Q&A With The Flamingos’ Terry Johnson

Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame member Terry Johnson of The Flamingos talks with Pollstar about his amazing career.

If we could only use one word to describe Johnson, it would be “class” as in the singer being one of the classiest men to ever step onto a stage.  The leader of The Flamingos is still a cool tiger among music’s cats, a handsome, self-assured singer who knows how to deliver the magic to audiences, as exemplified in the groups latest album, Diamond Anniversary Tour 2013.

During Johnson’s chat with Pollstar Johnson talked about The Flamingos as well as his first group, The Whispers, and his days working at Motown Records.  Detailing his incredible journey through the music world, Johnson recounted his experiences with many of the industry’s legendary stars including Dinah Washington, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson.

Left to right: Stan Prinston, Terry Johnson and Starling Newsome.  

The Flamingos were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2001.  Considering that the Rock Hall’s induction ceremonies are known for their all-star audiences as well as all-star jams, did any of the other artists that evening tell you of their love for The Flamingos?

Frankie Valli did. He’s an old friend from the past.  [He] said to me he loved us … and we could be an opening act for him and do a world-wide tour.  That was very exciting.  Michael Jackson, of course, he was too young to remember us but he was a very kind and sweet person.  Aerosmith, they were extremely nice to us. Paul Simon, he did a lot of talking to us, [about how] we had inspired him.  Art Garfunkel recorded my arrangement of “I Only Have Eyes For You.”

Does that happen a lot?  That is, running into other artists who were influenced by The Flamingos?

It’s an honor. We worked hard.  We were constantly rehearsing in those days  and we’re still doing it today.

After all these years do you still feel the need to rehearse?

Of course.  Because I can’t stay still.  A body in motion stays in motion [laughs].  I love to rehearse because I love to change things.  I like to be ahead of the game.  I believe that was my blessing with “I Only Have Eyes For You” because it was a different arrangement from the original. It came to me in a dream.  I was always creating. … that was my forte.

Those were long before the days of personal recorders and mobile phones.  Did you carry a notebook around for whenever inspiration struck?

Sometimes.  The majority of the time it was memorized.  Playing the guitar, all my arrangements came through the guitar.  I could remember it pretty well but I would write a lot of ideas down in a notebook.

You worked at Motown for about 10 years beginning in the mid-1960s.  What are some of your memories from that period?

The major stuff was being in the studio, sharing my thoughts and getting inspiration and production ideas from Smokey Robinson.  We were writing and producing partners.  The thrill of being there with Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder … being close to Marvin Gaye – going to his house and listening to this guy sing his heart out, so much soul.  A lot of beautiful memories from Motown.

Working with Smokey Robinson – what kind of collaboration was that? Were the two of you learning from each other?

We were probably learning from each other.  He was crazy about the music I was coming up with and I loved his lyrics. He’s a master poet … a great songwriter.

Weren’t you also one of the artists that appeared on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? album as one of the background voices?

We were all in the studio making noise. He wanted live sounds in there so a bunch of us were in there – The Miracles, some of The Tops and people who were in the office.

Were you given any instructions about what to say or how to sound?

Just party.  A party atmosphere is what he wanted.

What was it like working for Motown head Berry Gordy?

It was pretty good. He’s a great teacher. He’s an educator.  He taught us how to think, what the public would want. … Even if he liked a song 100 percent we would still have to get people from off the street to come into the building and listen to a bunch a songs that we thought were hits, whether we wrote and recorded them or not. 

He also taught us how to listen to the Top Ten songs and choose each one of those songs and then add ourselves to it.  He said, “A No. 1 hit? You take some of the structure of that … and put your own stuff with it and come up with another [hit].”

The Flamingos are regarded as one of the great Doo Wop groups.  Can any song be transformed into a Doo Wop number?  Or are some songs tougher to adapt to the sound than others?

Not for me. Because I played an instrument I could take a song, turn it around, make it my own style, and teach the guys what I wanted them to sing … and the harmonies, too.

“Blue Moon” by the The Marcels?  I won’t knock it but I wouldn’t have done “Blue Moon” like that. I would have done it in a ballad style.

The Flamingos: Top L-R: Tommy Hunt, Paul Wilson, Jake Carey, Terry Johnson. Bottom L-R: Zeke Carey, Nate Nelson.

Regarding your own arrangements and what Berry Gordy taught you about analyzing songs – do you ever hear a song on the radio and think about how you would do it?

Sometimes.  I always feel like how I would do it. Unless it’s a dynamite undeniable No. 1 hit.  [Then] I’m going to compliment it and say, “Whoa!  Whomever produced it was really on it. Whomever wrote it really had their thoughts together.” I give credit where credit is due, but the majority of the time … “OK, I could have done that better. I’m going to put this here instead of there.”

Left to right: Stan Prinston, Terry Johnson and Starling Newsome.  

What are some of your most memorable moments with The Flamingos?

My choice memories … working with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton. Lionel Hampton was so talented it was unbelievable.  Sammy Davis Jr., I knew him.  Matter of fact, when George Rhodes was sick one night at the Apollo Theatre, I directed the orchestra for him.  That’s a memory I’ll never forget.  I couldn’t believe he [Sammy Davis Jr.] asked me.  He said, “Buddy, can you take the orchestra? George is in the hospital.”

I said, “Sure. Where’s the music?” So I looked at it and said, “Piece of cake.”  My knees were knocking, I was so scared.  But I got through it and he was happy.

Some of the other great superstars …. Dinah Washington was a personal friend. She was really doing her thing when she had “What A Difference A Day Makes.”  Dinah was No. 1.  We were No. 2 and The Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You” was No. 3. … Great memories. I was working with Dinah and partying and everything.

How have you taken care of your voice throughout the years?

I try not to yell.  I like to practice a lot.

Did you stay away from smoking, alcohol or other things that might harm your voice?

None of that stuff.  I used to smoke a long time ago. As a kid I grew up smoking cigarettes. Everybody was doing it.  I was smoking Camel cigarettes. That’s like smoking old army blankets.  I thought I was cool for a while until I realized it was making my voice hoarse and I couldn’t hit a lot of notes. I had to give it up.  And I was never a great drinker.

What are some of the misconceptions people might have about Doo Wop?

I guess that we’re all drug addicts and we’re big parties, there’s a party after every show.

I never called it “Doo Wop.”  I called it “R&B.” The name was given to Doo Wop way after R&B and rock ’n’ roll’ … we gave the name “Doo Wop” to the ’50s sound.

When I think about Doo Wop groups, my first impression is that everybody started out singing on street corners.

I sang on street corners.  In Baltimore I had my own group, The Whispers.  Back in ’54, ’55 we recorded on Gotham Records in Philadelphia. We used to sing on street corners, serenade the people, get the girls.

So The Flamingos were all ladies’ men?

Oh, yeah.  We were very cool.  There was something about us, a rule that we would always be sharp. The outfit has got to be superb, it’s got to be immaculate. Not just a regular thing anybody might wear.  We always had to be different. It made us stand out.

And the dancing and the things we did onstage was always a feather in our cap.  We were different than anybody else.  Our presentation was different.

What was touring like back in the day?

At first we did trains. We did a few buses but we couldn’t handle that.  Then we got cars.  We had a ’59 Cadillac and a ’59 Buick station wagon for lugging our instruments and clothes.

What, in your view, have been some of the biggest changes in the music business?

One thing, the music itself.  I’m never going to knock rap. It’s an expression of how people feel.  I’m not particularly into it but I do like it. … I respect it.

I love Jay Z. This guy’s a multimillionaire, he’s done it.  And he’s done it from rap. So how can I knock something that’s successful?

Merchandising, clothing lines are often revenue streams for today’s artists.  Do you think those were missed opportunities for The Flamingos back in the day?

Yes, definitely.  Things hadn’t changed to open the door like it is now.  We were like some of the pioneers that opened the door for people today.

I never would have gone on stage with raggedy jeans with my knees out and things like that.  We were known for being the sharpest on stage.  We had a glow about us, the way we were dressed [and] carried ourselves.

I’m not knocking’ anyone, I’m not putting anybody down. Don’t get me wrong. But today people don’t care what they look like anymore.  To me show biz means you’re a little different than the people in the audience watching you perform.  Today people go on stage with jeans on, sneakers and an old shirt hanging out. That’s what’s comfortable and that is what the world has accepted from today’s artists. So be it.  But I wasn’t raised in that kind of show biz.  Tuxedoes, suits and ties, nice shirts, starched.  Nice shine on the shoes, patent leather.  The only way to go.  I miss those days but such is life.

I love a lot of the music today. Whitney Houston was a great superstar to me. … I respect Bruno Mars.  He’s new and he hasn’t come into his own yet.  He’s almost there.  He was quoted in Rolling Stone about how we inspired him.  He said, “Guys, if you ever get in trouble, if you’re ever in the doghouse, sing ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ to your sweetheart and you’ll be out of the doghouse in a heartbeat.” It was such a compliment.

What advice could you give someone just starting out today?

To stick with it. … Don’t doubt yourself.  Dreams are made to come true.  Stick with what you feel in your heart. If you have failures, failures make success.  You won’t know if you’ve succeeded unless you have failed.  Then you’ll see the good … for sticking with what you do.

And get all the education you can about show biz.  That’s so important.  So many people back in my time did not know, they did not show us the business [side].  I learned that after the fact.

“There was something about us, a rule that we would always be sharp. … We always had to be different. It made us stand out.”

Upcoming dates for The Flamingos:

Oct. 19 – Easton, Pa.,State Theatre Center For The Arts
Oct. 25 – Biloxi, Miss., Golden Nugget Biloxi
Nov. 9 – Hauppauge, N.Y., Hauppauge High School (Appearing with Lloyd Price)
Nov. 11 – Elmsford, N.Y., Westchester Broadway Theatre
Dec. 10 – Naples, Fla., Sugden Community Theatre
Dec. 14 – Wilkes Barre, Pa., F.M. Kirby Center For Perf. Arts
Jan. 21 – Laughlin, Nev., Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino
Jan. 22 – Laughlin, Nev., Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino
Jan. 23 – Laughlin, Nev., Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino
Jan. 24 – Laughlin, Nev., Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino
Jan. 25 – Laughlin, Nev., Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino
Jan. 26 – Laughlin, NV  Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino
Feb. 14 – Uncasville, Conn., Wolf Den
Feb. 26 – Sun City, Fla., Kings Point Auditorium
March 28 – Daytona Beach, Fla., Peabody Auditorium
March 29 – Boca Raton, Fla., Florida Atlantic Univ. Aud.
April 11 – Annapolis, Md., Rams Head On Stage
March 7 – Coconut Creek, Fla., Private Function

Please visit TheFlamingos.com for more information.