It is one of the most lush, memorable and romantic songs of the early rock era, as well as the biggest hit for the group that released it back in 1959. But upon its recording, “I Only Have Eyes for You” certainly did not impress most of that group’s members or their record label owner, who deemed it a flop.
Over the decades since, listeners and history have disagreed, with Rolling Stone slotting it as No. 157 on its list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” But as Terry “Buzzy” Johnson of the Flamingos details, its success had more to do with Russian sailors, dreams and God than anything else.
Tasked with giving the group a more pop, Platters-like sound, Johnson was given a list of older songs (33, to be exact) to mine for material. The very last on the list was a Harry Warren/Al Dubin tune originally written a quarter-century earlier for a film.
But its uptempo, scat-style tempo did nothing for Johnson. “I couldn’t feel it. The chords, nothing,” the 77-year-old Johnson says today. Still, he was encouraged to try something with it, and another member joked that he should incorporate the traditional Russian folk number “Song of the Volga Boatmen” into the mix.
“He laughed and I laughed with him. But the song went into my spirit,” Johnson offers. “So that night, in the hotel, I had a habit of laying in bed practicing my guitar. I fell asleep, and heard the chord changes in a dream. God gave it to me; I take no credit for it. I woke up, it was 4 o’clock in the morning, and I woke them all up. They were grumbling, but they came to my room and they learned it. But they looked at me like I was stupid and that it sucked.”
The recording session didn’t change their minds, either. Even their record-company president, George Goldner, hated it and forbade Johnson ever to go into the studio again without him. But when the eventual album came out, DJs ignored the suggested cut to play and began spinning “I Only Have Eyes for You.” And though Johnson did not take the lead vocal on the track, it would not have existed without him.
Later, as the song started climbing the charts (eventually hitting No. 11) and flying off the shelves, Goldner literally changed his tune.
“He called me in his office and said he had something to say to me,” Johnson laughs. “He said, ‘Hey! Terry Johnson! Anytime you want to go into that studio without me, you just do it!’”
The original group was formed in 1953 in Chicago, becoming the Flamingos after a series of brief name changes also from the then-popular avian inspiration for group monikers (e.g., the Ravens, the Orioles, the Penguins, the Wrens). They had a series of moderate hits on several labels, including “I’ll Be Home” on Checker, a subsidiary of Chess.
Johnson had grown up around music in Baltimore. His neighbors included Sonny Til of the Orioles, Earl Hurley of the Swallows and J.R. Bailey of the Cadillacs.
But his listening diet skewed more toward Nat “King” Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. and white pop artists like the McGuire Sisters, since his parents would not allow him to listen to popular R&B acts. He nonetheless formed his own group, the Whispers (not the later, popular ’60s/’70s group).
He first became aware of the Flamingos from the viewpoint of an audience member. “I fell in love with those guys, the way they sang and moved and looked. And I pictured myself — I saw my body — up there onstage,” Johnson recalls. “After the show was over, I told them what I experienced. But they didn’t think too much of it!”
But he was on the Flamingos' radar. And after one member was drafted by the U.S. Army and left, they asked Johnson if he knew of any possible replacements who could sing and also play an instrument. He volunteered himself. And, after an agonizing period of waiting, he was asked to join the group on Christmas Eve 1956.
“That was my Christmas gift!” he says. “I joined them and went to New York [to record] right away.”
The group would soon have its first major hit on the Johnson-written and co-sung “Lovers Never Say Goodbye,” whose success set the stage for “I Only Have Eyes for You.” And the Flamingos’ energetic and choreographed stage show, which included the frenetic “Jump Children,” was garnering great attention.
However, the band began to dissolve the very next year as members left for solo careers or joined or formed other groups. The Flamingos' name even splintered into entirely separate units over the decades.
Johnson was later recruited by none other than Smokey Robinson as a staff arranger, writer and producer at Motown Records. He worked with a roster including the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes, the Miracles and the Spinners. When the Flamingos were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, Johnson says, his favorite memory of the evening was reconnecting with fellow inductee (and Motown alum) Michael Jackson.
It was also around this time that Johnson hoped to re-establish a musical partnership with Tommy Hunt, the only other surviving member of the original or classic lineup. But Hunt’s residency in England (as well as, possibly, Hunt’s strong-willed wife) eventually scuttled those plans.
Today, Johnson legally owns the Flamingos name. Besides him, the 2016 lineup includes Starling Newsome, Stan Prinston and musical director Theresa Trigg. He maintains an active touring schedule with the group, but has completed a more contemporary-sounding solo song that he has high hopes for.
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As for doo-wop as a musical genre — and what has kept it popular for more than six decades — Johnson says its appeal is not hard to decipher.
“It’s the lyrics and a simple melody," he sums up. "People can understand what is being said. The kids’ minds today might be fast enough to catch all that rap, but our music from the ’50s and ’60s was a totally different style, more relaxing. You look at your girl and say, ‘Oh, that’s my song.’
“And I am still surprised by how many people come up and tell me that ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ was the song they fell in love to or got married to or is their special song," Johnson adds. "That means a lot to me.”
"The Ultimate Doo Wop Show" feat. the Flamingos, Paul & Paul, Randy and the Rainbows, Barbara Lynn, The Volumes, and the Blue Suede Orchestra (feat. the Allen Oldies Band) comes to Stafford Centre, 10505 Cash Road, in Stafford, this Saturday, February 20 at 8 p.m.