Bird & Animal Names In Rock 'n' Roll History - Part 7
Penguins, Orioles, Flamingos
Author: Robert Benson
Robert writes about rock & pop music, and vinyl record collecting.
In our continuing series about "bird" and "animal" groups and artists in rock and roll history, let's continue with our "bird" theme.
In the early 50's there was a boon of "bird groups" including the famous doo wop group the Penguins. The group was formed in 1954 when members Cleveland Duncan (lead vocal), Bruce Tate, Dexter Tisby and Curtis Williams were attending high school in Los Angles. Their only Top 40 Billboard hit is one of the most classic doo wop tunes of all time: "Earth Angel" (it is estimated to have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide).
Surprisingly, the song "Earth Angel" was the B-side of the record with the up tempo song "Hey Senorita" as the A-side. Upon its release in late 1954, radio stations were receiving more requests for "Earth Angel," and by the beginning of 1955 the single had reached the national charts, spending three weeks at the number one position on the rhythm and blues charts and peaking at number eight on the Billboard Top 40.
For the next several years the group toured (the Penguins were a popular member of Alan Freed's Rock 'N' Roll Jubilee) and continued to release singles (switching record labels several times). They scored another Top 20 hit on the rhythm and blues charts with the song "Pledge Of Love" in the summer of 1957 and in that same year released their only album called "The Cool, Cool Penguins."
The vocal group broke up in 1959 and Cleveland Duncan has led various incarnations of the group on the oldie's circuit and reunion tours. Interestingly, in 1963 the Penguins recorded a song which was written by future Mothers of Invention members Frank Zappa and Ray Collins called "Memories Of El Monte" (the song failed to make an impact).
A groundbreaking rhythm and blues vocal group called the Orioles was one of the first black vocal groups to sing music directly to a black audience. Fusing pop songs with gospel overtones and enriching them with blues and smooth harmonies, the Orioles scored a number one hit on the R&B charts in late summer of 1948 with the song "It's Too Soon To Know." The song also crossed over to reach number thirteen on the pop charts. (It was known back then as a "race" record).
This was a major accomplishment, as the Orioles were the first black group to do this and subsequently they became stars. Based in Baltimore (and no they were not named after the baseball team), the Orioles were Sonny Til (lead vocals), Alexander Sharp (tenor vocals), George Nelson (baritone), Johnny Reed (bass vocals) and guitarist Tommy Gaither. The group caught the attention of a local merchant and song writer named Deborah Chessler, who became their manager and would also write many of the group's subsequent hits.
Originally named the Vibranaires, they performed on Arthur Godfrey's "Talent Scouts" television show and caught the ear of record executive Jerry Blaine, who signed the group to a recording contract and they changed their name to the Orioles.
After the success of their debut ballad (the previously mentioned "It's Too Soon To Know"), the group scored a top ten hit with the seasonal tune "(It's Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas" at the end of 1948. They scored another R&B chart topper in the spring of 1949 with a splendid song called "Tell Me So." That began a streak of six charted R&B singles, including "A Kiss And A Rose," "I Challenge Your Kiss," "Forgive And Forget" as well as a re-release of their Christmas hit and another seasonal tune called "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" (which was the B-side of "Lonely Christmas").
Tragedy followed in 1950 when Gaither, Nelson and Reed were involved in an auto accident that killed Gaither and severely injured Reed and Nelson. Nelson left the group later in that year and as Reed recovered, the group added guitarist Ralph Williams and vocalist Gregory Carroll. The new line up scored a hit in 1952 with the sophisticated song "Baby Please Don't Go" (number eight on the R&B charts). The following year the vocal group had their biggest hit, the wonderfully crafted tune called "Crying In The Chapel" (number eleven on the pop charts and number one on the R&B charts), a tune that Elvis Presley would record twelve years later. Their last hit before the group disbanded in 1954 was the tune "In The Mission of St. Augustine."
Sonny Til tried to keep the band going with several different reincarnations, but the group didn't gain much attention after their last hit. However, the groundwork had been laid and the Orioles were an historic, influential vocal group and were inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Many consider the Flamingos one of the most prolific and seminal vocal ensembles ever to record and certainly one of the best doo wop groups of all time. Their inventive singing and elegant harmonies were impeccable, and they influenced many future rhythm and blues groups, including the Four Tops and Temptations.
The vocal group was formed in 1950 by cousins, Jake and Zeke Carey, who subsequently met Paul Wilson and Johnny Carter at The Church of God and Saints of Christ Congregation in Baltimore. They all sang in the church choir and met up with Earl Lewis, who also joined the group. But before they recorded anything, Earl Lewis left to join the Echoes and he was replaced by lead singer Sollie McElroy. They originally called themselves the Swallows, but they had to switch the name because there was another Baltimore group using that moniker. Carter suggested they call themselves the El Flamingos, which was changed to the Five Flamingos and then they all agreed to shorten the name to the Flamingos.
In 1953, the Flamingos recorded the song "If I Can't Have You" (Chance Records) which attracted some attention, especially on the East Coast and in the Midwest. They also recorded songs like "That's My Desire" and the vocally adventurous "Golden Teardrops," but these numbers failed to gain any national attention nor appear on the R&B charts.
McElroy left the group, being replaced by Nate Nelson and the group soon enjoyed their first chart success in the 1956 with the Top Ten R&B hit "I'll be Home." The group disbanded, but reformed in 1957 with members Nate Nelson, Jake Carey, Paul Wilson and Tommy Hunt. In 1958, Zeke Carey returned and the Flamingos secured their biggest hit and the one they are most associated with, a wonderful ballad called "I Only Have Eyes For You."
For the next two years, the Flamingos had a few minor hits, such as "I Was Such A Fool" and "Nobody Loves Me Like You Do" (1960) as well as "Time Was" (1961). They later recorded for several record labels, including four albums for END, also recording albums for Phillips, Julman and Polydor, but could not capitalize on their previous success. Cousins Zeke and Jake continued with various incarnations of the band well into the 90's and this legendary vocal group was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
We will continue with our series, again discussing "bird" groups in the next article.
In a common practice of the time, radio stations frequently featured segregated playlists. Thus, "Earth Angel" was simultaneously recorded by the white group, The Crew-Cuts, in 1955. The Crew-Cuts cover peaked at #3 on the Hot 100 chart, five spots higher than the Penguins version. The single's success launched the Crew-Cuts' own successful career of recording "crossover"-friendly covers of R&B hits.
The Penguins were one of a number of doo-wop groups of the period named after birds. One of the members smoked Kool cigarettes, which, at the time, had "Willie the Penguin" as its cartoon advertising character. They considered themselves "cool," and accordingly decided to call themselves "The Penguins."
The Penguins were inducted into The Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004.
In performance, The Orioles were a phenomenon, with girls in the audiences screaming, fainting, and attempting to reach their idol Sonny Til in particular.
Til recorded briefly as a solo artist before putting together the third Orioles group, with members Delton McCall, Billy Taylor, and Gerald Gregory, former bass of The Spaniels.
The Vibra-Naires changed their name to The Orioles in honor of the state bird of Maryland and in emulation of another popular group, The Ravens.
In recent times, the group has seen time in the courtroom. Current Flamingos member J.C. Carey, along with Terry Johnson, Tommy Hunt, and descendants of Nate Nelson and Paul Wilson, sued PepsiCo for allegedly using "I Only Have Eyes For You" in a 1998 television commercial without consulting the group. The group was awarded $250,000.
The Flamingos received the Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award in 1996 (where Terry Johnson, Jake Carey, Zeke Carey, Tommy Hunt and Johnny Carter performed) and were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Doo-Wopp Hall of Fame in 2004. In 2003, The Flamingos recording of "I Only Have Eyes For You" was inducted into the Grammy Award Hall of Fame.