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On The Road with The Flamingos

By Published: January 5, 2008
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 Cooper—isn'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."


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