Carey was a founding member of The Flamingos, whose roots can be traced back to Chicago’s south side, circa 1950. Jacob “Jake” Carey and Ezekiel “Zeke” Carey are often noted as being cousins, but they weren’t really directly related at all. The Careys lived in Baltimore (down the street from Sonny Til), and Zeke was taken in and raised by Jake’s uncle and aunt. He adopted the Carey name and from that time on they’d always refer to each other as “cousin.”)
Having been raised as followers of the Church Of God and Saints Of Christ (a religious order of African-American Hebrew Israelites), the Careys joined their local congregation’s choir where they met John E. “Johnny” Carter and Judah Byrd. Johnny suggested they form a group, so with Jake singing bass, Judah on baritone, Zeke singing second tenor and Johnny on first, the group added lead singer Earl Lewis, a local youth who was dating Johnny’s sister and the only singer in the group who wasn’t also a member of their congregation.
The quintet took to calling themselves The Swallows and practiced, with a focus on their harmonies. However, shortly after, Judah Byrd was replaced by Johnny Carter’s cousin Paul Wilson and in the early months of 1952, Earl Lewis was replaced by Sollie McElroy. (Earl Lewis went on to sing with The 5 Echoes and is in no way related to the lead singer of The Channels, as some articles have erroneously reported.)
Sollie was originally from Gulfport, Mississippi, but had moved to Chicago with his family in the late 1940′s. He was brought to the Careys, Carter and Wilson by the group’s manager, who proceeded to book the group mainly for house parties and talent competitions. Around this time, the group became aware of The Swallows out of Baltimore who were beginning to realize success on King Records. Beginning to search for a new name, Johnny Carter’s mother threw the name “Flamingos” into the proverbial hat, inspired by a local athletic club. The group started using “The El Flamingos,” which evolved into “The 5 Flamingos” and later just “The Flamingos.”
In 1952, The Flamingos’ amateur manager was drafted into the military, a blessing in disguise which found them in the hands of a professional manager, Ralph Leon. The caliber of their bookings improved and they began playing larger local venues, performing songs like “We Three” and “September Song” – pop-oriented tunes, at the urging of their new manager. Although they frequently performed at engagements with local disc jockeys, it wasn’t until 1953 that The Flamingos had their first shot in the recording studio. Chance Records signed the group and recorded “If I Can’t Have You”, “That’s My Desire” and “Someday, Someway”, all with Sollie on lead and “Hurry Home Baby”, a bass lead featuring Jake out front.
By mid-1953, “If I Can’t Have You” and “That’s My Desire” started to get local R&B airplay in a few markets around the country. So, a few months later, Chance took the group back into the studio to cut “Carried Away,” “You Ain’t Ready” and “Golden Teardrops”, again all with Sollie singing lead and “Plan For Love,” led by Johnny Carter. “Golden Teardrops” was written by Carter and his friend, jazz/blues singer Eddie “Bunky” Redding. The song met with critical acclaim but only made noise on the east coast and a few major cities in the Midwest.
A contract with Joe Glaser and Associated Booking Corporation landed The Flamingos a spot on a tour with Duke Ellington and a March of Dimes TV show, but the group still had no national break-out hit. Between late 1953 and early 1954, The Flamingos recorded “September Song” (the song with which Sollie had auditioned for the group), “Jump Children” and “Cross Over The Bridge” with Sollie on lead as well as “Listen To My Plea” and “Blues In A Letter” with Johnny Carter handling lead chores.
With Chance Records’ viability fading fast, The Flamingos moved over to the Parrot label, owned by local DJ Al Benson, with whom the group had performed in the past. Kicking off their Parrot career were recordings of “Dream Of A Lifetime,” “If I Could Love You,” “On My Merry Way” and “I Really Don’t Want To Know”, all with Sollie on lead, but the latter two also featuring Jake and Johnny, respectively.
In fall of 1954, the Flamingos met up with Nathaniel “Nate” Nelson, who had been singing with a local unrecorded group called The Velvetones(and happened to be a first cousin to The Orioles’ Sonny Til.) Nate became an unofficial “sixth member” of the group, a relationship which evolved into his becoming an alternate lead, standing in for Sollie on occasion and eventually replacing Sollie. Sollie McElroy went on to sing with The Moroccos, The Chanteurs (who evolved into The Chi-Lites) and The Nobles, but unfortunately missed out on all of The Flamingos’ success to come.
Nate led the group through one last recording session for Parrot, yielding “Get With It,” “Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So),” “I’m Yours,” and “I Found A New Baby,” the last of which was more of a group effort. Around the same time, midway through negotiations to bring the group to Chess Records, manager Ralph Leon died of a heart attack. After his passing, the group took affairs into their own hands and closed the deal with Chess. Brothers Lenny & Phil Chess really liked The Flamingos and wanted to ensure airplay, so they had the group record for their Checker subsidiary. (At the time, some radio stations had a practice of only playing a certain number of records on any one label, so Chess begat this offshoot lest some of their better radio-ready releases fall by the wayside.) The Flamingos’ first Checker wax “(Chick-A-Boom) That’s My Baby” (written by Nate & Johnny) b/w “When” was released shortly after, in April of 1954. Further evidence that Lenny Chess favored The Flamingos, was that he had the group entertain at his son Marshall Chess’s bar mitzvah. The event was attended by early industry moguls such as Alan Freed and Ahmet Ertegun.
In July, Checker followed up with “Please Come Back Home” b/w “I Want To Love You.” Though the group still was without a national hit, or more importantly, a cross-over pop hit, that didn’t stop The Flamingos from landing a month-long engagement in Las Vegas, doing a 45-day tour for impresario Irving Feld and performing around the country at venues such as the legendary Apollo Theater in New York. In December of 1955,The Flamingos performed on one such rock & roll show at the Brooklyn Paramount with Pat Boone, who heard them sing their soon-to-be-released ballad “I’ll Be Home.” According to Nate, Lenny Chess gave him the opening line of “I’ll Be Home,” but Nate wrote most of the rest of it. In January, “I’ll Be Home” was released, but by month’s end, Pat Boone’s cover was right on its heels. The Flamingos’ original hit #5 on the national R&B charts but Boone’s vanilla version captured the pop (white) market. Dejected, the group continued on their quest to crossover to the pop mainstream listening and recording-buying public.
After a few months of licking their wounds, Checker released The Flamingos’ ”A Kiss From Your Lips” and backed it up with “Get With It,” a song they had actually recorded for Parrot records before the label folded. “Kiss” did very well for the group in some of the country’s urban markets and even reached #12 on the national R&B charts, but it too failed to crossover. April of ’56 found The Flamingos back at the Paramount in Brooklyn for Alan Freed’s “Easter Jubilee Of Stars” with The Cleftones, The Platters and Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, among others. Freed loved the group so much he put them in his new movie “Rock, Rock, Rock.” Unfortunately, just prior to filming, Zeke Carey was drafted, and therefore does not appear in the film. The group lip-synced to “Would I Be Crying”, with Nate pouring his heart out on lead and John E. Carter’s unmistakable tenor soaring in the background. Even with the film being shown in an estimated 400 movie houses around the country, the group couldn’t seem to get “Would I Be Crying” off the ground. The single died quickly. (Contrary to some articles, the group did not sing their new song “The Vow” in the movie.) In September of 1956, John E. Carter was drafted into the Army, leaving the group a trio.
The group had no problem finding a replacement for Zeke Carey. It took them just two short months to add neighborhood friend Charles “Tommy” Hunt to the fold. But when The Flamingos played Baltimore’s Royal Theater in October 1956, they were still in search of a first tenor. In the audience was Isaiah “Terry” Johnson, an old acquaintance of the Careys by way of the Church of God and Saints of Christ congregation in Baltimore.
Terry (better known to his friends as “Buzzy”) had been the primary lead singer, songwriter and musical arranger for his group called The Whispers, who recorded for Gotham Records. As Terry watched the show, he claims he saw an aura around The Flamingos and saw himself onstage performing with group as they sang songs like “The Vow” and “A Kiss From Your Lips.” After the show, he went backstage to tell The Flamingos about his other-worldly experience and learned that they were looking for a musician who could sing tenor. The following day, Terry returned with his guitar. He sang and played and the group was impressed, but when he played for them the records he had cut with The Whispers, The Flamingos were taken aback. They must have heard what they were looking for in Terry’s sound, because just prior to relocating the group to New York, The Flamingos recruited him to join forces with them. On Christmas Day of 1956, Terry Johnson and The Flamingos both got the break they had been waiting for, although perhaps neither realized it at the time.
The first few months of 1956 were hectic but productive. The five Flamingos (Jake Carey, Nate Nelson, Paul Wilson, Tommy Hunt and Terry Johnson), moved into the Cecil Hotel on W 118th St in Harlem, a hotbed of R&B and jazz artistry. (The Hotel was home to the legendary jazz club Minton’s Playhouse which is considered to be the birthplace of be-bop, often featuring Thelonius Monk, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker and later Miles Davis, sometimes in extended jam sessions which went on into the wee hours of the morning.) Members of The Cadillacs, Solitaires,Harptones and Drifters were often seen out and about, and an 18-year-old Terry Johnson relished the interaction with these artists to whom he was fast-becoming a peer. In February, The Flamingos played a week of shows at the Apollo Theater (located just a few blocks away from their new home-base.) The stint was so successful, it was held over for a second week. In March, The Flamingos celebrated the expiration of their Chess contract by signing with Decca Records. (Decca, at the time, had become most famous for releasing the first-ever #1 rock & roll hit, Bill Haley & The Comets’ ”Rock Around the Clock,” but had not yet become famous for rejecting The Beatles after the fab four’s earnest audition for the label.)
The Flamingos had previously relied on Johnny Carter’s arranging skills until Uncle Sam snatched him from the group. This void was quickly filled as Terry immediately started to put his ear to the grindstone and began arranging the music and vocals for the group’s newest compositions. The first evidence of Terry’s influence can be heard on “The Ladder of Love,” the most notable of a dozen songs The Flamingos recorded for Decca. “Ladder” is also the only Flamingos’ Decca recording to have been released on CD. The others still languish in obscurity, but Terry considers “Ladder of Love” to be a “My Way” of sorts, referring to the message of the song. Other Decca sides, “Hey Now,” “Let’s Make Up,” “Helpless,” “My Faith in You,” “Ever Since I Met Lucy,” “Kiss-a-Me,” “Where Mary Go,” “The Rock & Roll March,” “Jerri-Lee” and “That Love is You” were never promoted properly and the latter two were never even released, although the group would re-record “That Love is You” in later years. (Nate co-wrote “That Love is You” as well as much of the group’s earlier material and, later, “If You Try” for The Chantels. The co-author of “That Love is You,” is often mis-credited. Nate actually co-wrote the song with Terry.)
Since Terry had been raised in a home filled with pop music, he was influenced as much by crooners such as Nat King Cole as he was R&B balladeers like Sonny Til (incidentally, his neighbor in Baltimore.) He enjoyed the harmony of groups like the Four Aces, Modernaires and McGuire Sisters as much as The Harptones and Five Keys. This influence took The Flamingos in a new direction and shortly after a contractual snag between Nate and Checker Records was resolved by the group’s departure from Decca in the spring of ’58, Terry Johnson finally took the group where they had been struggling to go for years.
Jake forged a relationship with producer Richard Barrett who was in charge of A&R (artists and repertoire) for George Goldner’s End Records at the time. Barrett was the original lead singer of The Valentines, had discovered Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers and was now working with The Chantels and Little Anthony & The Imperials. Richard Barrett and Jake Carrey were responsible for getting the group signed to End Records, where their first recording was a song Terry had written for a girl he knew in Wildwood, NJ. “She was leaving for Europe and told me she didn’t want to say goodbye,” Terry recalled. “In the course of her crying, she muttered, ‘Lovers never say goodbye’ and a light bulb went off! I wrote the song around that.”
The song was just what The Flamingos needed. It had a sound unlike anything The Flamingos had done before. Written and arranged by Terry, it oozed teenage angst and featured a duet by Terry (singing lead on the verse) and Paul Wilson (harmonizing over Terry’s lead.) The duo would then switch places as Paul’s baritone lead consoled “Though we must part, there’s no reason to cry,” and Terry echoed Paul, “Though we, though we must part,” in a beautiful falsetto tenor which would become the hallmark of many Flamingo hits to come.
Jake, Nate, Tommy, Paul and Terry kept their fingers crossed as “Lovers Never Say Goodbye” hit the R&B charts and then it happened – for the first time in Flamingo history, the group had a national pop hit. The Flamingos were poised for greatness by the time Zeke returned from the Army. (It is interesting to note that some articles have implied the group broke up when Zeke was drafted and regrouped when he was discharged, but this is obviously erroneous and physically impossible as the group performed on film, took publicity photos, recorded and released over a dozen recordings, including their first national hit, all while Zeke was absent.)
Upon Zeke’s discharge, the general consensus among the members was that The Flamingos were now established and had perfected their harmonies and arrangements as a quintet, and Zeke would not be re-admitted to their ranks. Even his “cousin” Jake was adverse to having Zeke re-join them, but Terry argued that since he played the guitar, he could teach Zeke to play the bass and it would make them more of a self-contained group. Terry inspired Nate to pursue his talent on drums and Tommy to start playing piano. The group carried the instruments around, practicing for almost a year before debuting their instrumental talents at the Regal Theater in Chicago on a show headlined by Lionel Hampton.The Flamingos, already considered pioneers because of their vocals, became one of the first self-contained vocal groups on the scene.
Terry reports that one of the reasons he had been so enthused about joining The Flamingos in 1956 was the notion of being able to sing in the same group with Johnny Carter when he returned from the service. Terry had all sorts of ideas about arranging harmonies between their two soaring falsetto tenors. However, when Johnny returned from the Army, the group argued (successfully) that seven would be a crowd. John E. Carter went on to a five-decade long career with The Dells.