PART TWO


6. The Flamingos - This Chicago based group is known immediately for having a total of five gifted lead singers during their existence. First their original lead, Sollie McElroy who if he did nothing ever again after "Golden Teardrops" would still rank as one of the finest voices in vocal group history. Then there was the picturesquely described "voice of champagne" Nate Nelson, and the latter days of the group saw the fine lead voice of Tommy Hunt, followed by Terry Johnson and Paul Wilson. The story of the Flamingos beginnings is surely an intriguing one, and is told in great detail in the book "Doowop" by Robert Pruter (U. of Illinois Press), how they evolved out of a congregation of Black Jews with cousins Zeke and Jake Carey and cousins Johnny Carter and Paul Wilson. Originally recording on the Chance label, ballads "Golden Teardrops", "Cross Over The Bridge" and "Blues In A Letter" were reasons for the group's building a fan base in Chicago and spreading elsewhere as the recordings got added airplay. My first exposure to the Flamingos was the uptempo Checker hit "That's My Baby" which was plugged heavily in New York by Alan Freed. The dual tempo (mambo and straight 2/4 rhythm & blues)used on the tune was interesting. The year 1956 was a year that showcased the group as they were as hot as a group could be with four consecutive monster hit ballads for Checker. From "I'll Be Home" to "A Kiss From Your Lips","The Vow", and "Would I Be Crying", the unique harmonies and sensational lead singing by Nate Nelson put the Flamingos on a par with the other nationally recognized vocal groups-The Platters and The Five Satins. Just when they were about to become national headliners, military service caused the Flamingos to regroup and record for a major label, Decca. The Decca sides were lost in a haze of poor promotion and legal wrangles. But in 1958 the Flamingos achieved a second life as major recording artists and they did it by the notion of reinventing themselves. Now on a New York label, George Goldner's End records, the group hit with "Lovers Never Say Goodbye" (written by Terry Johnson, and featuring Johnson and Paul Wilson on dual leads) and a haunting and almost ethereal version of the old chestnut "I Only Have Eyes For You" that took took the musical world by storm the next year. The ballad versions of old pop standards now became a second career for the group, and many new listeners were added to their fan base including many from another generation that remembered the songs from earlier years. One of the greatest original albums of the fifties was released containing twelve of these incomparable versions of pop music standards. It was called Flamingo Serenade, and is still available and is still selling now on CD and cassette tape. The decade long hit record potential of the group was not over yet as they added "Mio Amore" , "Love Walked In" and "Besame Mucho." Terry Johnson remained the guiding force behind the group in writing and lead singing during this time. In 1960 he left the group and fronted his own version of The Flamingos. The longevity of their hitmaking potential and the ability to survive changes in the musical tastes of the public rival only that of the Clovers. From the early stirrings of the rise of R & B until the arrival of the British Invasion, The Flamingos certainly presented themselves as worthy of their designation as one of the top R & B vocal groups ever. (ed note : updated information supplied by Joseph Mirrione)
5.) The Penguins - The Penguins may not have the long list of recorded attributes that some of the other groups listed, or others you may think of, but their one big claim to fame is that they were surely in the right place at the right time and had the right sound for the ages. "Earth Angel" was probably the song that launched a thousand groups. It was the theme song of an era and still sells today more than forty years after its release. Many of those whose first taste of what was being now called rock & roll, were also enthralled by the sound of the flip side "Hey Senorita". Originally promoted as the 'A' side by Dootone label president Dootsie Williams, 'Senorita' is a contagious rhythmic tune that sounds almost a capella. It also sounds like it was recorded in someone's garage or basement, but that only adds to its appeal. The second Dootone release could never top the first, but "Love Will Make Your Mind Go Wild" and "Ookey Ook" were just as musically interesting. "Wild" was a very complex ballad with interesting chord changes and an odd structure. It seemed very advanced for a doowop group right out of high school. By this time legal issues were the dominating influence on the group as they headed for major label Mercury, and what they thought would be a better path to success for them. At almost the same time in the late spring of 1955, "Kiss A Fool Goodbye" / "Baby Let's Make Love" on Dootone and "Be Mine Or Be A Fool" / "Don't Do It" on Mercury were released. Each ballad side and uptempo side are extremely similar. All tunes are well done but you can imagine the reaction on the part of the public. They were now as confused as the group seemed to be at this time. Seemingly cleared of the legal problems with Dootone the Penguins concentrated on their output for Mercury. Here they were a victim of circumstance, as the label concentrated all their promotion efforts on Buck Ram's other vocal group on Mercury, The Platters. Some extremely well done songs such as "Devil That I See", "My Troubles Are Not At An End" and "Dealer Of Dreams"did not get the expected push by the label. A very interesting remake of "Earth Angel" complete with pop music trappings was also done in late 1956, but this too did not gather the attention that it deserved. The Penguins now seemed to fade into obscurity, but were back in the spotlight with the release of the first oldies album by Art Laboe's Original Sound label. It included the original Dootone version of "Earth Angel" complete with the missing piano intro, and it was a tremendous success and spurred renewed interest in the group. With Cleveland Duncan on lead a revamped group cut the interesting tune "Memories Of El Monte" (written by doowop fanatic and rock iconoclast Frank Zappa) for Original Sound. Heading for the millennium year of 2000, the Penguins sound is still the overture music for an age and a generation that were there for the birth of rock and roll.
4.) The Five Keys - The Five Keys hail from Newport News, Virginia, and was the case with so many of the pioneering groups, originally sang gospel music. Two sets of brothers were the founding members (Rudy and Bernie West, and Ripley and Raphael Ingram) and as the Sentimental Four began gathering experience as a musical act. Military service intervened for Raphael and he was replaced by Maryland Pierce, and Dickie Smith was added to make the group a quintet who rechristened themselves the Five Keys. They were soon signed to Los Angeles based Aladdin records, and a four year successful association with that label began in 1951. The second release for the label in the late spring of that year was the one that established their reputation as a top vocal group. "The Glory Of Love" showcased the great talent of the quintet and became a national rhythm & blues top seller. For the next three years the group recorded many fine sides for Aladdin but none reached the level of success of "Glory". Some became vocal group classics over the years such as "Red Sails In The Sunset", "I Hadn't Anyone Till You", "These Foolish Things" and in late 1953 recorded one of the first vocal group songs in the 'modern' R & B style of separate bass, lead, and harmony background with "My Saddest Hour". As the contract with Aladdin came to an end, the Keys were looking to sign with a major label so they could take advantage of the greater distribution and support that a major offered. They had a short lived stint with RCA and its subsidiary label Groove, until they went with Capitol records based in Hollywood. With the rock & roll explosion in full swing, the Keys began their association with Capitol by recording in a smoother more refined sound, but still keeping the R & B tempo and feel intact. The first Capitol release "Ling Ting Tong" was the result and it was a smash with fans of this new musical trend. Ramon Loper and Ulysses Hicks had replaced Rudy West and Dickie Smith while they were in the army. Tragedy struck as Hicks suddenly suffered a fatal heart attack soon after "Ling Ting Tong" was released. Rudy West returned in time for the ballad hit "Close Your Eyes" and the flip "Doggone It You Did It". Other hits during the Capitol years followed - "Don't You Know I Love You", the powerful ballad "Wish I Had Never Learned To Read", "The Verdict", "The Story Of Love" and two rockers "Gee Whittakers" and "She's The Most". The last few releases had shown the Five Keys to be very skilled at adapting to a more pop oriented ballad sound as they had with "The Verdict". It was this quality that led the group to their two huge hits in 1956 and early 1957, "Out Of Sight Out Of Mind" and "Wisdom Of A Fool" with almost perfect tenor lead by Rudy West. The next two years saw the group settle in this groove coming full circle in 1958 with their version of the great Inkspots hit "The Gypsy". Rudy West took leave of the group as the remnants of the Keys recorded a series of tunes for King for the next two years. The hit making days for the group were over, but for many years after, a version of the Five Keys recorded and made in-person appearances throughout the country. Live recordings of the Five Keys as late as 1970 show that 20 years had not dimmed their luster for vocal treasures and they spanned the rock and roll years as a top rated inspiration and influence.

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