“I’m an entertainer,” says Terry Isaiah Johnson of The Flamingos, who will perform at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, March 7 at 7 p.m. (for tickets, visit ticketmaster.com). “I love it and when I walk on that stage, I become another person. I know my audiences and I know what to do to make them smile and how to make them happy. I always like to fulfill requests if I know ahead of time … who doesn’t like to make people happy?”
Johnson, sometimes known as “Buzzy,” has been making people happy since he was a teenager in the early ’50s. He rose to fame as a member of The Flamingos in the late ’50s.
Johnson and his bandmates had their biggest hit with “I Only Have Eyes for You,” in 1959. The iconic single has been featured in countless TV shows and movies and on compilation albums for more than six decades and has now been re-recorded and released by Johnson as part of a solo project.
“It just won’t die, it just keeps moving right along,” he said with a laugh. “I feel blessed and that’s the only word that I can find because that arrangement came from my soul. When I did it with The Flamingos, they didn’t liked it. Nobody liked it. They thought it was corny, it was weird.
“George Goldner, the president of End Records at the time, was pissed off with me and said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You go into the studio without me and you come up with garbage like this?’ I said, ‘It’s not garbage, George.’ He said, ‘Terry, this is not a ’50s song!’ ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ was supposed to be the release from the album, but when the DJs heard the album they all chose ‘I Only Have Eyes for You.’ After that song became a hit, George was the nicest person in the world. All the guys in the group loved me. They said, ‘We sound great! Don’t we sound great?’ ”
Johnson has been performing since he was 14. “I had a group in Baltimore, where I’m from; we were called The Whispers,” he said. “I was always putting groups together and we did a talent show and we won and it was a great feeling. Then we went to New York and we were turned down, but there were four songs that I had, and then we stopped in Philadelphia at Gotham Records and recorded four songs. They were pretty good songs but they didn’t really take off. And then The Flamingos came to town and I knew them and I kind of took up with them and they said that they were looking for a person who sings tenor or baritone, ‘and we need somebody who plays bass or piano or guitar.’ And I said, ‘Well, I do all of that.’ So that’s when I got with them, in 1956.”
His first gig with them was at a club called The Rockin’ MB in Miami. “The place was jam-packed,” he said. “You couldn’t move in there. We did our music and it wasn’t all rhythm and blues because I wasn’t raised on rhythm and blues music. So we did some white songs like the Everly Brothers’ ‘Bird Dog’ and that kind of stuff (laughs). People loved us and I felt that I had made the right choice in life because we were accepted.
“My parents wouldn’t let me hear R&B; no radio for R&B. They’d have Arthur Godfrey, Julius La Rosa, Steve and Eydie, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Sinatra, Vic Damone. So it was white artists that I was raised on. When I got with The Flamingos, I carried that with me and introduced them to it, and at first they didn’t know how to take it but then when they saw it working in every place we were working at, they really appreciated it. When I left The Flamingos I moved on to Motown and was Smokey Robinson’s partner for 10 years. I recorded everybody there; Temptations, Four Tops, Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas, Edwin Starr. So there are a lot of stories I can tell (laughs).”
Johnson re-recorded the new version of “I Only Have Eyes for You” in Nashville. “Jimmy Nichols, who was the piano player and producer, laid down this track and I said, ‘Whoa, that’s nice,’ and it was ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ but in a different way. I think he wanted it to sound something like ‘Lady in Red,’ and the musicians were like destiny. They had never heard it, but they played everything right where it was supposed to be … When I sang it after they laid down the track, it seemed like no matter what I did, things like the guitar was answering me in a way and the piano was there.”
The Red Bank show, titled “An Evening of Doo-Wop Vol. II,” will also feature Charlie Thomas’ Drifters, The Legendary Teenagers, The Fireflies, Lenny Dell & The Demensions, Jimmy Gallagher & The Passions, a cappella group Classic Sounds, and The Johnny Maestro Tribute Band. The Flamingos will play for about 20 or 25 minutes, Johnson said.
“It’s never really long enough and audiences always say, ‘Why didn’t you do so and so,’ or ‘Why didn’t you stay longer?’ ”
So how does Johnson sum it all up?
“What I want to say about this new recording (of ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’) is that it’s really a love song, just like the iconic one that The Flamingos did. I have a saying that love never dies, love never grows old. That’s why I know this song will be able to catch on the same way The Flamingos’ version did …
“People fall in love. I don’t care how long ago or how new or in the future. People fall in love and music always plays a very important role in that.”
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