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On The Road with The Flamingos

By Published: January 5, 2008
"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 harmony—from 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 goal—to 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?"

"Irish."

"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.


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