The Flamingos
Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive

The Flamingos

2001
Category:
Performers
Members:
  • Ezekiel Carey
  • Jacob Carey
  • John E. Carter
  • Tommy Hunt
  • Terry Johnson
  • Sollie McElroy
  • Nathaniel Nelson
  • Paul Wilson

Nobody’s perfect, but the Flamingos came extremely close.

The Flamingos took listeners higher with sublime harmonies and impeccable arrangements. Today they stand as one of the most sophisticated doo wop groups and most influential vocal groups.

Biography

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With their elegant, intricate and flawless vocal arrangements, the Flamingos are widely regarded as one of the best vocal groups in music history.

The graceful vocals and sharp choreography of Motown’s biggest stars—the Temptations, the Supremes, the Jackson 5 and the Miracles among them—owe a debt to the Flamingos, as do such paragons of Philadelphia soul as the Spinners and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Although many of the Flamingos’ recordings did not make the pop charts or even get heard beyond a regional fan base, they have with hindsight acquired a reputation as vocal-group classics. In particular, their third single, “Golden Teardrops,” has been hailed as “the most perfect-sounding single of all time” and “a legendary masterpiece.” Yet it failed to reach the national pop charts upon its initial release in 1953, and a reissue eight years later stalled at Number One Hundred Eight. Still, the Flamingos put eleven singles on the pop chart and nine singles on the R&B chart between 1956 and 1970. Two of those singles made the Top 10: “I’ll Be Home” (Number Five R&B) and “I Only Have Eyes For You” (Number Three R&B and Number Eleven pop).

The Flamingos formed in 1952 in Chicago, where they sang in a church choir. Somewhat uniquely, the congregation to which founding members Jake Carey, Zeke Carey, Paul Wilson and Johnnie Carter belonged was the black Jewish Church of God and Saints of Christ. Having mastered the minor-key melodies of Jewish hymns, they retained this influence when they began singing pop and R&B. Initially known as the Swallows, then the Five Flamingos and eventually just the Flamingos, they became a quintet with the addition of Earl Lewis. They signed to the Chicago-based Chance label in 1953. By then, they had a new lead vocalist, Sollie McElroy, who was discovered at a talent show. They recorded in a variety of styles, including mid-tempo ballads (“Someday, Someway”), lowdown blues (“Blues in a Letter”), pop standards (“That’s My Desire”) and jump tunes (“Jump Children”).

From Chance, they moved to Parrot, where they recorded a handful of singles, including the ballad “Dream of a Lifetime” and the up-tempo “Ko Ko Mo,” and acquired yet another lead singer, Nate Nelson. In 1955 they signed with Chess Records and released records on its Checker subsidiary. Their third 45 for Checker was “I’ll Be Home,” a dramatic ballad in which a serviceman promises a loved one that he will return. It became their first R&B smash and would have no doubt been a big mainstream hit too had Pat Boone not rushed out a pallid cover version. Deejay Alan Freed thought highly enough of the Flamingos to include them in two of his late-Fifties rock and roll flicks: Rock, Rock, Rock (1956), in which they performed “Would I Be Crying,” and Go, Johnny, Go! (1959), which featured “Jump Children”.

In 1958 the group moved to George Goldner’s End Records, and they moved from Chicago to New York City. Their lineup now consisted of Zeke and Jake Carey, Paul Wilson, Nate Nelson, new singer Tommy Hunt and guitarist/singer Terry Johnson. The Flamingos cut some of their most enduring sides for End, including the exquisite “Lovers Never Say Goodbye” and their satiny signature song, “I Only Have Eyes for You” (Number Three R&B, Number Eleven pop). The latter, originally a 1934 hit for Ben Selvin, is one of the most sublime and enduring vocal-group recordings of all time. While at End, the Flamingos released four albums, including Flamingo Serenade (1959), a masterful album of pop standards by Cole Porter, George Gershwin and others.

Although the Flamingos’ popularity trailed off in the Sixties with the rise of the British Invasion bands, they continued recording and performing throughout the decades. After the deaths of cousins Jake and Zeke Carey, Terry Johnson continued to lead and perform with a new line-up of the Flamingos.

Inductees: Ezekiel Carey (born January 24, 1933, died December 24, 1999), Jacob Carey (born September 9, 1926, died December 10, 1997), John Carter (born June 2, 1934, died August 21, 2009), Tommy Hunt (born June 18, 1933), Terry Johnson (born November 12, 1938), Sollie McElroy (born July 16, 1933, died January 15, 1995), Nathaniel Nelson (born April 10, 1932, died June 1, 1984), Paul Wilson (born January 6, 1935, died May 6, 1988)

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