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 108. Still, the Flamingos put 11 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 11 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 midtempo 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 uptempo “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’ll return. It became their first R&B smash and would’ve 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 (in which they performed “Would I Be Crying”) and Go Johnny Go! (“Jump Children”).
In 1958, the group moved to George Goldner’s End Records, and they moved from Chicago to New York City as well. 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 11 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, a masterful album of pop standards by Cole Porter, George Gershwin and others.
Although the Flamingos’ popularity tailed off in the Sixties with the rise of the British Invasion bands, they continued recording and performing down 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.