The Pioneers Edition: Rhythm Revue Spotlight on The Flamingos, R&B vocal group of the 50s and 60s
The pioneers of R&B laid the foundations for soul, funk, and hip hop. If you ask young people today what R&B stands for, you'd be surprised how many of them don't know. It was in 1949 that Billboard, a music industry magazine, coined the phrase rhythm and blues. It was also in the 1940s that a trend started among vocal groups to name themselves after birds.
Some of these early R&B bird groups included the Ravens from New York and Baltimore's Orioles with lead singer Sonny Til. Many others followed in the 1950s. Among the most famous of them were The Flamingos. They formed in Chicago in the early 1950s. Two of their founding members were cousins, Zeke and Jake Carey. The first regional hit for the Chicago-based group was “Golden Teardrops,” which featured lead singer Sollie McElroy.
Unfortunately, a personality clash prevented Sollie McElroy from continuing with the group as their lead singer. I interviewed the founding members of the group, cousins Zeke and Jake Carey, back in the 1980s.
Zeke Carey: So we found Nate Nelson, who had been with the group for a few months. And I know we'll never forget it. Sollie left, of course, on Thanksgiving morning. And Thanksgiving we had an engagement in Chicago and he just didn't show up. So Nate was forced to take the lead then.
With Nate Nelson as their new lead singer, the Flamingos went in search of a record company that better suited their needs.
Zeke Carey: “We were with a recording company called Parrot Records, which was owned by a local Chicago disc jockey named Al Benson. He was very, very big at the time, a Black DJ. And we managed to break the contract with him and go with the Chess Brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess.
Leonard Chess at Chess Records was already familiar with The Flamingos and their original lead singer. At first, Leonard Chess tried to encourage The Flamingos to get Sollie McElroy back up front. But the Carey cousins didn't budge.
Zeke Carey: We made a couple of records with him. The first one dropped dead, the second, which was a tune called “When.” It was a pretty song, but it just didn't go anywhere. And after that, we came out with “I'll Be Home.” And when we came out with “I'll Be Home,” of course, success changes everybody's mind. And suddenly, he [Nate Nelson] was an acceptable commercial lead to Leonard Chess, with the hitting of the song, “I'll Be Home.”
“I’ll Be Home” was the first national hit record for The Flamingos, reaching number five on the R&B charts in 1956. The biggest and best known of The Flamingos records came out in the summer of 1959. It was a rock and roll era revival of a song from the 1930s. The Flamingos gave the song a catchy hook described by Jay Carey.
Jake Carey: And we came up with something that was really unique. What were we saying? “Do bop sha bop.”
Zeke Carey died on Christmas Eve of 1999 and Jake on December 10, 1997. The Flamingos were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
“Golden Teardrops” (1953)
“I'll Be Home” (1956)
“I Only Have Eyes for You” (1958)
“Lovers Never Say Goodbye” (1959)
“Buffalo Solder” (1970)