Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Flamingos # 12: Dream of a Lifetime

There was no dramatic change to the Flamingos' sound when they switched their allegiance from Chance to nearby Parrot Records. Nate Nelson had not yet joined the group; that awkward jobshare which would ultimately force McElroy out was some months in the future.

The first session for Parrot took place at the same studio, Universal Recording, with Al Smith - he of the dependably icy rehearsal basement - once again leading the backing musicians. According to the Parrot & Blue Lake website:
On this occasion Smith brought either Lucius Washington or Cliff Davis (tenor sax), probably Willie Jones (piano and celeste), Lefty Bates (guitar), and Paul Gusman (drums). 
Listening to the one undoubted classic which came out of that first session, however, there does seem to be a shift of emphasis, or perhaps the stepping up of a refining process. Dream of a Lifetime is a more polished, pop-oriented production than any of the Chance sides, with no opportunities for jazz-minded musos to compete with the lead vocal. In fact, with the sole exception of Lucius Washington's or Cliff Davis's saxophone playing softly under McElroy's singing of the bridge ("Heaven must have sent you, Dear ..."), the sound is distinctly unjazzy.

The effect is to highlight McElroy throughout, and he responds with as affecting a performance as any he has committed to record. After the briefest of introductory piano flourishes his voice - not hesitant but slow, as though surprising himself with the boldness of the declarations he is framing - compels attention throughout. Robert Pruter says:
The lead is sung ... with such great feeling that it captures all the romance of the title.
This may or may not be a great song, but it is delivered with such conviction that it's hard to tell or care. (They make it great.) The group sing block chords, as on September Song, and they also repeat many of  McElroy's lines, made otherworldly by echo - indeed, it could be argued that this record is almost as much a triumph of the producer's or engineer's art as the group's.

True, there is no lavish orchestration in the manner of the Drifters' later There Goes My Baby, so the sophistication of the production may be less obvious to the casual listener - though Willie Jones, if it is he, can be heard playing the celeste with rather more economy than Horace Palm on September Song - but I suspect that Dream of a Lifetime would not be one of those records like the Five Satins' In the Still of the Night which somehow gains from a more primitive sound.

It's surprising, therefore, to read that one of the reasons the Flamingos left their next label, Chess, was because "they wanted a better quality of sound"; Chess also used Universal Recording.

Another consideration is more understandable:
They ... thought that a major label's wider distribution would prevent the "devastating appearance" (the words are Zeke Carey's) of a carbon copy like Pat Boone's version of "I'll Be Home." [Donn Fileti]
As is well known, Boone covered the Flamingos' Chess hit I'll Be Home, making a considerable impact on the group's own sales, but there weren't, as far as I know, any covers of Dream of a Lifetime before the Flamingos returned to it themselves during their time at Chess. It's slightly surprising that no one else saw the commercial potential of the song in the interim. Possibly some artists were intimidated by the obvious perfection of Sollie McElroy's lead on the original record although it's more likely that Al Benson's way of running a record company meant that most people didn't actually get to hear it.

Nate Nelson, McElroy's successor, doesn't sound intimidated on the remake, though the comments made in an earlier post when comparing the Chance and Checker versions of If I Can't Have You (aka Nobody's Love) also apply here. The later recording of Dream ... is brisker, more teen-friendly: a steady rhythm has been imposed, easier to dance to at sock hop balls.

And the lyrics don't need toning down on this occasion, as there is no suggestion the loved one is submitting to anything beyond a kiss:
You're the dream of a lifetime
With voice of mission bells that chime
And eyes that glow in sweet surrender
Two lips as sweet as wine
Odd words are substituted on the Checker recording but nothing which drastically changes the song's meaning. At one point Nelson sings "With you my life could be complete, Dear" instead of McElroy's more assured "will be" - which might seem a conscious attempt to make the song more of a teen dream were it not for the fact that the rest of the group sing "would be complete" both times - more needs this the grammarian than the critic.

Nate Nelson does a creditable job: there is variety and tenderness in his singing. But - possibly hampered by the fact that the rock'n'roll backing doesn't exactly encourage dawdling - he can't quite convince us, as Sollie McElroy did, that his sense of wonder is new-minted, stunning himself with every fresh utterance.

The song is credited to "Roland-Kemp"; Eugene Roland was the pseudonym of Eugene Roland Satriano and Kemp was one Mack Kemp. There is no reference to either in the online site devoted to the Parrot and Blue Lake labels or in Robert Pruter's Doowop: The Chicago Scene, although a George Kemp, aka George Prayer, is noted as baritone in the Moroccos, the group Sollie McElroy later joined.

A few traces of the songwriters' work can be found elsewhere online. Three songs in the 1946 film Tall, Tan and Terrific, set in a Harlem nightclub, are copyrighted to Roland and Kemp although their names do not appear on  the film's credits. They are: Stop This Music, The Sweetness of You and Teasing Me, the last named also credited to Leroy S Hodges. A poor quality print of the film can be found here. Teasing Me, which appears heavily cut, is the final song and Stop This Music is presumably the song containing the lyric "Stop this tune", but I couldn't pick out The Sweetness of You. The two songs I heard in these less than optimum circumstances weren't particularly memorable.

A 1950 song, Every Time I Think of You, is also copyrighted by Roland and Kemp, although it does not appear to be the similarly titled number recorded by Big Mama Thornton for Peacock in 1952. Satriano makes a second appearance in the Flamingos' story as Flame of Love, a 1963 side on End Records, is solely credited to him, but beyond that I have no information.


Since writing the above I have discovered an earlier recording of Dream of a Lifetime, dating from 1947, credited to Bill Johnson and His Musical Notes with "Vocal refrain by Gus Gordon and Trio." The composition is credited on the label to "Gene Rowland" only.

It's a beautiful performance in a style which calls the Ravens at their most Ink-Spottish to mind: Gus Gordon's lead may not be quite as distinctive as Maithe Marshall's but the gently jazzy backing has a similar feel to many records by the better-known group even if there's no fathoms-deep bass to provide vocal variety.

Coming to it after long familiarity with Sollie McElroy's take on the song, however, Gordon's performance strikes me as calm, untroubled: he may be celebrating a thing of beauty but doesn't seem distracted by any particularly strong passion while doing so. Then again, he audibly lacks the advantage of Bill Putnam or some equivalent figure to help create an atmosphere.

Other posts in this series here.

Doowop: the Chicago Scene by Robert Pruter
Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks page on the Flamingos
The Parrot and Blue Lake Labels (website) - Robert Pruter, Armin Buttner and Robert L Campbell
Sleevenotes for The Best of the End Years by Donn Fileti
Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks page on Bill Johnson and His Musical Notes

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