On one of my digging expeditions, I strolled into a dusty Brooklyn store prepared to loot them for all my favorites, and they had a lot of 45s to go through. (45s are great because most record collectors focus on LPs so there’s less competition and hence they’re often very affordable.) Up front was a box of new arrivals. Flipping through, this single’s colorful logo typography and cute daschund illustration caught my eye.
Coincidentally, my friend had just mentioned “I Only Have Eyes for You” on our way to the store. I knew what song he was talking about though I hadn’t known it by name nor that it was by The Flamingos. But how could I ever forget Wyclef Jean’s sampling of it for “Zealots”, which appeared on The Fugees’ sophomore full-length The Score when I was in tenth grade. Later it also donned on me that the song was used by Robert DeNiro in the 1993 film A Bronx Tale (the soundtrack tastefully blends the original with a brilliant cover version that is stripped down to the bare essentials of vocal harmonies, finger snaps, and a handful of bass notes).
Back in the store, once I realized what I was looking at, the serendipity of the occasion made me pull it from the stack and bring it to the listening station. Although the wax looked a little beat up, it played surprisingly well. The price tag was roughly the equivalent of a new LP but I gathered that originals were relatively rare so I went for it.
“I Only Have Eyes for You” was released by The Flamingos in 1959 and, according to an excellent article in Sound on Sound magazine, recorded at Bell Sound Studios on West 54th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, just a few blocks away from Carnegie Hall and the southwest corner of Central Park. The song first premiered back in 1934 on screen in the film Dames and on 78 R.P.M. shellac disc as performed by Ben Selvin and His Orchestra. In the 25 years that followed, several artists would record the tune including Al Jolson in 1949 and Dick Haymes in 1951. Flamingos bandleader Terry Johnson dismissed those versions as “vanilla” (rightfully so), but the tale of the tape suggests that Peggy Lee’s 1947 version, which transforms the number into a jazz ballad, would prove an undeniable influence on all three subsequent cover artists.
Based on how dreamy this version sounds, it may come as no surprise that Johnson heard his arrangement in a dream. The vocal melody mostly remains unchanged when compared to past versions, but the music gets turned on its head. A hyper-minimalist quartet arrangement of brushes, bass, some polynesian guitar fills, and the gentle tapping of a single piano chord lays the foundation, while Nat Nelson’s lead vocal rests atop a bed of reverb-drenched five-part harmony. (This melding of sounds is most apparent in the original mono mix, which is presented here.)
One of the most creative moments in the Flamingos version comes at the chord change underlying the word “dear” in the chorus. In both 1934 versions, the chord only last for an instant, and while the chord does sound ‘minor’, Peggy Lee’s version then slows down the tempo, which sets the stage for the Flamingos to increase both its dissonance and impact by utilizing the quintet’s complex vocal harmony. The result is a lurking sense of foreboding that makes the song feel like it’s suddenly making a sharp right-hand emotional turn only to swerve back to its preordained romanticism moments later. The even slower pace of the Flamingos version, however, can make the lyrics sound a bit clumsy; it feels like it takes an eternity for Nelson to spit out the line, “I can’t tell if we’re in a garden or on a crowded avenue”.
Surely the Flamingos’ interpretation was so much more successful than its predecessors in part because the group and their production team were willing to take chances. This is a recording that has managed to capture that hard-to-define quality of timelessness and is therefore sure to be enjoyed by many generations of listeners to come.