While the Flamingos were not the most commercially successful vocal group of the 1950s by a long shot, they were nearly without peer in terms of pure talent and impact. Their intricate, occasionally otherworldly harmonies and arrangements influenced some of the great Motown and R&B/soul groups of the ’60s and ’70s. The group, which formed in Chicago in the early 1950s, enjoyed regional success and some Top 10 placements on the Billboard R&B chart, but widespread appeal eluded them.
That is, until their cover version of a song a quarter century old brought them musical immortality. In the spring of 1959, the Flamingos — by then consisting of Zeke Carey, Tommy Hunt, Paul Wilson, Jake Carey, Terry “Buzzy” Johnson, and Nate Nelson — released their version of “I Only Have Eyes for You” (b/w “Goodnight Sweetheart”) on End Records. It had previously been covered by the likes of Peggy Lee and Al Jolson, and in its original form was considerably more bouncy.
The song was written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin for the 1934 Warner Bros. musical Dames, starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell among others. Here’s a clip from the film featuring the song as sung by Powell and Keeler. Skip to the four-minute mark to get right to the multiple, giant Keeler heads and some lavish, eye-popping Busby Berkeley choreography if that’s more your thing.
If you weren’t too hypnotized by the last part of that number, you probably picked up on some of the richer parts of the composition — especially at the end of the chorus. Remember that, because we’re going to talk about it again soon.
So, back to the Flamingos. Here’s what Billboard magazine had to say about “I Only Have Eyes for You” (rated three stars) in its April 13, 1959 issue:
The boys have an offbeat arrangement of the standard which has a crazy mixed-up start. Parts of the side have a jazz quality, but the r.&.r. triplets are still there.
Talk about underselling things.
That “crazy mixed-up start” seemingly refers to Johnson’s brief, jazz-tinged guitar intro (just three chords, Bb7 / G7 / D7), because the song immediately moves into its delicate, less “crazy” 6/8 time verse structure. Johnson’s guitar shimmers ever so slightly in the background while Nelson’s mellifluous tenor floats above the proceedings with barely a hint of vocal affectation.
And then, at the 20-second mark and almost out of nowhere, comes the “doo-bop, sh-bop” part, piercing through the fog and positively drenched in reverb. The rest of the group continues to underscore Nelson for another half minute, and I’m sure listeners in 1959 began to wonder what the hell was going on. Remember, most singles at this time were not much longer than two minutes and we’ve now gone almost a full minute with nary a hint of a chorus.
And then, like a thunderbolt from on high, there it is — that chorus. It’s the song’s payoff moment, and is it ever wonderful.
In addition to Nelson’s lead that’s Johnson on high tenor, Hunt singing second tenor, Zeke Carey pegging a third note between second tenor and baritone, Wilson on baritone, and Jake Carey singing the bass part. It’s beautiful to begin with, but the emphasis on the transition from Cmaj7 to A♭7 (the part I referenced earlier) is what helps give the Flamingos’ version of this song its haunting quality. I could listen to it all day, and I’m pretty sure I have at some point.
“I Only Have Eyes for You” became the Flamingos’ biggest hit, peaking at #11 on the Hot 100 for the week ending July 19, 1959. It’s been featured in countless movies and TV shows — most notably American Graffiti — and, according to a 2009 interview with Johnson, still brings him a decent income.
Like many of their vocal group contemporaries, the Flamingos have endured countless lineup changes and splits. Of the six members present for the recording of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” only Johnson and Hunt are still alive. They both lead their own version of the Flamingos and continue to tour, while the original group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.