Vocal group exotica

A post-War vocal harmony group like the Flamingos could summon angels with a haunting ballad like “I Only Have Eyes For You.” So why not, with a bit of tweaking, conjure the reverie of the faraway jungle isles as well? And so it would be, the Billy Wards reaching for the vaporous high notes of “Pagan Love Song” or the Platters crooning “Harbor Lights.” Vocal group exotica essentially was easy-listening and instrumental exotica transposed to a more human scale, its yearning for mysterious, faraway continents transposed to yearning for that unattainable love – the next block over, across the sea, it didn’t matter.

The effect was similar, but the music was somewhat different. Groups who’d first harmonized together in the theaters, nightclubs, school hallways, churches and street corners of post-War America necessarily availed themselves of simpler mechanisms than the dark swells of Les Baxter’s orchestra or Martin Denny’s shimmering vibraphone tones. Here the otherworldly atmospherics were accomplished with soaring, ethereal harmonies and layers of crude studio echo.

Here there were lyrics, too – vocal groups were after all entertainers, not just purveyors of mood music and jungle tone poems. From the Cleftones (“Red Sails in the Sunset”) and the Avalons (“Ebb Tide”) to the Four Jokers (“Beyond the Reef”) and the Cardinals (“Misirlou”), always the theme was love, and always the love was lost, departed or unrequited. If instrumental exotica records obviated travel for the armchair fantasist, then vocal groups obviated exotica’s very instrumentation, their spectral falsettos jungle passion enough for any lovelorn soul by his turntable.

1. The Charades, Flamingo (Skylark)
The Charades’ brief history was intertwined with that of Billy Storm, a longtime Los Angeles vocalist noted for a solo hit, 1959’s teen ballad “I’ve Come of Age,” as well as for his earlier involvement with the Valiants, an R&B; group who’d scored with 1957’s “This Is the Night.” It was Storm who co-produced and sang lead on this 1964 version of Edmund Anderson and Theodore Grouya’s enduring “Flamingo.” This would be the most memorable of several obscure Charades singles recorded between Storm’s ongoing commitments as a solo singer and as a member of local groups the Nuggets and the Electras.

This is music for Valium eaters, a hypnotic, slower-than-sunset reading of “Flamingo.” That’s not the distant surf you hear, that’s the gurgling sound of you, fallen asleep to Love Boat reruns.

Billy Storm continued recording into the early ‘70s, always with somewhat marginal success. His later endeavors would include the gospel-pop supergroup the Brothers and Sisters of Los Angeles (with their 1969 album Dylan’s Gospel), as well as the psychedelized soul group Africa (with 1968’s Music From ‘Lil Brown’).

2. The Passions, Jungle Drums (Audicon)
The Passions were like Dion and the Belmonts, Vito & the Salutations, the Mystics or any number of other New York City-area harmonizers, the very model of the white street-corner vocal group. From Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood, one of vocal groupdom’s fertile crescents, the guys first formed as the Sinceres, coalescing shortly thereafter with the revamped line-up of Jimmy Gallagher (lead), Tony Armato (first tenor), Albee Gallone (second tenor) and Vinnie Acierno (baritone) and a new name, the Passions.

The group scored a minor hit with their first record “Just to Be With You” on A&R; veteran Sol Winkler’s Audicon label in 1959, but the returns would mostly be diminishing from that point onwards. This 1960 version of Ernesto Lecuona’s exotica warhorse “Jungle Drums” was the b-side of their third Audicon single. Its a-side, an iteration of the oft-covered Leon Rene vocal number “Gloria,” seems especially well-regarded among doo-wop fans. Personally speaking, however, I find “Jungle Drums” the Passions’ most compelling recording. I know what you’re thinking, and I agree: most white doo-wop is pretty corny, but the Four Seasons never had these booming blasts of slide guitar.

After five 45 releases on Audicon, the Passions went on to record for a number of labels, including Diamond, Jubilee, Octavia and ABC, all in a similar style, all without much luck. The Passions finally called it quits in 1963.

3. The 4 Most, The Breeze and I (Relic)
An obscure New Jersey group, the 4 Most’s members Bobby Moore (lead), Ronald Mikes (tenor), Charlie Chambers (baritone) and Bobby Frazier (bass) first formed in Newark in the late ‘50s. They rehearsed, they hustled, they found a sympathetic manager, they played a few high-profile gigs at the Apollo Theatre and elsewhere, they built a local following. And they released single 45 record on a tiny local record label, too: the group’s version of yet another Lecuona chestnut, “Andalucia” (later known as “The Breeze and I,” with 1941 English lyrics by songwriter Al Stillman). Issued on local record impresario Joe Flis’s Milo label, “The Breeze and I” would be a resounding flop when released in 1960. It would also be the 4 Most’s only release – at least initially. Their story no more remarkable than any of the era’s other vocal groups, the 4 Most dissolved the next year.

Oddly, though, “The Breeze and I” (and its flipside “I Love You”) would be released again, on a separate occasion, just three years later. Its second issue in 1963 on Relic Records – an early collector label devoted to vocal group reissues – netted significant local recognition. Enough recognition, in fact, that Bobby Moore, who had recorded in intervening years with the Fiestas as well as under the name Little Bobby Moore, reconvened the 4 Most in 1964. A few more 45s by the group would be recorded and scattered though the mid-‘60s. Again, it was all to be without much success. Bobby Moore sang with Duke Anderson’s big band in the ‘60s, remaining more or less inactive since.

But back to this selection. In a theme common to exotica lyrics, some third party – a flamingo, the jungle drums, the breeze – assumes the role of messenger among separated lovers. And, in a theme common to doo-wop, the lyrics of “The Breeze and I” are subsumed by its vocal pyrotechnics, the lead tenor personally taking the role of “the Breeze.” This is the baritone’s eternal lament. Why does the romantic lead always go to the tenor? Why do the tenors always get to play the part of the breeze? Fuck you tenors

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5 Responses to Vocal group exotica

  1. Anonymous says:

    I would have never guessed a connection between the charades and music from lil brown – but why not?? times do change

    listening to this – I envision some david lynch type scene with spiked lemonades and pink flamingos stabbed into the front lawn – slow pan across the yard

    slow zoom in on the flamingo – teenage scribble:

    “bowser’s a fag”

    slow poke

  2. Right again you are, Slow Poke! This stuff is totally David Lynch material to me.

  3. Mr Fab says:

    Hey I finally learned something about Music From ‘Lil Brown’, an amazing album that has always been totally mysterious to me. My previous web research didn’t get me anywhere so thanks for shedding a little light on this.

  4. rockin'n'rollin' says:

    Many interesting. thanks!

  5. Pete Gloria says:

    That version of Flamingo is off the scale! Are these the same Charades that did ‘Key To My Happiness’, or even ‘You Better Believe It’?

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