Sunday, February 14, 2010

February 14: The Flamingos, "I Only Have Eyes For You"

Artist: The Flamingos
Song: "I Only Have Eyes For You"
Album: I Only Have Eyes For You (single)
Year: 1959

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While songs of social change or injustice may become somewhat less meaningful over time, there is one style of songwriting that when done correctly, can withstand any changes in trends or musical production. This of course is the "love song," and while there are hundreds of thousands of attempts at a "good" love song, only an elite few have proven to still move generation after generation. Often due to their simplicity and sheer beauty, a truly great love song easily crosses all borders of musical taste and culture, and songs of this nature stand among the most treasured songs in history. Standing high atop this list is one of the earliest and most stunning contributions, as doo-wop legends, The Flamingos, put their own legendary spin on the 1934 song, "I Only Have Eyes For You." The song was actually written for the film Dames, and singer Bob Selvin took it to #2 on the charts that same year. Over the decades, artists like Art Garfunkel and Peggy Lee have both found success with the song, but even amidst a large number of recordings, none even come close to the beauty and power of the version recorded in 1959 by The Flamingos. While many know it from its placement in the 1973 film, American Grafitti, the song was a chart topper more than a decade earlier, and along with its fantastic musical presence, the recording features some of the most innovative and original techniques in history.

One would be hard pressed to find a finer example of everything that made the "doo-wop" sound so fantastic, as the voices of the six members of The Flamingos blended so perfectly, that the combined sound became an instrument onto itself. Never needing to raise their volume beyond an almost casual level, one could easily picture them standing on a street corner at night, perfecting their art. This purity in vocals is one of the keys to the groups sound, as the harmonies created by the group are absolutely unrivaled in terms of both musical sophistication, as well as sheer beauty in sound. Musically, "I Only Have Eyes For You" is one of the most sparse songs ever recorded, and aside from the very brief guitar opening, the music takes a backseat to the amazing vocal performance put on by the entire group. In many ways, this track is as good as the doo-wop sound gets, and the repeating "sh-bop sh-bop" backing vocals are truly legendary. The blissful, echoing sound is truly like nothing else before it, and legend tells that this part was actually recorded in a bathroom to achieve the special sound. This is where The Flamingos truly set themselves apart from their peers, as the their vocals are so stunning that they have no need for the backing instruments on the track, which in many ways presents the most pure example of the spirit behind the "doo-wop" sound.

While the group vocals on "I Only Have Eyes For You" are beyond comparison, the true magic behind the song lives in the lead vocal work of Nate Nelson, as well as the unparalleled lyrics which he sings. Much like the group vocals find no need to "push," neither does Nelson on the lead vocal, as the power behind his voice is more than sufficient to convey the heartfelt emotion that runs throughout the entire song. With an almost wispy, airy feel to his singing, it is the combined effort, led by Nelson that gives the song an almost ethereal mood, and makes it a love song that knows no match. However, one of the keys to the continued success of the song is the fact that the lyrics remain largely unrivaled in terms of perfectly capturing the essence of what it means to be lost in love. With each line presenting someone who is clearly so wrapped up in love that he is unaware of his surroundings beyond his love, few writers have ever been able to so precisely capture this mood without becoming cliché. Every single line in the song is fantastic, yet many people hold a special place for the brilliantly penned, "...I don't know if we're in a garden, or on a crowded avenue..." as one can only smile at the fact that this lover is so head over heels. It is this soul-bearing, heartfelt, yet universal feeling that is so perfectly captured that makes "I Only Have Eyes For You" stand the test of time and remain the finest love song ever recorded more than five decades after The Flamingos made it a classic.

Though the song has found controversy over the years, most notably when The Flamingos successfully sued Pepsi in the late 1990's for using the song without permission, "I Only Have Eyes For You" remains the high watermark for great love songs. Though countless artists across genres and eras have written amazing songs on this same idea, the fact of the matter is, in terms of both musical and lyrical beauty on the subject, no other song even comes close to The Flamingos take on "I Only Have Eyes For You." Barely needing the instrumentation (and many would argue they don't need them at all), The Flamingos present everything that it meant to be a top-notch "doo-wop" group, and along with setting the standard for love songs, they also set the bar for what one should expect from singing groups of the style. With the pure, unaltered vocal tracks, one could just as easily picture the song being performed on a street corner as they could in a recording studio, and in many ways, this embodies everything that one should strive for within a studio environment. With everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald to Jamie Cullum spinning their own version of the song over the decades, it becomes more and more clear that the version recorded by The Flamingos represents a very special moment in music history, as none of the earlier or later versions even come close to the power and beauty of their iconic 1959 recording of "I Only Have Eyes For You."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is without doubt one of the greatest songs ever recorded in any genre.What has always floored me about this song is it's mind-boggling atmospherics.It seems to always be nightime when this song is playing.This is a truly perfect recording in every respect.Songs like my friend, are why we love music.Thanks