Everyone knows that R&B lies at the roots of rock and roll, and the Flamingos' 1959 reimagining of "I Only Have Eyes for You" stands as an important record from this early period. The Chicago-based group dazzled with their peerless harmonies, scoring a then-rare crossover success on the pop and R&B charts. In the next decade, Motown would continue this movement, bringing soul to a larger audience. Without the Flamingos and their quintessential song, however, Motown, Stax, and Philadelphia Sound may never have happened.
The Flamingos story begins in in 1950, when cousins Jake and Zeke Carey relocated from Baltimore to Chicago. After joining a church choir they met Paul Wilson and Johnny Carter, they formed a group that performed at local South Side clubs. Eventually they added a fifth member, Earl Lewis, who assumed lead vocals. Thus the lineup was complete, with Carter and Zeke Caey as tenors, Wilson as baritone, and Jake Carey as bass. Initially calling themselves the Swallows, they became the Flamingos after learning of another group with the same name. Through local connections they recruited Ralph Leon, then-head of the King Booking Agency, as their manager. Leon requested that they change lead singers; with the addition of lead vocalist Sollie McElroy, the Flamingos were ready to record their first demo session. After weathering numerous rejections they signed with Chance in 1953.
As was typical of acts of the day, the Flamingos recorded covers of well-known standards, although they earned notice with their original "Golden Teardrops." Despite their lack of a breakthrough record, they toured as the opening act for artists such as Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. This experience proved crucial for their stage presence, as they developed choreography that groups such as the Temptation and the Four Tops would adopt a decade later. Meanwhile the Flamingos suffered some turbulence--their manager Leon passed away, McElroy departed the group (replaced by Nate Nelson), and they changed record labels. Now on the Chess subsidiary Checker, they finally scored a hit with 1956's "I'll be Home," a ballad that peaked at number five on the R&B chart. After releasing another single, "A Kiss from Your Lips," they embarked on a tour with Bill Haley and the Comets as well as the Platters. They even made a cameo appearance in DJ Alan Freed's film Rock, Rock, Rock. Trouble came again when Zeke Carey and Carter were drafted; Tommy Hunt and Terry Johnson were quickly recruited, but contractual issues prevented them from releasing another album in 1958. Carter and Zeke Carey then returned from the service, but the latter joined the Dells.
Leaving Checker, the remaining Flamingos moved to New York and signed with the End label. To improve their chances of success, the label's head insisted that they lean heavily toward standards rather than original material. This move proved crucial: the Flamingos finally achieved success with their 1959 cover of the Al Dubin/Harry Warren ballad "I Only Have Eyes for You." The track originally appeared in the 1934 film Dames, sung by famed duo Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. The Flamingos' bold reimagining of the song proved immensely popular, reaching number three on the R&B charts and number 52 on the pop charts. Their appearance in Alan Freed's next film, Go Johnny Go! established their status as one of early rock and roll's biggest crossover stars. Even though they underwent more personnel changes and saw their chart success fade as harder rock took over, they continued recording and playing live shows. Not surprisingly, the Flamingos were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
Quite simply, "I Only Have Eyes for You" is a standout from the doo wop era. The Flamingos' harmonies are tight, each member singing their individual melodies to create a seamless blend. The backing vocals are as important as the lead, as they establish the rhythm and add depth. Nelson's voice floats, its dreamlike quality emphasizing the track's unabashed romantic quality. "My love must be a kind of blind love," Nelson coos, leaving no doubt that he completely dwells in his love for his beloved. He lingers over every word, allowing listeners to imagine the stars in his eyes as he croons lyrics such as "You are here and so am I / Maybe millions of people go by / But they all disappear from view." Adding to this heart-melting performance is the Flamingos' backing arrangement. From the "bop shoo wops" to the high notes suspended around the word "view," they effectively communicate deep love and desire, a subject that appeals to both R&B and pop audiences.
Hearing "I Only Have Eyes for You" provides insight into not only classic soul, but the early days of rock and roll. The Flamingos turned in an unforgettable performance that amazes just as much today as it did over 50 years ago.