Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Flamingos # 4: If I Can't Have You

If I Can't Have You was recorded by the Flamingos in 1953 and reworked three years later, during their stint at Chess Records. The arrangements on the two versions provide compelling evidence of that musical sea change mentioned earlier:

Jazz-style accompaniment would never again be as prominent in doowop as it was on the [Chance] recordings ... One reason is that during that time, jazz combos and doowop groups appeared together in nightclubs, and the arrangements used in clubs were also used n the recording studio. Another reason is that the recording industry of 1950-1954 had yet to deal with rock'n'roll. In 1955, when doowop groups emerged as rock'n'roll entities, the record labels - notably Chess and Vee-Jay in Chicago - consciously worked with their session men, most of whom had jazz backgrounds, to change their accompaniment style from jazz to rock 'n' roll. [Robert Pruter and Robert L Campbell]
The Chance side was part of the group's first session for the label at Universal Recording in Chicago on January 28th; this was the one which also yielded the smouldering That's My Desire. As with the Frankie Laine song, If I Can't Have You has an opening designed to grab the idle radio listener's attention, although this time it's saxophonist Dick Davis who paves the way for Sollie McElroy's plaintive lead.

After that, however, things seem to go a little awry. Either Prentice McCarey's piano is too prominent in the mix or he is too determined to go his own way - or both. At any rate, for around the first 45 seconds or so the piano playing doesn't quite mesh with the singing.

A haughty jazz musician trying to upstage a doo wop singer, as per Johnny Keyes' memoir? Unlikely, as King Kolax's band had played live with the Flamingos, and it's not a fault to be heard on That's My Desire or the two uptempo numbers from the same day. The momentary flaring, perhaps, of a culture clash - a jazzman so habituated to greater license with his peers that it takes him a while to remember to rein his playing in?

Of course, it could be just a tiny instance of misjudgement.

And there's still a lot of pleasure to be gained from listening to those not-quite-snug components. When a journalist once heard a great take during a Harry Nilsson session he instantly lamented  his certainty that a couple of quirky and idiosyncratic moments along the way meant it wouldn't be the keeper. Which is how I feel about If I Can't Have You: McCarey's playing sounds newly coined, adventurous, reckless ... he's just not pulling in precisely the same direction as Sollie McElroy. (Could this have been why Kolax's group weren't invited back for later Flamingos sessions?) In an ideal world the released version of If I Can't You would be an outtake which surfaces on some lavish Bear Family or Mosaic box set and you'd hear it and smile indulgently, knowing that they pressed on and finally got that intro nailed.


In July 1956 the group rerecorded the song for Chess Records, by then their third label. By March 1954, Marv Goldberg says, things had been "slowing down at Chance" and the group's manager Ralph Leon eventually took them to nearby Parrot records. This was run by DJ Al Benson, who produced some wonderful and enduring doo wop, including the Orchids, but treated the company more like a hobby than a business. When two members of a group complained they couldn't hear their records in Detroit,
Benson thrust some copies of the record into their hands and gave them the name of a distributor they might entreaty to secure a distribution deal. [Robert Pruter]
Ralph Leon, not surprisingly, began to negotiate a deal with Chess. He died of a heart attack before this could be concluded, but the company approached the group directly in early 1955.

For those who might be wondering, Terry Johnson had not yet joined the group by the time of the second recording, so he was not responsible for the reworked arrangement. But a significant change to the group's sound had already occurred during their time at Parrot, when lead singer Sollie McElroy was replaced by the smoother-voiced Nate Nelson. Marv Goldberg says that according to Johnny Carter, McElroy had been "getting a swelled head and just wasn't fitting in anymore," but could there have been an awareness within the group that Nelson's voice was the more commercial and likely to assure greater success?

There was, apparently, an awkward period of transition when McElroy and Nelson were alternating at live performances, sharing a uniform, which no doubt concentrated Sollie McElroy's mind wonderfully. Assuming this wasn't an example of constructive dismissal, it would appear the group weren't doing all that well financially - as, indeed, seems borne out by McElroy's public explanation for leaving:
I was ready to take the group higher, but I was broke. When I say broke, I mean I didn't have no money. I wanted to dress nice and I couldn't buy the clothes I wanted to buy and look the way I wanted to look with the compensation I was getting from my singing. [Marv Goldberg]
The musical backing of Nobody's Love is undoubtedly more streamlined, more rock'n'roll, than the Chance original. I can't find a list of personnel online but it sounds like a bass, piano and drums hammering out a beat in the service of the group and nothing, or not much, else. No instrumental introduction: the recording starts boldly with Nate Nelson's solo voice. The whole performance, vocal and instrumental, feels like a coiled spring, in contrast to If I Can't Have You, which is more measured, reflective.

Did the reworked arrangement originate from the group themselves? Had the song been adjusted over the intervening years as the group sought ever better ways to slay audiences? Had Nelson been keen to stamp his own identity on McElroy's number during those nights when it was his turn in the uniform? But the earlier point made by Pruter and Campbell that companies such as Chess -"consciously worked with their session men... to change their accompaniment style from jazz to rock 'n' roll" probably means that even if the group were allowed a say they would not have been the only ones involved in the decision-making process.

There are certainly more extremes of light and shade on this new recording, however they were arrived at, with dramatic silences at the end of sections. And a particularly effective alteration has been made towards the end. A short bridge sung on the original by Johnny Carter -
So say you'll agree and you'll love me for eternity ...
- has been divided into two sections: a spoken passage, calling to mind a similar moment in I'll Be Home, which segues into an astonishing falsetto rendering of the phrase "for eternity".

The sound may be enhanced by echo at that point (see end), but essentially we are listening to a bravura performance from Nate Nelson:
"Eternah -teeeeeeeeeeh ..."
hangs in the  air for a long moment then dips down before Nelson - as though struggling back from a great distance, shaking off a dream - resumes, the rest of the Flamingos and the instruments kick back in, and we move towards the conclusion.

The manner of that conclusion will be familiar from many doo wop records such as the Ravens' A Simple Prayer: a climactic falsetto note held as the rest of the group harmonise around it. I'm not sure when it originated in doo wop, although it puts me in mind of Louis Armstrong hitting a top C in his big band days, so then you really know the record is over.

So, after all that, which version is better? Pruter says flatly that Nobody's Love is "a superior remake". It's certainly bolder, more gobsmacking, with the contrast control turned way up, and a sense that every last drop of potential has been wrung out of the song.

Against that, it loses something of the langorous charm of the original, where Johnny Carter seems free to roam around Sollie McElroy's lead as he wishes; the only trace of falsetto on the Chess version, apart from that breathtaking conclusion, is a brief - but delightful - accompaniment during the spoken section.

And compared to the Chance original the performance of Nobody's Love feels more calculated, something expressly designed to stop listeners in their tracks with its stop-start moments, its soaring highs and plummeting lows. It sounds, in short, engineered for success - which makes it ironic that it wasn't released at the time and only surfaced on a 1959 album released to cash in on the group's hitmaking at End Records.

Alright, nothing wrong with conscious calculation if the results are good. And yet ... well, compare those ethereal harmonies right at the end of If I Can't Have You, anticipating Golden Teardrops, to the standard issue conclusion of Nobody's Love. Earlier, writing about That's My Desire, I said that the Flamingos' version was superior to some later recordings by other groups because it seemed more restrained, more adult; it could be argued that the 1956 remake of If I Can't Have You, with its absurdly heightened emotions, has been crafted with rock'n'roll's new teenage audience in mind, an attempt to consolidate the crossover success they had already enjoyed earlier that year with I'll Be Home.


Rereading the above, I may have exaggerated the differences between the two recordings. Nobody's Love may be geared to a new era, a new audience, but it still shows taste and restraint, and Nelson's vocal is undoubtedly stunning. That said, I suspect I shall be returning more often to If I Can't Have You; there seems more to explore, more detail to pick out, even if the whole may be less than perfectly realised.

Oh, and apologies for not listening more closely to the lyrics. There is a small but telling change. In 1953 Sollie McElroy sings:
I don't want nobody's thrills
What good would they do?
And if it's the maker's will
I'm gonna have you
Which suggests that while he won't be having sexual relations with other women, he nevertheless  lives in the sort of adult world where such activity could reasonably be considered an option. By 1956, however, Nate Nelson's declaration has become, as it were, crossover-chaste, as befits a group associating with Alan Freed and attracting a younger audience:
I don't want nobody's kiss
If it's not from you
And if it's the maker's will
I'm gonna have you
Pity about the rhyme ...

A further thought about Nate Nelson's "Eternah -teeeeeeeeeeh ...": The sound may have been enahanced by echo at that point but it's possible that Nelson simply raised his head towards the ceiling or turned and faced a wall which allowed the sound to bounce back; the fact that when he takes up the song again he sounds momentarily off mike - or "struggling back from a great distance" - would seem to support this possibility.

It is also worth noting that the short bridge sung by Johnny Carter on the Chance recording was, according to Zeke Carey, an illustration of the group's debt to the Orioles. In Robert Pruter's Doowop: the Chicago Scene Carey says:
I think if you listen to 'If I Can't Have You', and if you remember the Orioles you'll probably recognize to a certain degree that we were influenced by the Orioles. You'll recognize how the second lead would come in. He would sing a little part and the main lead would then come back in. 
 "Most early1950s groups looked to the Orioles for inspiration," Pruter adds, "and the Flamingos were no exception."

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
Stop-Time! Fall 1999 issue, Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, Chicago

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