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:

February 1954 saw the Flamingos go in the studio again to record "Cross over the Bridge" b/w "Listen to My Plea." Credit was given to a Red Holloway Orchestra but it's not Red's quartet; it sounds like an Al Smith band with Red Holloway, Mac Easton, Willie Jones, Quinn Wilson, and Vernel Fournier. On subsequent release on Chance 1154, neither the cover of the Patti Page hit nor the bluesy "Plea" were appealing enough to sustain the Flamingos' name with the public. In March, however, "Cross over the Bridge" got some play in Chicago and other cities.
I can't resist noting the possibility that Listen to My Plea may have been derived from the same source as the Beatles' first number one, as John Lennon liked the wordplay in Bing Crosby's Please (the lyrics are by Leo Robin):
Lend your little ear to my pleas ...
That possible association apart, however, Listen to My Plea doesn't strike me as a particularly distinctive record - which is not to say it's bad. The song itself, written by Johnny Carter, may not be wildly original, but the overall assembly of mostly familiar phrases ("You know my love runs deeper, / Deeper than any sea ...") works well, Red Holloway or Al Smith's musicians do just fine, and Carter's McPhatterish lead is alternately plaintive and sly - listen, for example, to the emphasis he places on the last word in the line:
I think you know what I mean ... 
It's just that there is little in the vocal backing to identify the group as the Flamingos: no falsetto embellishments, no experiments of any sort, just a kind of rhythmic moaning, not dissimilar to backgrounds in records by the Midnighters or the Dominoes.

On the plus side, a performance such as this goes a fair way to counter the assertion that the Flamingos weren't capable of "spirited anarchy" on uptempo numbers, to use Robert Pruter's phrase again. Musicians and singers sound loose and relaxed here, and Carter seems in his element. Earlier I suggested that Carried Away didn't sound raunchy but you'd be harder put to say the same of Listen to My Plea; there is at least the ghost of a leer in Carter's voice.

It would have been interesting to hear both takes of the song but as far as I am aware the 1953 version hasn't surfaced, even as a bootleg. The group had been told they "didn't sound black enough" when they auditioned for another company in 1952; could it be that the rawish edge on the released performance was consciously cultivated?

Or could it have been a question of everyone having to work at speed towards the end of that final session? It's possible that the poppier Cross Over the Bridge, with its greater need for a precisely rendered vocal, took up most of the time, especially if that was the side deemed the potential hit. The musicians certainly work well together on Listen ..., but that arrangement could have been made up on the spot, as opposed to the preparation which must have been necessary for Blues in a Letter or Jump Children.

It's also intriguing to note that this was the only Chance session where the group didn't attempt four songs. An indication, perhaps, of label owner Art Sheridan's decreasing interest or simply lack of available time, with the group's live commitments?

Whatever the reason, Marv Goldberg says that the record of Cross Over the Bridge and Listen to My Plea "doesn't seem to have been sent out for review" when it was issued in March, which must have contributed to manager Ralph Leon's decision to take them to Parrot Records, where their first session, in July 1954, produced four varied and exciting sides - including at least one stone classic.


Rereading the above, I've been unfair about the backing vocals - and, indeed, the idea that this record cannot be identified as the Flamingos. Jake Carey's bass is to the fore, and there are pleasing moments where he interacts directly with Johnny Carter's lead, so this is as much a Flamingos track as, say, Hurry Home Baby. There is also more variety in the vocal arrangement than I have suggested.

Blame those hasty judgements on my partiality for ballads and the voice of Sollie McElroy, which isn't distinguishable on this recording. In fact, the sound in general seems a little rougher than on other Chance sides, which may be indicative of a lack of time to get the song in the can or, more likely, that the master hasn't survived.

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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