Thursday, 3 August 2017

Flamingos # 14: If I Could Love You

"Swoonsome" is the term which springs to mind for the opening of If I Could Love You, though not in the teen idol sense. Right from the start the combination of guitar (Lefty Bates) and sax make this little number too darned sensual ever to cross over: if there wasn't an "exotic dancer" present in the studio, those boys must have had awfully good imaginations.

The arrangement as a whole places the song in a sophisticated, supper club setting, and despite its being ostensibly the confession of one who "can't say a mumblin' word" in front of his love this is no adolescent admission of bashfulness but a knowing and playful song of seduction whose climax, so to speak, is the singer's hope that his "oohs" will be returned as moans of delight (listen to the rhythmic emphasis on those final exhalations if you think I'm overstating the case).

It's the sort of ditty ideally suited to Sollie McElroy: he's fully aware of the comic overtones but doesn't overplay them, and you only have to listen to Dream of a Lifetime to hear the difference in how he handles a straightforwardly romantic ballad.

Despite that mocked-up advertisement at the top, however, this recording would not see the light of day for ten years - which may, I suppose, be a kind of compliment not only to McElroy but also the combined talents of Lefty Bates and the alto sax player, be he Washington or Davis, for their part in generating such a sultry atmosphere. I also wonder whether this might have been a number created primarily with live performance in mind as there is scope for the group interacting with a dancer or an audience member - tastefully, of course: the recording is artfully suggestive, not sleazy.

But it contains absolutely no concessions for a possible crossover audience, which may have been another reason behind its long sleep in the Chess vaults after it was recorded during their first Parrot session. It's not only that suggestion of a bump 'n' grind routine at the start; the lyrics seem squarely aimed at an adult African American audience. The phrase "mumblin' word" has gospel and blues associations and the lines "I really could love you strong ... Just to thrill you", especially as delivered by McElroy, are scarcely suitable for innocent ears - oh, and just listen to Sollie's gasp in between: the guy's an operator.

Robert Pruter notes:
If I Could Love You was written by the great guitarist/vocalist Danny Overbea, who had won fame for Forty Cups of Coffee [covered by Bill Haley] and Train Train Train. He had recorded the song, but it remained in the can.
Overbea's original 1953 recording of Forty Cups of Coffee offers an opportunity to hear the King Kolax Orchestra, who backed the Flamingos on their first Chance session, in a different context, but first let's listen to Train Train Train here as the more intimate setting means his guitar is to the fore, raising thoughts about how he might have played that naughty introduction on his own version of If I Could Love You:

And here - if you're not already over-caffeinated - is Forty Cups of Coffee:

The allmusic biography of Danny Overbea describes him as "one of the earliest pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll":
‘Train Train Train’ and ‘40 Cups Of Coffee’ ... were essentially rock ‘n’ roll songs before the concept of ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ had even emerged ... Alan Freed featured Overbea many times in his early rock ‘n’ roll revues in Ohio and New York; his acrobatic back-bend to the floor while playing the guitar behind his head was always a highlight of the shows. Overbea was also a talented ballad singer (in the mode of Billy Eckstine), having most success with ‘You’re Mine’ (also recorded by the Flamingos) and ‘A Toast To Lovers’. Overbea made his last records in 1959 and retired from the music business in 1976.
JC Marion of Doowop Nation fame has written a more extended piece about Overbea - there's a link below - and shares memories of seeing him live:
I saw Danny Overbea perform at the St. Nick's show and at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater in April of 1955. What stays with me after all these years is the effect of seeing a complete performance from vocals to guitar playing to showstopping moves the kind that I had never seen before. The splits, playing behind the back, the teeth solos and all, were fifteen years ahead of Jimi Hendrix, and as I learned, ten years after T-Bone Walker who originated many of the routines. Combine that with a great sense of ballad style and here was a major performer. How and why he did not become the great crossover artist and a major performer throughout the decade is a mystery that will remain for the years. However I feel fortunate in having seen him in all his expressive glory.
There isn't a hint of humour in either of those ballads referred to in the allmusic piece, although I still think I'm right about the suggestive edge to If I Could Love You, at least as performed by the Flamingos.

The Flamingos' version of Overbea's You're Mine, recorded in 1963 for End Records, can be found on youtube here, if you wish to seek it out. It seems a long way from the spirit of that Parrot recording, so it's ironic that someone else who uploaded it chose a photograph of the McElroy era group for listners to gaze upon.

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
Danny Overbea by JC Marion

With apologies to Marv Goldberg for the concocted image, top

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