Gary James' Interview With Terry Johnson of
Maybe you've seen them on the P.B.S. special Rock And Roll At 50. Maybe you've seen them on the P.B.S. special Doo Wop Lost And Found, filmed in Atlantic City. Maybe you've enjoyed listening to their songs over the years, which include "I Only Have Eyes For You" and "Heavenly Angel". That group is The Flamingos, now known as Terry Johnson's Flamingos, but we'll get into that in the interview.
The Flamingos received the Rhythm And Blues Pioneer Award in 1996, the United Group Harmony Association Award, were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000, the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2001 and The Doo-Wop Hall Of Fame in 2001.
It is a real honor to present an interview with a true rock 'n' roll pioneer, Mr. Terry Johnson, who leads a classic band if there ever was one...The Flamingos.
Q - Terry, the obvious question...why are you calling the group Terry Johnson's Flamingos? Why not just The Flamingos? Are there bogus bands out there using the name The Flamingos?
A - Yes, there are...bogus, bogus, bogus.
Q - Now, how did that happen?
A - It's just like The Drifters. It's just like The Platters. It's just like The Coasters. People get together and imitate your music and just call themselves your name and they get work. Because, let's face it, you're talking fifty years ago, who's going to remember what we look like? You know what I'm saying? I'm an original. My name is on records. There's songs I wrote. T. Johnson is me. To make a distinction to let the promoters and everybody know they're getting an original Flamingo. That's the deal.
Q - If it's not Terry Johnson's Flamingos, you're not seeing the real Flamingos.
A - Everybody else is dead.
Q - You're the only surviving original member of The Flamingos?
A - Yeah. Well, Johnny Carter was there before me. He's still with The Dells. He's still alive. And Tommy Hunt is in England somewhere. I think he's alive. I haven't heard of him in years. I don't know if Tommy is alive or dead. I know I'm still here, and I'm using the name Flamingos.
A - That, when they first started was Johnny Carter. His mother really named them The Five Flamingos. Johnny then kind of talked them into The Flamingos. Well, first they started as The Swallows. In Baltimore there was a group called The Swallows. They had "Beside You" and so many different songs and they tried to call themselves (that) but couldn't get away with it. They had to go to The Five Flamingos and then The Flamingos.
Q - You have your own record label, Terry Tree Records?
A - And there's also Hot Fun.
Q - Is this a label just for The Flamingos?
A - No. It's got quite a few artists on it. Joey L., Jeff Calloway, Pie. It's a girl. She sings her butt off. She's really a Whitney Houston. I'm doing a few young groups, but they don't really have their names...what I want to call them yet.
Q - How do you distribute the CDs these artists record?
A - We have a few distributing companies we go through.
Q - How did you know at the age of sixteen, that you could sing, write and arrange?
A - I didn't. It just happened. I sang with The Swallows for awhile, because Earl Hurley lived down the street from me, and Sonny Til of The Orioles lived down the street from me, on the other side of the street and J.R. Bailing of The Cadillacs lived up the street from me and I would be at school and I would imitate Sonny Til, because I loved his voice. He inspired me really to sing. He would be coming down the street and he would have a guitar and he'd be playing and I'd say "Oh man, teach me." He got me interested in guitar. First I wanted a saxophone, but my mom, when she took me to the music store, they didn't have any tenors, so I didn't want to leave the music store without some instrument, so I got a guitar. Earl Hurley, when he was walking down the street, would always carry his guitar and he'd be playing it. "Oh man, show me some chords." He would show me some things. Then Money Johnson, who was the guitarist with The Swallows, showed me so many things. And I got good enough where a few times Money was sick and I had to go travel with The Swallows. I played guitar and sang behind them. When I was just a kid, man. I don't think I was sixteen. As far as where I got the writing ability, I don't know. I really couldn't stay with The Swallows. My parents wouldn't allow that because they were men and I was just a kid. They were working in nightclubs and my parents wouldn't allow that. So, I got together with some of my school mates and I put a group together and we called ourselves The Whispers before the 1960 Whispers came out. We did our thing in '54, '55 at Gotham Records in Philadelphia. We had a few hits out, a few releases out I'll say. They weren't really big hits. Then in 1955 the records weren't really doing that much for The Whispers. The Flamingos came to town and we all went to the same synagogue. I knew them, so I went to see them at The Royal Theatre in Baltimore. I was sitting in the audience watching the show and I saw myself up there with them. They had a haze around them. It was like a glow around them out of everybody I saw. It was like "wow!" Even Sonny Til didn't have this kind of haze that I saw around them. I went backstage and told them this and Nate said "Hey, that's good." They kind of ignored what I said. I pictured myself with them. Nate said "Do you know anybody around here who plays piano or guitar and sings?" I said "I play guitar. I sing." He said "Well, can you read?" I said "Yeah, well enough to read a chart." So he said "when you come in tomorrow, bring your guitar and see if you can read these (charts)." I came in the next day. I read them. They liked me. They asked me to sing some parts. Johnny Carter just got drafted. I sang my tenor part. They said "Damn, you sound good!" Nate was fighting for me right away. Jake was mumbling. Christmas Eve, Jake called me and asked me "you still want to be one of The Flamingos?" I said "Yeah!" He said "well meet me in Philadelphia tomorrow", which was Christmas Day. And that was the beginning of my real career with The Flamingos.
Q - So you went into the studio to record "Fool Heart"...
A - And "Are You Sorry".
Q - You were arranging those songs?
A - I was producing and arranging it. I didn't realize I didn't know what that was. I was a kid. I was doing what sounded right, what sounded good to me, my ear. That's why after, I left The Flamingos and got my own group in Philadelphia. I put together Terry Johnson And The Modern Flamingos, then Terry Johnson's Fabulous Flamingos, then Terry Johnson's Flamingos. I did that for a few years. Then Smokey Robinson came to town and we were old friends. I went to see him. I had recorded some songs on my tape recorder and I wanted him to hear it. And he liked it very much. He said "Damn Buzz, you got a great ability here." He said "would you be interested in coming with Motown?" I said "Yeah!" I really wanted to go there as an artist, but Smokey really heard me as a writer / producer with him. I'm sorry...before I went to Motown, Nate had left The Flamingos also in the middle of '61. Nate got with my group. We went to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Joe Rock, who was the manager / producer for The Skyliners, knew us and came to see a show we were doing in Pittsburgh. He said "man, these are the two boys I recognize out of The Flamingos. Are you interested in recording something?" We said "sure!" So, we recorded "Let's Be Lovers" and "Walk Softly Away". It was a combination of "I Only Have Eyes For You" and "Lovers Never Say Good-Bye" and my arrangement of "I Only Have Eyes For You"...they flipped! We went into different studios and it came out just like The Flamingos because I had my background singers, which was my band, singing the same parts that I would have The Flamingos doing. And it sounded exactly like The Flamingos. What happened was, George Goldner of End Records in New York, which was our label...The Flamingos label, went to Atlantic and said put some muscle on them and let them know that...no, no, no, no, no. Nate was the singer for "I Only Have Eyes For You" and I was the lead singer on "Lovers Never Say Goodbye" and all the duets. So, we had that sound. So, between the mob up in New York, they made sure I got crushed. They paid Atlantic not to do anything with it, to let just sit there and die. I wanted to keep recording, but Nate wanted to keep working. That's when we parted ways. I said "Nate, we got the sound. Let's keep recording." Nate said "I have a family." He had a wife and a kid. He said "I've got to work." I said "we can work in between time, but let's keep recording. We can change our name to something else." He left and got with Herbie Reed's Platters. The Platters had broken up and Herbie had his own group and Nate sang with them. And that's when I joined Smokey.
Q - You produced all of the big Motown artists. Would that have included The Supremes?
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - What songs did you produce for The Supremes?
A - I was part of "Love Child". I was part of the corporation which we didn't get any credits for, because we just had the corporation which was like about seven or eight of us producers that was with Berry (Gordy). I put some string ideas on there and some background vocal things on there, and I didn't get any credits for it. I recorded The Tops, The Temps. I have an award for "Baby, Baby Don't Cry" that I recorded with Smokey. I wrote "Baby, Baby Don't Cry" with Smokey. I did a lot of songs with Smokey, Four Tops..."Opportunity Knock For Me", "Lost In A Pool Of Red". I recorded David Ruffin, "The Letter". Edwin Starr, Martha And The Vandellas. "Sweet Thing" I did on The Supremes. I can't even think of all the songs.
Q - Who wrote that song "I Only Have Eyes For You"? Did you write that?
A - I wish I did. Are you kidding me? Harry Warren and Hal Dubin. That was an old song. What happened was, George (Goldner) wanted us to be more on the order of The Platters. To do standards. So, he and Richard Barrett went to the music store and started collecting all these songs they wanted to record. They called me and said "I want you to do something with these songs. Turn 'em around. Put your touch on it. Make it a little different from what the white artists would do." I was playing around with "I Only Have Eyes For You". We should have an idea like the Russian Volga Boat song. I felt sleepy. I went to my room and fell asleep. I heard the whole song and when I woke up I grabbed my guitar and played it. Everything was there, the beautiful harmonies, the echo of it, the way the chord structure went. I called the guys. We were all in the same hotel in New York and they came to my room and they laughed at it. It was kind of weird. Nobody thought anything was going to happen with that song. Matter of fact, it was just on the album. It wasn't even a release. The disc jockeys heard it and called it off. I re-arranged it and produced it with George Goldner and Richard Barrett. But, I arranged it, turned the chords around, plus it's me playing the guitar on all the stuff we did on those three albums.
Q - You wrote "Heavenly Angel"?
A - Yup.
Q - How long did it take you to write that song?
A - Fifteen minutes, if that. It just happens. I can't explain it.
Q - If it happened then, could you do the same thing today?
A - Of course. I'm still doing it, man. I'm still in the pink. As a matter of fact, that's the name of my new CD, Terry Johnson's "Still In The Pink". Still doing it.
Q - You played the Paramount Theatre with Alan Freed?
A - Oh, yeah man.
Q - What was that like?
A - The Paramount. The Brooklyn Fox. Alan Freed loved us. Matter of fact, he had us in two of his movies, Go Johnny Go and Rock, Rock, Rock.
Q - Who was on the bill with you?
A - Jackie (Wilson), Speedo, The Cadillacs, Frankie Avalon, Fabian. I didn't really get to know Fabian that well. Fabian was more to himself. Frankie Avalon was a very friendly person. We became very friendly.
Q - Did you ever meet Buddy Holly?
A - Yeah.
Q - What kind of guy was he?
A - Sweetheart. Real sweetheart. Nice people. We were supposed to be on the same plane that went down when they went down. We were leaving a big concert, all of us, and it was a real mixed concert. It was really dynamite. It was just the biggest audience you could imagine. We couldn't get to the airport in time. So, we had to drive and we had the radio on and we heard their plane went down. We just said "Oh, my God!
Q - The plane would not have been big enough to hold all those people, would it?
A - I know, but some of us were supposed to go. Jackie Wilson was trying to get on that plane.
Q - Just think, if all those people had showed up and you had a bigger plane and that plane went down...we wouldn't be doing this interview today.
A - Right, exactly. When we heard the news, we looked at each other and said "Oh, my God". It was frightening.
Q - When The Beatles and the British Invasion occurred, what happened to The Flamingos? Were you still able to get work?
A - Well, by that time there was no more Flamingos, as the "Only Have Eyes For You" Flamingos, because once we left in '61, Jake and Zeke Carey put some other guys in the group and they tried to record. Nothing really happened because they didn't have that sound. They didn't know how to reproduce the sound. I reproduced that sound. I'm still reproducing the sound. People think you're hearing The Flamingos. God gave me an ability to create that sound. So, once you create it, you know what it is. You can always re-create it. I was at Motown when The Beatles started, because they killed Motown.
Q - Did they really?
A - They killed everything. When they came over, them and The Rolling Stones, it was like Oh, Lord. They were just so powerful...the British Invasion.
Q - What do they call the music of The Flamingos? Are you put in this Doo Wop category?
A - They want to call us Doo Wop. We were like the voices of champagne. We were like romantic. Our music was love songs. Romantic love songs. I hate to work on these shows now that are called Doo Wops. I'm not a Doo Wopper. Some disc jockeys started calling us Doo Wop. I don't know if it was Wolfman Jack, but I never did like that name. Most groups just go by it because if it was the fifties, that's what you call Doo Wop. But see, in the fifties it was called Rhythm and Blues, R&B. So it doesn't hurt me.