McElroy.

A saxophone which I'd describe as sultry but amiable provides a kind of running commentary on McElroy's lead without overwhelming him, and it's not until physical contact is mooted, or at least imagined, in the bridge "the touch of your lips") that Johnny Carter's falsetto is suddenly prominent. The bridge is repeated, as though McElroy can't resist lingering over this dream of contact, before the song thunders to a conclusion with the whole group, leaving you in no doubt that this brief nostalgiac fantasy is over. Like the beginning, it isn't subtle, but it provides a matching bookend for what is a subtle and beautiful performance.

And while the band, led by King Kolax (on what was apparently their only doo wop session) are not quite as self-effacing as another set of musicians would later be on the group's masterpiece Golden Teardrops they seem wholly in sympathy with the singing: listen to the variations in the second version of the bridge, the extra piano which delicately hints at the emotion churning underneath.

That's My Desire became a doo wop staple but its origins go some way back before the Frankie Laine hit. Written by Helmy Kresa and Carroll Loveday, the song was first recorded in 1931 and Nick Lucas, the singer who originally recorded Tip Toe Through the Tulips, committed a charming performance to wax that year. It wasn't the first ever recording (find that here, complete with a charming instrumental opening) but it is notable for including the verse.

Details of the very first recordings can be found here. I can't find much about the lyricist, Carroll Loveday, although I note he also wrote the lyrics for The Shrine of Saint Cecilia, recorded by the Andrews Sisters and Vaughan Monroe in 1942 and forever associated with the Harptones for doo wop fans.

Helmy Kresa, according to a fairly brief obituary in the New York Times here, was principal arranger and orchestrator for Irving Berlin. According to Don Tyler's book Hit Songs 1900-1955:
Irving Berlin's publishing company issued [That's My Desire] in '31 but it remained reasonably forgotten until Mills Music, Inc., acquired the copyright sixteen years later. Frankie Laine revived the number in his nightclub act, and it was heard by a Mercury Records executive who signed him to record it.
The lyric later underwent some minor alterations, whether or not sanctioned by Loveday, but here's how the original seems to have been worded, as checked against several of the earliest recordings:

I recall the nights
We spent together,
Laughing and dancing
Where life was just a song.
I recall the night
We parted forever,
Leaving a wish in my heart
That lingers on.

To spend one night with you
In our old rendezvous,
And reminisce with you
That's my desire.
To dance where gypsies play,
And let our hearts hold sway
Down in that dim cafe,
That's my desire.

To sip a little glass of wine,
To gaze into your eyes divine.
To feel the thrill of your kiss
When pressing your lips
To mine.

To hear you whisper low
Just when it's time to go,
Cheri, I love you so,
That's my desire.

Some of the changes, as heard on most post-Laine records, are about streamlining: The operetta-ish "And let our hearts hold sway" must surely have sounded old-fashioned by the time of the jazz age. And "To feel the thrill of your kiss / When pressing your lips" seems too cumbersome, too controlled and precise, for the moment of excitement it's meant to capture.

Other changes are more significant. The effect of dropping of the verse, and the slight alterations elsewhere in more recent recordings ("We'll sip ... I'll gaze ..." rather than "To sip ... To gaze") is to make the experience more immediate, less dreamlike.

Which alters the nature of the song. The verse makes clear that, as originally intended, the speaker is trying to summon up an experience he knows can never happen again. Which makes for something more poignant than putting the sparkle back in a dull but stable relationship.

By the time Frankie Laine recorded That's My Desire in 1946 the lyrics have changed, although a jazzy/R&B version by Hadda Brooks with some great guitar from Teddy Bunn from 1947 adheres to the orginal. In fact, now I listen to it again, it's worth embedding here for the interplay between guitar and voice:

There was also another 1947 hit version by Sammy Kaye, with a vocal by Don Cornell, more languid than the Frankie Laine version, and possibly a more likely inspiration than Laine for the Flamingos. But by 1953, when the group recorded it, there would have been numerous recordings around and they would have heard many live renditions in clubs. Sollie McElroy's phrasing doesn't seem closely modelled on any of the records I've heard, though perhaps Teddy Bunn's guitar on the Hadda Brooks recording may have suggested the odd pointer to the saxophonist in the King Kolax Orchestra.

According to the excellent and exhaustive site about Chance Records maintained by Robert Pruter and others only the singers and bandleader on the session which produced That's My Desire on 28th January 1953 are mentioned in discographies. But the site does say of the three other numbers recorded on that date:
We can hear deep-toned tenor saxophonist Dick Davis soloing with authority on "If I Can't Have You," "Someday, Someway," and "Hurry Home Baby."

So presumably it is Davis who is heard alongside Sollie McElroy's lead on That's My Desire. The site continues:
Kolax was often elusive on his vocal accompaniments; here he sneaks his tightly muted trumpet into the riffs on "If I Can't Have You." His presence on "That's My Desire" and "Hurry Home Baby" borders on the subliminal.
Many doo wop versions of this song were to follow in later years, but they don't seem to have used the Flamingos' arrangement as a blueprint. To my ears the famous performances by Dion and the Belmonts and the Channels, despite their considerable charm, have an earnestness which is absent from the Chance recording. The concept of FHB (Falsetto Hold Back) is clearly alien to the Channels, who are in ecstacies throughout:

I used the word "restraint" earlier when describing the Flamingos' recording. There's passion implied, but in comparison to later performances of the song the overall mood seems languid, dreamy. Resigned, perhaps. As though it's the expression of a wish which the speaker knows cannot be fulfilled - which would be true to the spirit of that omitted verse: they "parted forever" but the wish "lingers on."

And now I think of it, scratch that earlier description of Dick Davis's saxophone as "sultry but amiable". I've just realised the word I was searching for is "tender". In fact the performance as a whole, group and band, is as much tender reminiscence as hopeless desire.

Which, in turn, suggests, in turn, another word to distinguish the Flamingos from those later doo wop groups, and it is simply this: "adult". Instead of an adolescent yearning for some unattainable love object the Flamingos seem to look back with a sense of loss.

But if all that seems too high-flown, it can't be denied that the song falls squarely into the "mellow" category which helped maintained the group's popularity in the smarter Chicago nightclubs, as mentioned in the previous entry:
Quiet music ... We didn't play no juke joints.

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

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