FLAMINGOS’ HALL OF FAMER STILL IN THE PINK
Originally published in Goldmine magazine, 2007 by Todd Baptista
When the Flamingos were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, Isaiah “Terry” Johnson took center stage. I must confess that I had never really understood his contributions to the group until he started to explain his role as writer, arranger, and vocalist that night. I guess I had always been led to believe that “Buzzy” was just the group’s guitar player, and now I was understandably confused.
In March of 2005, I received an e-mail from a friend informing me that Johnson had previously been the lead singer of the mysterious Gotham label Whispers back in 1954. That night, I played “Are You Sorry?” and “Fool Heart” by the Whispers again and again. For the first time, I felt as though I was beginning to understand the part of the Flamingos’ story that had never been told. Listening to those obscure, haunting R&B sides, I felt as though I could draw a straight line, following the progression of Johnson’s work from the Whispers to the Flamingos to the Starglows. At last, I understood the actual creative process that carried the Flamingos from R&B to the pop market.
Isaiah “Terry” Johnson, also known as “Buzzy”, was born in Baltimore, Maryland on November 12, 1938 and grew up in the 1300 block of Whatcoat Street. “It was great, because down the street was Earl Hurley of the Swallows,” Johnson fondly recalls. “They would come and rehearse at Earl’s house. I even went on a few jobs with them. I played guitar and sang a few songs with them. Earl and Money Johnson of the Swallows really taught me to play the guitar.”
Although Johnson would draw experience and motivation from the local R&B acts, his initial inspiration came from pop artists he heard over the airwaves. “My roots were Arthur Godfrey, the McGuire Sisters, Julius LaRosa, Andy Williams, all the white artists back in the day. That’s all my parents would let me listen to, because that’s what they would listen to.”
In addition to honing his skills on the guitar, Johnson developed a smooth baritone and falsetto tenor voice. In early 1954, he formed the Whispers with his best friend and Douglass high classmate Billy Thompson, first tenor Bill Mills, second tenor Eugene ‘Lump’ Lewis, and bass Eddie Rogers, who was soon replaced by Mills’ roommate, James Johnson. “We were ladies’ guys,” Terry recalls. “I remember girls were saying, ‘You all sound so good, you could even whisper and sound good’, and that kind of stuck.”
In addition to arranging the group’s harmony and writing the music, Johnson authored and led the ethereal ballads, “Are You Sorry?” and “Fool Heart”, which were released on Gotham Records in 1955. “They had released ‘Fool Heart’, and I remember I heard it on the radio a few times. Hot Rod Hulbert played it on WITH. I heard it two times, and then I didn’t hear it anymore, and I got very discouraged.”
In the fall of 1956, Johnson went to Baltimore’s Royal Theater to catch the Flamingos on stage. “Zeke Carey and Johnny Carter were in the service, and I went to see them,” Johnson recalls. “I was sitting in the audience, and I saw Tommy Hunt and Paul Wilson and Nate Nelson and Jake Carey. I swear I saw a halo around the group, and I saw myself. Like I left my body and I was on stage with them, playing guitar and singing. I went backstage to tell them what I saw, and Nate laughed and said, ‘Well, you say you play guitar. You know anybody else that plays guitar and sings tenor?’ I said, ‘I sing tenor.’ He said, ‘Can you read [music]?’ I said, ‘Yeah’. He said, ‘You mind auditioning tomorrow?’ I said, ‘I’d be glad to.’”
Backstage the next day, they handed him the sheet music to several of their songs and listened as he played. “They put the music in front of me, and I zipped through it,” Johnson explains. “I played ‘A Kiss From Your Lips’, ‘I’ll Be Home’, ‘The Vow’, and I think ‘Would I Be Crying’, and ‘Jump Children’. Jake said, ‘O.K., I’ll let you know.’ On Christmas Eve, Jake called me and said, ‘Buzzy, you still want to be in the group?’ ‘You know I do’, I told him. ‘You have to be here tomorrow, on Christmas Day in Philadelphia, we’re going to be going to New York.’ I said, ‘I’ll be there’. It was so exciting.”
“Jake was handling the money and gave us an allowance,” Johnson recalls of his first weeks in New York. “I can remember Jake would give us 35 cents apiece a day. Up there in Harlem, 35 cents would get me a fish and chip dinner and a lime soda, and you know, you’d have bread with the fish and chips, and that would last me. That would be my meal for the day, thirty-five cents a day.”
In March of 1957, Jake brokered a deal with Decca, cutting the pop-flavored ballad, “The Ladder of Love”, the following month. “They would all come to my room at the Cecil Hotel on 118th Street and 7th Avenue in Harlem, New York,” Johnson explains. “I would have my amplifier there and my guitar. They would come to my room as a group, or individually. Nate loved to just have me play the guitar and he would sing the songs. He would hear my chords as he sang, and it would inspire him to do certain things with his voice.” Decca released “The Ladder of Love in June, and almost immediately, it began breaking out in key territorial markets.
Soon, Leonard Chess, for whom the group had recorded in 1955-56, re-entered the picture, producing a personal artist pact he had signed the previous summer with Nelson. During the period of uncertainty when Zeke and Johnny were drafted, Chess, apparently fearing the group was reaching its’ end, signed Nelson to a one-year deal but never recorded the singer. “‘The Ladder of Love’, was a smash,” Terry states. “Leonard still had Nate under contract for a little more time, and Decca tried to buy it out, but Chess just wanted to play hard ball. They didn’t want to give Nate a release, which was a drag.” After a disappointing 18 months with Decca during which only three singles were released, the Flamingos left.
Although Zeke Carey often told interviewers he had mediated an agreement between Chess and George Goldner which allowed the Flamingos to transition over to End Records in 1958, Johnson vehemently denies the assertion. According to Johnson, it was Jake Carey, who handled the group’s finances and served as their spokesman, who brought them to End. “[A&R director] Richard Barrett saw Jake walking down Broadway near 57th Street out of the clear blue sky. Jake said, ‘Hey, Richard, I want to talk to you. You’ve got some good groups.’ He had Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Chantels, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. ‘Hey man, do you think George would be interested in recording us?’ Richard said, ‘I can talk to him for you, man. I don’t know why not, you guys have a different sound- altogether from everybody else. I’ll talk to George’. George had a meeting with Jake and Richard, then Jake came back to the hotel and told us about it.”
The group’s initial End release, “Lovers Never Say Goodbye”, became their first national pop chart hit. “I wrote ‘Lovers Never Say Goodbye’ for a girl in Atlantic City,” Johnson recalls. “Her name was Elsie. As a matter of fact, she even came up with the title, because she was crying, and I said, ‘Hey, don’t cry, don’t cry. We’ll say so-long’. She said, ‘Yeah, lovers never say goodbye.’ I said, ‘Oh, I like that’. So, even while she was (still) there, I started playing my guitar and I got the melody, and I started getting the lyrics together. I never saw Elsie again.”
While arranging “Lovers Never Say Goodbye”, Johnson selected Wilson to sing the duet with him, and assigned him a co-writer credit. “When I presented it to the guys, I wanted Paul to sing it with me, because Paul was my best friend in the group. He taught me how to be suave and debonair with the girls. He taught me so many things. Because he was my friend, I gave him 50 percent of the song. He never wrote one word or any of the melody. He was just my friend, and I gave it to him.”
On September 26, 1958, the Flamingos recorded the song in a split session with the Imperials at Bell Sound on West 54th Street. “My natural voice when I sing is a baritone,” Terry explains. “On all the songs that Paul and I sang, I did the baritone, the low part, and Paul did the high part, and I would do the repeat in my falsetto. I had a low voice, but I just liked singing up there. It gave me another style. I also played guitar on everything we did, strumming chords as I sang.”
On October 31, the group returned to Bell Sound and recorded “I Only Have Eyes For You”. “George Goldner called me in the office by myself quite a bit, because he knew I played guitar and he knew where my background was,” Johnson explains. “He said, ‘Terry, we need to do something different. ‘I’ll Be Home’ and ‘A Kiss From Your Lips’ and all that stuff is nice, but that is keeping you locked into this black market. What I would like to do is do things like the Platters.’ He and Richard Barrett said, ‘I want you guys to do an album. Why don’t we do a takeoff on the Platters and do some old standards, let’s just pick out some old standards and Terry, you know how to change the music and the chords around, put a little bit more white flavor in it. You know what I mean?’ I was a little embarrassed, even though it was my roots. I said, ‘Well, O.K., I’ll do the best I can’.”
Written in 1933 by Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin, “I Only Have Eyes For You” was originally included in the movie musical “Dames” and had been a #2 hit for Ben Selvin in 1934. Although Johnson was aware of the smooth 1952 R&B rendition done by his hometown friends, the Swallows, his arrangement was completely unlike theirs, or any others. Consumed by the need to provide Goldner with something tangible, Johnson found the ultimate arrangement in a dream. “It came from me,” he asserts. “It was in a dream. What I heard in my dream, I got right to my guitar and started playing it. I remembered everything that I heard in my dream. I taught it to the guys.”
Johnson had originally planned on singing the song himself until Nelson goaded him into handing over the lead. “Nate was a talker,” Terry recalls. “He made fun of everybody and that’s how he got ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ from me. I was supposed to record it, and when I first put the chords together, everybody was looking at me like, ‘What the hell is this?’ I said, ‘No, do the ‘doo bop shoo bop’ and try to do this…’ When they finally heard what was happening, Nate really took a liking to it, and Tommy Hunt liked it. Paul said, ‘Hey, Buzzy, that’s haunting.’ When we went in the studio, I sang it down one time, and George liked it. But Nate said, ‘Man, you’re not singing the song right. Listen to your voice.’ Nate knew how to needle you and discourage you and make you give up. He laughed at me, and made everybody else laugh at me, and I was so embarrassed. He made me so mad. I said, ‘Oh, you think you could do better?’ He said, ‘Anybody could do better than you, Buzzy!’ and he laughed. I said, ‘Well you sing it, damn it, you sing it!’ And man, God Bless Nate, he had that golden voice. I can’t knock it, but I was singing the song first.”
Following four introductory chords from Johnson’s guitar, Nelson’s velvety “voice of champagne” opened with “my love must be a kind of blind love”, over a repetitive piano triplet figure. The echo-heavy “doo bop shoo bop” harmony, and Johnson’s floating falsetto backing provided the ideal counterpoint to Nate’s romantic lead and the sparse instrumental backing. It was hauntingly romantic, distinctive, and commercially appealing.
“Lovers Never Say Goodbye” spent 10 weeks on Billboard’s pop Hot 100 in the winter and spring of 1959, opening up a whole new world for the Flamingos in terms of bookings, airplay, and sales. “I feel really honored that ‘Lovers Never Say Goodbye’, which was the first song that I wrote and sang with them, crossed over from the rhythm and blues to the pop market,” Johnson admits. “The white kids started singing our song, and that was an honor. I really enjoyed that. When I first got with the Flamingos, they were rhythm and blues only. My influences were the Four Lads, the Four Aces, and the Modernaires. That’s what I brought to the table. That influence gave us that pop sound.”
George issued “I Only Have Eyes For You” in late April, and it took off immediately, spending 11 weeks inside the Top 40, where it peaked at #11. On June 15, it reached the R&B list, peaking at #3 during a 13-week stint. The record was issued and distributed worldwide, even climbing to #32 on the Australian charts.
Several charted hits followed during Johnson’s tenure with the Flamingos, including “Love Walked In”, “I Was Such A Fool”, “Nobody Loves Me Like You”, “Your Other Love”, and his own composition, “Mio Amore”. By the spring of 1961, however, tensions were running high. “What was going on, Zeke and Jake, being that they were the bosses, they owned the name, [and] they started getting a little bit hairy,” Hunt told interviewer Seamus McGarvey. “They were starting to get a little bit strong, and there was a lot of friction between Zeke, Nate, and myself.” “They would be saying, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Who are you going to be with?’, and things like that,” Terry adds. “It was getting to the point where it was getting to be a question of power, that’s all,” Tommy continues. “We were starting to more or less just do our job, sticking to the rules and regulations,” Hunt explains. “But the rules and regulations became just a little bit too strong for anybody to handle. I mean, there must be an element of freedom, too. I figured why stay with a group you love and end up one day hating them?”
Terry Johnson recalls a meeting that took place when Zeke and Jake heard Hunt’s solo debut, “Human”, over the airwaves in June of 1961. “I didn’t hear it on the radio”, he states. “I went to a meeting that Jake and Zeke had called. They said, ‘Everybody is meeting. This is mandatory’. I walked in, and they said, ‘Tommy did a recording of a song called ‘Human’. Have you heard it?’ I said, ‘No’. They said, ‘They’re playing it like crazy. They’re playing it every five minutes.’ So they turned on the radio, and it came on. I said, ‘That is Tommy! Where is Tommy?’ So, that’s when it was like, ‘Oh, Tommy did a dirty thing.’ He should have told everybody he didn’t want to be there anymore, and given us a chance to get somebody else. But the way he did it, we all fell apart. And they thought that I was going to leave, too. I don’t know why. But that’s what caused the whole thing to really go crazy.”
“It freaked everybody out because we had all of these big jobs in front of us,” Terry continues. “We finally had a year or two of steady bookings with better money, and all kinds of TV things and other movies that we were supposed to do, and Tommy just threw a monkey wrench into the whole thing. Joe Glaser went crazy at ABC Booking. We were a tight group, and he and Paul doing the dancing made us so different, and Nate with that velvety voice, and Paul and I with the duets. We had a different style from anybody else out there.”
After Hunt left, tensions between Johnson, Nelson, and the Careys ran high. “I don’t know what made them think it, but they thought I was going to leave to join the Treniers,” the guitarist-tenor recalls. “They would say, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Who are you going to be with?’ ‘Are you thinking about leaving the group?’ They just kept bothering us. It was mainly Jake and Zeke. They kind of pushed me out. They came and said, ‘I hear you’re going to leave the group’. I said, ‘No, why would I do that?’ They said, ‘We hear you’re going to join the Treniers’. I said, ‘Bullshit. Who ever said that…’ you know, and it kept on happening. So, I had my girls, and they said, ‘You don’t need that’, and it’s easy to be influenced. Maybe a week or two after Tommy left, I did, too.”
Immediately, Johnson organized a competing group, the Modern Flamingos, in Philadelphia. “I was so pissed off with them because they drove me out. I told a friend I had left the Flamingos and I wanted to put a group together and he said, ‘Oh, man, I know a group’. It was me, Warren Sherrill, Eddie Edgehill from the Valentines, Jerry Abel, Sonny Ross, and Duke Johnson. I put that group together and just taught them all of our stuff and they were doing the dancing like Tommy and Paul. We were working constantly, because the Flamingos name was big.”
Things went from bad to worse for the Careys when Nate Nelson walked away a month or two after Tommy and Terry. “He tried to stay with them, but they had just become overbearing,” Johnson states. “They argued, and Nate just argued, and they weren’t happy with each other anymore.”
In late 1962 or early 1963, Nelson and Johnson joined forces. During an appearance in Pittsburgh, they were approached by longtime Skyliners’ manager and songwriter, Joe Rock. “He said, ‘Oh, man, you guys are fabulous,” Terry recalls. “I’ve got the main voices in the Flamingos right here. Would you guys like to record?’ We said, ‘Hell, yeah. What have you got in mind?’ He said, ‘I’ve got ‘Walk Softly Away’. We’ll just do a single shot right now. Terry, can you come up with a song, write something for us?’ I said, ‘Yeah, come on, Nate.’ We went back to the hotel room that night and sat down. I started playing some chords and Nate said, ‘I like that. I like that’, and we made up ‘Let’s Be Lovers’ that night.”
On June 10, 1963, Rock recorded the two songs. “The other members of the group were Joe Johnson, organ, Hardy Hall, saxophone, Larry Jones singing second tenor in the background, and a guy we called Shug, the drummer,” Johnson states. “We didn’t have a bass player, so Joe Johnson was playing the bass on the organ with his foot. They were my Modern Flamingos, and they were the Starglows.”
“Let’s Be Lovers” was a splendid answer to “Lovers Never Say Goodbye”, opening with the same recognizable guitar chords from Johnson and featuring a romantic duet lead from Nate and Terry that even included the title of their former hit in the lyrics. Rock apparently made a deal with Atlantic Records to lease both the Modern Flamingos sides and a new recording of the Buddy and Ella Johnson standard, “Since I Fell For You” by his primary clients, the Skyliners, in June of 1963. That month, both records appeared on the firm’s Atco subsidiary. Not wanting to incur the rather of Goldner and his partner, the infamous Morris Levy, Atco credited the Modern Flamingos sides to the Starglows.
Despite the name change, the imprint of the Flamingos was all over the record. When the Careys, who had been struggling to break their latest release, “I Know Better”, into the Hot 100 heard “Let’s Be Lovers”, they were less than pleased. “When they heard it, Jake and Zeke shit,” Johnson admits with a laugh. “It sounded too much like the Flamingos. They cried to George, and Goldner probably had someone go over to (Ahmet) Ertegun. You know, like ‘I’ll pay whatever it is, but you can’t let these guys go out, because you’re hurting me, now.’ Zeke was so stubborn. We should have gotten back together. As soon as we broke up, and we saw that it wasn’t happening, we should have gotten back together. We should have said, ‘Let’s let bygones be bygones and let’s get back together and make the money.’”
Fifty years after first joining the group, Johnson is understandably proud of the Flamingos’ legacy. “If I was explaining the Flamingos to some kids who had never heard us, I would tell them the structure of the way we did it,” Terry states. “We were hungry, but we stuck together. We rehearsed all the time and we were prepared when the opportunity came. It is really self-satisfying. It’s a good thing when you hear your own music.”
Today, Terry Johnson’s Flamingos continue to perform across the country and are hard at work on a new CD, “Terry Johnson is Still In The Pink”. “To our fans, I’d like them to know how we appreciate them,” Johnson states. “We thank you for keeping us in the limelight. I can feel you, and I appreciate your support.”