Monday, 26 June 2017

Flamingos # 3: Golden Teardrops


Golden Teardrops, the undoubted masterpiece of the Flamingos' Chicago recording years,  was recorded during their second session for Chance Records, in August 1953.

That's My Desire, from their January date, was "racking up strong regional sales" but King Kolax and his Orchestra were not chosen to back the group again. Instead, Red Holloway and his band turn in a self-effacing performance with some instruments more felt than heard, and no solos; the saxophone is a distant sympathetic murmur. Lead singer Sollie McElroy would later describe the record as "almost acapella," which may be overstating it, but the band is definitely subordinate.


This suggests the Flamingos were already inspiring respect in the business, by no means a given for such groups. In his memoir Du-Wop, Johnny Keyes of the Magnificents observed that jazzers could be superior and contemptuous towards the youngsters they were hired to back. The Flamingos were older than most groups, which may have helped in the respect stakes - Jake Carey, the eldest, was twenty six - but they had also developed a professional attitude towards their singing. A previous lead, Earl Lewis (a namesake of the Channels' singer), had been booted out eighteen months earlier for not taking his job seriously enough:
"Girls," he laughed. "You know, not making rehearsals, just things like that. They were tired of my messing up." [Robert Pruter]
Billy Shelton, who was friendly with the Flamingos in Chicago, told me they were in the habit of beating up anyone who made mistakes, which seems to carry forceful criticism to unlikely extremes,  but Sollie McElroy's description of the group's efforts to shape Golden Teardrops does suggest a determination to get it right. By the time they walked into the studio every aspect of the arrangement seems to have been worked out - not influenced by the vagaries of audience response but refined in private:
We started rehearsing that song at my mother's apartment on 46th and Langley. I never will forget it. We rehearsed and we rehearsed. And we changed it and changed it and we were trying to get a beginning. And we began to put the song together like a puzzle. It took us about three months to do that song. Then we finally got it. If you listen to the background, there is very little music. It was almost acappella. You could hear the notes, the blending of the voices. We rehearsed a long time on that song. In fact we were almost ready to give it up. We couldn't get it like we wanted to. And Johnny started bringing in that tenor and it started fitting in. And so when we felt like we were comfortable with it, we recorded it. We never sang it in public [before it was recorded]. Once we got it together, we went to the studio and recorded it. We never did pre-sing our songs to see how the audience would accept it. We rehearsed it and went to the studio. [Marv Goldberg]
The result, released the following month, was worth the effort.



 Here's how I described my initial response to the record on the Kewl Steve board:
Odd as it may seem, it wasn't that accessible to me when I first heard it around 1978, on a poor quality oldies compilation with muddy sound and a dubbed-on guitar. Adjoining tracks, like Sonny Knight's Confidential or the Spaniels' Baby It's You, seemed far better: I got the point. But this - this was Ink Spots territory, wasn't it? That guitar. The Harptones' I Almost lost my mind, also on the LP, that was emotion; the Flamingos seemed out of reach, unfocused, somehow; I couldn't take the whole thing in in one listen.
I don't particularly recall a moment of piercing clarity. But at some point the elements made sense - tremulous falsetto, out-of-tune-sounding yet absolutely right lead, odd lyrics (why "a cottage by the sea"?) and above all that sense at the beginning that we're being ushered into a holy place, cavernous and echoing as a great cathedral, and then drawn together in a moment of collective stillness, as though calmly taking stock of the sadness in things (lacrimae rerum, appropriately enough: "the tears in things") before there's a collective sigh - at what life is?- and Sollie McElroy comes up to testify or confess: "Swear to God I'll stray no more ..."
But it's too late: although at one point he addresses the lost love directly - "Darling, put away your tears," – the burden (and howl) of the song is about regret: all he can do is try to take in fully the time he hurt her enough to make her cry: the time, now gone, when he mattered to someone, and the knowledge bearing down upon him that he's going to be carrying that memory to the grave and beyond: "Until the end of time, And throughout eternity - " Golden Teardrops. Cried, by her, for him.

And the rest of the group, or congregation, seem to grab him there - we're almost at the end of the song now - try to hold him in that moment when he feels the enormity of what he's done. Maybe the wisdom will last; who knows? But the sad, sweet pain - the knowledge that he was once loved - undoubtedly will, if the falsetto weaving in and out of the reiteration of that painful vision of her tears at the end is anything to go by.

Doo wop lyrics don't matter that much: a peg for emotions. They'd be trite enough here if read on their own. But on this occasion they seem to give the group a clarity of focus which inspires them to a height they never quite attained on any other song: Golden Teardrops is, quite simply, the loveliest and the saddest of all doo wop records. In his autobiography Chaplin talks of the day music entered his soul. Golden Teardrops seeped into me on some unknown date. But I never tire of it and always hear it afresh; for me it holds the whole mystery of doo wop: it's religious, it's secular, it's ... beyond words, actually.
A less romanticised reading is also possible. In A Streetcar Named Desire a stage direction near the end describes Stella after her betrayal of Blanche:
She sobs with inhuman abandon. There is something luxurious in her complete surrender to crying now that her sister is gone.
Which I take to mean that the character knows her terrible action is beyond remedy, so her crying in this context is a kind of self-indulgence, more for her than the one she has betrayed.


You could argue that a similar sense of luxuriating in grief permeates Golden Teardrops. Billy Vera's sleevenotes for the above 1992 CD offer an explanation:
In their stage act the group introduces the song as one written by a junkie to his long-suffering girl friend and, indeed, it was a big favorite among the early legion of collectors, a disproportionate number of whom happened to be, in fact, addicts. To crib from my friend Jerry Wexler, this "anthem of rue, regret and reform" expresses perfectly the maudlin, childish remorse of the typical addict, which is here somehow deeply moving, due in no small part to the magnificent harmonies of the (non-drinking, non-smoking) Flamingos.
This also seems a good summation of the curious power of doo wop ballads in general: at once ridiculous and affecting.

Bradford Cox makes a further claim:
It has this vocal intro that’s just so ... reverberous ... so timelessly lovelorn. I think of it as being the DNA of all the doowop or girl group stuff that came after it – that branch of melancholy American pop music without any of the accessories. It is just the raw data ... If you eliminate all the excess, you come down here to the basic elements of what makes great music so special ... the music of that era was a lot more in tune with something that was almost spiritual.
Where did those "magnificent harmonies" come from? In the BBC Radio 2 series Street Corner Soul Philip Groia, or possibly Alan Freed's biographer John A Jackson, recounts a Flamingo faux pas:
The Flamingos had this churchlike harmony where they were all tenors and it sounded as if it was one person singing that high pitched closed mouth harmony but it wasn't, it was three or four of them, with the bass. I remember saying to Zeke Carey, Hey, did you sing on the street corners in Chicago? And he had a fit. He said, What, are you nuts? We are descendants of Falasha Jews from Ethiopia and we learnt to sing like that in the synagogues of Chicago.
I have read references by various group members to singing on the streets when younger, so I think what Zeke Carey is taking umbrage at is the suggestion they learnt their craft outdoors and thus were no different from hundreds of other groups. Terry Johnson, who was to join the Flamingos some years later, adds:
There was a bunch of temples in Chicago, Baltimore, DC and Virginia all over the place. We would meet each other when Passover would come, you know, one big congregation, and usually it was acapella and it would be the most beautiful thing you ever would ever hear. The harmonies were something that I'll never forget and I would use what I could.
Robert Pruter's highly recommended Chicago Doo Wop fills in the details:
Except for the lead singers, Sollie McElroy and, later, Nate Nelson, the group’s other members - cousins Ezekial (Zeke) Carey and Jacob (Jake) Carey, and cousins Johnny Carter and Paul Wilson - were all related and were all Black Jews. Earl Lewis, a neighborhood pal who started with the group, noted that "the Flamingos were all part of a choir in their church. They sang hymns, Jewish hymns I think. Kind of solemn, like in a Catholic cathedral." Nate Nelson, when interviewed by Wayne Jones, said, "This is where all our harmonies came from. Our harmonies were different because we dealt with a lot of minor chords which is how Jewish music is written."

An explanation is in order concerning the Flamingos’ religion. They have been called Black Jews, and indeed members of their particular denomination - the Church of God and Saints of Christ - are commonly called by that name ... This church ... has a partial Christian content, evidenced by the fact that its service uses a choir instead of a cantor, as would an Orthodox Jewish congregation. One source says that the Church of God and Saints of Christ combines elements of Pentecostalism and black nationalism with the holy days and rites of Judaism. If the church is indeed influenced by Pentecostalism, its music is surprisingly devoid of any gospel content, as Lewis and Nelson made clear.
That last point may help explain the group's superiority as ballad singers. Pruter's opinion of their jump tunes, quoted in an earlier post, is that:
... they’re too controlled. Peppy, up-tempo numbers seem to require a little more spirited anarchy.
It's a limitation which applies, I believe, to Carried Away, the B side of Golden Teardrops, recorded at the same session. Spurred to recklessness by a spot of hand-squeezing in the midnight hour, the singer goes home with "the girl with the eyes of grey":
She said let's have a little taste, things gonna be okay,
She said let's have a little taste, things gonna be okay,
But when I looked up her old man stood in the doorway.
 And then our hapless hero really is "carried away" - geddit?- and the song reveals itself as a cautionary tale.




It's a neat enough comic playlet, Red Holloway's band romps along and it's all great fun ... but if I'm being picky the harmonies, and Johnny Carter's falsetto in particular, bestow a kind of unnecessary beauty upon proceedings: it just doesn't feel like the group's métier: lively, yes, but lacking the raunch which such a story demands; even the phrase "the girl with the eyes of grey" is rendered semi-decorous in that musical context, like a nod to a Victorian ballad.

Alright,  that's more than a bit of an exaggeration, yet I do wonder whether the background which formed the Flamingos' sound might also be the thing which stopped their breaking free on uptempo numbers in the manner of the Dominoes or the Five Keys, as discussed here.

For those puzzled by the reference to a "dubbed-on guitar" in the earlier encomium, my first exposure to Golden Teardrops was by way of the 1961 reissue on Vee-Jay Records, included on the budget album below. Vee Jay, who must have acquired the Chance masters at some point after the label folded, added a prominent acoustic guitar to the 1953 recording, doubtless in the hope of fooling younger record buyers into thinking it was a follow-up to the Flamingos' big 1959 hit on End Records, I Only Have Eyes For You.


The trick wasn't all that big a success: according to Jay Warner, the doctored Teardrops only made 108 in the summer of 1961.

It's not hard to see why: I Only Have Eyes For You is a more sophisticated production - sung, moreover, by a version of the group now led, musically, by the more pop-oriented Terry Johnson, and with Nate Nelson as lead. Slapping on an extra guitar can't disguise the fact that, for better or worse, the group's style has changed in the eight year gap between those recordings.

I have to confess that I really loved that revised version of Golden Teardrops for a long time (if not the longest), and the original Chance version, to which I was introduced by Clarke Davis in 2000, seemed too raw on first hearing. That feeling has changed over time: now the Vee Jay-added guitar no longer seems such a natural fit. It's not at odds with the rest of the backing but it sounds like an unnecessary underlining, as though some overcautious producer feared the effects of too many bouncedowns. And it does a disservice to those 1953 musicians who had been so careful not to overwhelm those unique harmonies.

Which leads to a further thought. Who decided on the rule MHB (Musicians Hold Back) at the original session? Hearing the song for the first time, did Holloway and his troupe instinctively realise that all they had to do was not get in the way? Or, confident in the knowledge that they had something with no need of embellishment, did the Flamingos lay down the law?

I don't know, but we can all be grateful that whoever made the decision it has proven the right one. Almost 64 years since Golden Teardrops was recorded it continues to feature on countless doo wop compilations including Rhino's celebrated Doo Wop Box. Pace Bradford Cox, it may not have been the first doo wop record, but it is surely one of the greatest.



Before drawing this piece to a close, attention must be paid to one contributor to this classic who has not yet been mentioned: the singer who cowrote it with Johnny Carter. Sollie McElroy says:
We had a gentleman by the name of Bunky Redding who wrote the the song, but we added a little bit here and there.
I can't pretend to know much about James "Bunky" Redding, nor do I know how writing duties were shared between him and Johnny Carter. The original Chance release is credited to "Carter-Redding" although a later, somewhat smoothed-out, cover produced by Richard Barrett credits the song only to "John Carter".





A snapshot of Redding's later years can be found in the blog of Mark H Miller. A Campus Minister Intern at Southern Illinois University in 1964, he came across Redding at Maynard State Penitentiary near St Louis when he was part of a student group leading a service there.
More than a rushing wind, we heard these incredible sounds from the side of the stage.  Enter about 30 inmates singing their hearts out. Real gospel music ... never heard such with the zest and joy. Prisoners.

In the middle of the worship ... The choir sang its anthem. An anthem that featured a solo.

Never. I can say this. Never have I ever heard such a voice ... loud but not rough, pitch perfect. Oh boy. Stunning. Even more than that.
Miller is told: “That’s Ed Redding. Goes by Bunky,” and learns "Bunky was a jazz singer, sang with the likes of Billie Holiday and Etta James. Was in prison for shooting heroin and cocaine, at least a couple more years of sentence."

Two years later he spoke on Redding's behalf when he was up for parole, helping to get him a job and accommodation; you can read the full story here. It does not end well (Redding is imprisoned on another drugs offence) but there is a photograph online at the Historic Images Outlet which appears to date from 1970 and depicts a showman seemingly in control of himself or giving a good impression of doing so ... assuming that the image below is indeed of the same musician.


According to the book Blues: A Regional Experience Redding died in Chicago on April 17th, 1975. His entry in that book adds:
Bunky recorded particularly fine sides for Score/Aladdin (1948, backed by Red Saunders). He recorded for Apex/Chess/Dempsey.
If anyone has more information, I'd be grateful to hear from them. But whatever the ins and outs of Bunky Redding's story his place in history must be assured as the cowriter of Golden Teardrops.


Related posts:

Flamingos # 1: Cross Over the Bridge
Flamingos # 2: That's My Desire 
Lost Lover- the Magnificents
Clyde McPhatter

Sources:

Doowop: the Chicago Scene by Robert Pruter
Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks page on the Flamingos
A Jazz Singer Dies; A Memory Lives - Mark H Miller
The Chance Label (website) - Robert Pruter, Armin Buttner and Robert L Campbell
Bradford Cox on the virtues of surrendering to the song


Postscript:

If you want to find out more about the recording of I Only Have Eyes For You, the piece I'd recommend is by Richard Buskin (possibly known to some readers as one half of the Something About the Beatles podcasts); his article can be found on the Sound On Sound website here.

Looking over the above post, I don't want to give the impression that the Chance recording is a primitive one. It's certainly very clear, provided you're not listening to a public domain CD. I don't know the details of the studio set up, but Bradford Cox, in the piece quoted from earlier, offers a description of a typical setup of the time:
Generally, it had to do with mike placement and echo chambers. And with plate reverb, which were these giant things the size of pianos. You can’t really get that sound now, and most people depend on digital reverb or plug-in software to replicate those sounds, but they can’t really be emulated. A lot of it was in the dynamics. Vocals are an interesting element to record. In a lot of the doowop records that I’m interested in, the vocals were often recorded in groups around a [single] microphone. It was not an overdub situation. You had this real time interaction – between people who were looking at each other and knowing when to arc, and when to ebb. That creates a certain dynamic that can’t be reproduced by a compressor or some other piece of equipment. 
Which leads to an interesting point regarding the recording of I Only Have Eyes For You, at least as seen by Dave Marsh in The Heart of Rock and Soul. I don't have the book to hand, but part of the appeal of the recording for Marsh is that the lead singer seems disconnected from his musical surroundings, that there is a clash between the old-fashioned singing and the soundscape. I may investigate further, so do check back.

 

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