On The Road with The Flamingos
“ Me and Jake don't mess with that squeal. We ”
It was my first road gig. I'd done some casuals in L.A., played at the local theme park for a high school summer job, but this would be my first taste of the road. I'd just got back from the West Coast after the blues of L.A. made me pack up my yellow Datsun and make a solo drive cross country. Back in D.C. I found a job loading trucks at UPS from 4 to 8 am. and knew I wouldn't last. The drivers wrote up reports on how the new guys were making out: "worst load I've ever seen" read my latest sheet. I couldn't keep up with the pace of the conveyor belt or memorize the address locations on the shelves of the trucks. It was especially challenging when I showed up still buzzed from the night before.
Soon I got the call from Mike Evans.
"I heard you were back in town. Are you looking for A gig?"
"Most definitely," I said, still bleary eyed from the A.M. shift, in fact now always bleary eyed.
"You remember The Flamingos?"
"I remember the name."
"They had some big hits in fifties"I Only Have Eyes For You," "Love Walked In."
I remembered "Eyes." Their haunting rendition had become the classic version of the tune.
"I'll give you E.J.'s number. He's one of the original members and leads the group."
"Sounds great. Thanks."
I called E.J. later that afternoon.
"Hi, it's Mark Merella. I got your number from Mike Evans. He told me you were looking for a drummer."
"Yeah, he told me you'd be calling. We having a rehearsal tomorrow night, if you want to come by and audition."
"Let me know where it is. I'll be there."
He gave me directions to a row house in Northwest D.C.
When I arrived, I was greeted by an older black gentleman just leaving for his shift as a cab driver.
"You need to go around back to the alley. They're in the basement."
I drove down the narrow alley which was dimly lit and ominously quiet. Was this a set up? I inched down the concrete, gravel crunching under my tires, and finally heard some keyboards and bass spilling out from a basement door. I made my way to the top of the stairs and descended the wooden steps into the darkness of the basement.
I was met by E.J., extending his hand in greeting.
"Glad you could make it."
"Good to meet you."
"Let me introduce you to everybody. This is Archie and Benny. We call them the Twins." We shook hands. Archie and Benny were from Austin, Texas where they had their own group "Silky Smooth Band and Show." They had replaced two of the original vocalists. They weren't twins by birth but were thick as thieves and dressed the same, mainly both sporting Mr. T starter kits. They also had their own valet called "Dootie" who sat in the corner reading the sports page.
"Here's my cousin Jake. We started the group back in the '50's. We own the name and have been doing it ever since."
Jake put his pipe in his mouth so he could shake my hand. He was probably pushing seventy and had the grizzled look that only 30 years of road gigs can give you. He gave me a jaded look that said: "Can this white motherfucker play?"
"Here's the rest of the rhythm section: Glenn and David." I was relieved that they were around my age, two journeymen musicians hired as sidemen. I'd later find out trouble had a way of following David around but Glenn was all about music and was one of D.C's hottest keyboard players. He later told me he only took the gig because it was steady and he was trying to pay off his car note.
After I set up my drums, E.J. counted off one of the numerous doo-wop tunes in their band book. It was an easy audition. Mostly the 12/8 groove that accompanies almost all '50's doo-wop numbers. They did do some Motown and some more current soul tunes but it wasn't anything I hadn't already encountered on club dates in L.A. Glenn and David looked relieved that I locked in fairly easily. Jake wasn't as easily convinced.
"When I do "Blueberry Hill" you need to break it down like Bumpy did."
Glenn gave me a wink that said: "Ignore him," but I knew I couldn't possibly be as soulful as a guy named Bumpy. I later found out that to "break it down" you need to crack the snare drum on "one" and bring the dynamics way down (a staple of playing R&B). After a few more tunes E.J. pulled me to the side.
"Okay kid you got the gig. We pay $100 a night and cover travel and rooms. We don't go for heavy drinkin' and druggin.' Are you in?"
$100 a night wasn't great for a road gig but neither was waking up at 3:00 in the morning to go to UPS.
"Sounds good. I'm in".
"All right we leave Friday morning. We meet at my place in Springfield and take the van. We'll be playing a club in Brooklyn and then a couple of oldies shows in upstate New York".