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".
We hit the road on a fine spring morning headed to the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn and then on to New Paltz, New York. We were set to play a couple of shows with The Orioles, The Clovers and a few other acts that were still riding off the one or two hits they had thirty odd years ago. It was just me, Glenn and E.J. and Jake. The twins always drove themselves and David would somehow materialize right before the gig. E.J.'s ride was a conversion van from the mid seventies which anyone with even a passing knowledge of cars would have guessed by its appearance: Brown with tan pin stripes, naugahyde interior and orange shag carpeting. Despite its appearance the van was comfortable and ran in tip top shape. One thing a road veteran knows is to take care of regular maintenance.
E.J. eased on to 95, taking his time on the on ramp since he was pulling our gear and clothes behind us in a U-Haul. Jake lit up his pipe and was kind enough to crack his window but the smell of burning tobacco still made its way to the back of the van. I didn't mind, I've always liked the smell of pipe smoke, and it took me back to the days when my father lit up after a long day's work. E.J. fumbled with a cassette and slid it into the tape deck. I anticipated some classic R&B, maybe James Brown or Marvin Gaye, or maybe E.J.'s really a closet jazz fan or likes old school blues or gospel. The speakers vibrated with the slick production of Jam & Lewis.
"Yeah, that Janet Jackson is BAD," said E.J. looking over his shoulder for a split second.
"This is the kind of sound I want to bring into the band."
I thought he was kidding, but to my horror he would later buy a drum machine that Glenn had to learn how to program and I had to play along with. I loved the sound of some of The Flamingos' old records, that wide open Rudy Van Gelder sound, the sound of one mike in a room that really puts you into a certain time and place. I admired E.J. for wanting to keep up with the times, but I was hoping to get schooled in the ways of classic R&B.
"Hey E.J., check this out," I said, handing him a cassette over his shoulder.
"This better be good if I gotta take off Janet."
He slid in the tape and we heard the drummer kick in with a fat, laid back 12/8 groove and a tuba playing a familiar bass line. The trumpets stood in for back up singers: "doo-wop shoo-bop." The lead trumpet then laid down a greasy version of the melody to "I Only Have Eyes For You."
"Who the fuck is this?" asked E.J.
"Lester Bowie. He's a trumpet player from St. Louis."
We listened as the Brass Fantasy did a verbatim version of The Flamingos' arrangement. Lester played the melody slyly and irreverently, and Jake laughed when he did one of his patented flutter blasts. It was soulful and comical at the same time, the musicians pushing the arrangement to its furthest limits.
"Wow, ain't that a bitch ."
I thought maybe E.J. didn't appreciate Lester's take on their tune, but the tone in his voice expressed wonder that someone had taken their music to a completely different place.
Baltimore soon appeared in the distance and I thought of Cal Ripken and Billie Holiday. Unlike D.C., Baltimore feels like a real city. Ethnic neighborhoods, blue collar ambition, even a skyline. The hum of the van soon lulled me to sleep, my head occasionally rocking up and down when E.J. hit a bump in the road or worked the brakes. By the time I awoke we had stopped for a pee break on the Jersey Turnpike (Probably at Walt Whitman or James Fennimore Cooperisn't Kerouac deserving of a rest stop named after him? How about Ginsberg? he's from Jersey). Glenn and I hopped outside, the glare of the sun momentarily slowing us down. Jake stood by the side of the van scraping the bowl of his pipe and knocking it on the van's bumper. We walked among the weary travelers, red eyed from too much coffee and lack of sleep, some backed up from too much junk food.
After a visit to restroom with its wall length trough-like urinal we made our way to get some grease. Glenn hit McDonalds, his favorite. He told me he worked at one when he was down and out in Frisco; I think he worked there to get free food. I got some sausage and peppers from Sbarros. My grandmother would have been horrified at the thought of Italian fast food but it worked in a pinch.
When we got back to the van Jake and E.J. had stocked up on junk food from the vending machine, cheese and crackers, candy bars. I don't know how they did it but I rarely saw them sit down to a hot meal.
"Hey Glenn, I should have had you get me some fries," said E.J. "What have you got there Merella?"
"Sausage and peppers."
"Good God, you're eatin' that squeal?" E.J. replied in disgust.
I was dumbfounded. Weren't black Americans the kings of the pig? Cooking ribs to perfection, frying up porkchops, even cleaning out the guts for chitterlings and boiling the feet with sauerkraut. I thought maybe E.J. was a black Muslim."
"Me and Jake don't mess with that squeal. We're black Jews, came up in the Black Jewish Church in Chicago. We're descended from Ethiopians; we didn't come out of slavery."
I wondered where the got the name Carey. It didn't sound Ethiopian to me.
"That's where we got our concept of harmonyfrom the Hebrew songs we learned in church."
It was true their vocals had the minor blues-like quality of a chanting cantor. "The Black Jews are descended from the Queen of Sheba and we've spread out across the world, some of us here in the U.S., the Rastafarians in Jamaica, and a group of us in Israel. That's our goalto get back to the mother land."
The only black Jew I'd heard of was Sammy Davis, Jr.
Later I thought they were living up to Jewish stereotypes when I tried to press them for a raise, but I soon learned they were tight with their money after years of being ripped off by musical industry scoundrels.
Jake was the paymaster of the band and he was as old school as they came, paying in cash from a huge roll of bills he kept stuffed in his sock. His bookkeeping consisted of signing your name next to an amount he had scribbled in a beat up notebook. As primitive as it was, I received a 1099 at the end of the year.
E.J. was back in stride on the Pike, the bass note hum of the engine filling the seats with a relaxing vibration. As a veteran of the turnpike, E.J. measured his progress not by mile markers or city names but by the numbered exits.
"Exit 12, yeah I had me a freak in Rahway. Girl used to send her daughter out to spy on me at gigs. Exit 14, hey Jake remember Chuck Wepner "The Bleeder from Bayonne? That tomato can that fought Ali in Cleveland? He got lucky and knocked the champ on his ass but he paid for it later."
E.J. was a big fight fan and loved the fact that I knew boxing. This was during Mike Tyson's prime, and after I had eased into the band we all took a "field trip" to see Tyson knock out Michael Spinks in 90 seconds on closed circuit television. We were now on rt. 278 heading East for Brooklyn. Our gig was at Bilotta's Villa, a restaurant-showroom on Flatbush Avenue. Frank Bilotta was an "entrepreneur" who was also a crooner in the style of a young Frank Sinatra. He was a huge fan of doo wop and treated E.J. and Jake like they were gods.
"I got my first piece of ass in the back of a Cadillac with these guys on the radio and I swore if I ever got my own joint The Flamingos would play it."
We crossed the fabled Brooklyn Bridge with its spider web cables, spanning out from mammoth Arch De Triumph like towers. Here, Walt Whitman took the ferry to Manhattan, before the bridge laid way to the industrial dynamo of the American night.
Henry Miller saw the forlorn span from the Fourteenth Ward and I thought of Paris and Rimbaud, though never really escaped Brooklyn and Sonny Rollins shedding on his saxophone to the Zen-like mantra of passing traffic.
Up Flatbush Ave. passing brownstones and walkups we pulled into the alley alongside the Villa. Walking into the darkness of the club we saw the Twins and Dottie sitting at a table over a large pizza.
"Dig in fellas. It's on the house."
We passed, and then from the kitchen Frank emerged in sharkskin suit, toupee and glittering pinkie ring.
"E.J., Jake, good to see you, been too long. Hey, who's the new guy?"
"That's Mark our new drummer".
"You a paisan?"
"Yeah, half, the half with the name."
"I can spot one a mile away. What's the other half?"
"Jesus Christ. Whaddya like to do get drunk and then beat the shit out of yourself!" He let out a huge laugh and grabbed me around the shoulders.
"Hey, these fuckin' moulies will take good care but if they don't you just come to me," he said flashing a smile at E.J.
"Hey from this moulie to a fucking greaseball, FUCK YOU!"
They both grabbed each with a big hug and laughed together.
"You know who loves doo-wop more than blacks? Italians! We put the WOP in doo-wop," Frank said, cracking himself up.
"Hey, youse guys need anything before showtime just let me know. It's all on the house but Marco no 'buca before showtime," he said laughing as he left the room. "Or should I say whiskey?"
Glenn and I made our way out to the van and started humping in our gear. The club had a nice size stage with lights and a decent sound system. We got set up and went into an impromptu sound check, Glenn and I ripping into "Cherokee." Glenn stopped to make a few adjustments when we heard Jake say from a corner table: "Stop playing that devil shit."
Our opening set was the only time the band really got to play. We never took it too out, it was usually instrumental versions of R&B tunes Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," or maybe a Stevie Wonder tune or the underated Donny Hathaway's "Valdez in the Country." We were a different band at sound check.
Evening came and the club began to fill with couples who had come of age when the sounds of doo-wop could be heard on street corners, not from boom-boxes, but from fledgling a capella groups with their eyes on the big time. Frankie Valli, Dion, Danny and the Juniors, sounds of blackness in the white boroughs of the city. We got ready for show time. Opening our suit bags, I was greeted by an off-white tux (slightly yellowing) with huge lapels and black satin borders. It had probably been rented to a pimply faced kid to wear to the prom in 1955.
"You shoulda seen the shit we used to wear," said Glenn looking over the top of his glasses. "This is the new stuff."
We dressed in the "executive lounge" (the stall of the men's room), staying behind as the old timers had gone to the motel to get ready.
David materialized on cue already dressed, bass in hand, a new mystery woman at his side. Jake, E.J. and the Twins entered through alley entrance, waiting "backstage" until they made their grand entrance to the stage from the kitchen door. Glenn, David and I hit the bandstand for our opening set, basically killing time. That's how it was night after night: two or three tunes up front from the band, then it was all about the vocals and rightfully so: Jake, E.J. and the Twins could hold the room spellbound, their haunting harmonies taking people back to an era where in a time of innocence. The soundtrack was both safe yet mysterious. Jake held the bass; E.J. sang lead and the Twins harmonized like they had been there from the beginning. More than once I got the chills listening to them work their magic. It was an all encompassing sound: the emotion of gospel, the harmonies of Jazz, the soul of R&B.
Whether in a bar in Brooklyn, a casino in Vegas or at the county fairgrounds they had the aura of neon, art deco, drive-thru's, sleek automobiles and the early days of television...when all was well with the world, or so we thought.
To be continued...