Interview -- Terry Isaiah Johnson (Arranger, Singer, Songwriter, and Guitarist for The Flamingos)

"When I was 14 years old, I became a songwriter."
~ Terry Isaiah Johnson ~

“I Only Have Eyes For You” is like having a Vulcan mind-meld performed on your heart...courtesy of Terry Isaiah Johnson...arranger, singer, songwriter, and guitarist for The Flamingos.  In 1959, (think about that a moment) Terry took a rather ordinary song from the 30s and turned it into an out-of-body experience.  The song is heady, romantic and a wee bit cosmic.  Yeah, a little bit!  It's a slow dance daring couples not to fall in love.  “I Only Have Eyes For You” was welcomed into the Grammy Award Hall of Fame and Rolling Stone slipped the song into the comfortable #157 spot of the 500 greatest songs of all time.  

Terry Isaiah Johnson has been involved in the music world, both solo and with The Flamingos, for over 60 years.  And recently, Terry released a brand-spanking-new version of this classic gem with a fresh and soulful arrangement as only he can do.  The song is available almost everywhere. (Check It Out)  Terry Isaiah Johnson and “I Only Have Eyes For You” (both new and original versions) are a Valentine wrapped with a bow.  Go get you some.

Terry Isaiah Johnson Interview -- February 2020
Terry Isaiah Johnson

Casey Chambers:  One of the most romantic songs to ever steam up the car windows is your signature song, "I Only Have Eyes For You"...which you initially recorded in 1959 with The Flamingos.  Your arrangement gave everything a dreamy, other-worldly turn.  You rescued a rather ordinary song from the 1930s and turned it into something magical and unforgettable.  Tell me a little bit about that song.

Terry Isaiah Johnson:  Well, I was the musical director and arranger, as well as singer and guitarist with The Flamingos.  And the president of End Records had given me 33 songs that I had to put my spin on.  "I Only Have Eyes For You" was one of them.  I did 32 of them right away, but that song...I just couldn't feel it.  The song was from an old movie and Dick Powell had sung it and it sounded very old fashioned to me.  Anyway, I had fallen asleep with the guitar on my chest and I came up with a new...concept for the song in my dream.  When I woke up, I called the other guys and they came down to my four o'clock in the morning. (laughs)  And I showed it to them and they said, 'It's terrible. You're crazy. You woke me up for this?' (laughs)

I took the song into the studio the next day.  The president was out of town promoting our songs and others.  And when he came back, he said, 'Terry, what the hell is this?  This doesn't sound like '50s music.'  He was pissed at me.  And I said, 'Well, I believe...I believe it has great potential.'   He said, 'Well, I can't do anything about it now.'   So I just put it on the album, "Flamingo Serenade."  It was like...1958.  I recorded it and nobody liked it at first.  But the song wound up, y'know, fooling everybody. (laughs)  When the DJ's heard the album, they really picked up on, "I Only Have Eyes For You."  They fell in love with it.   And that's what really started my successful career with The Flamingos.  And it was my biggest song ever.

"I Only Have Eyes For You" - The Flamingos / "American Bandstand" (1959)

Casey Chambers:   Oh, it's a blue whale.  Not only was the recording inducted into the Grammy Award Hall of Fame...but "I Only Have Eyes For You" was #157 on Rolling Stone magazine's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list.  Sweeter still, you were inducted with The Flamingos into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. (2001)  A big bow and congrats again.

Terry Isaiah Johnson:  Thank you. That was a real thrill.  And the people I was with!  Aerosmith was inducted.  Michael Jackson was inducted.  Paul Simon.  Queen.  So many great superstars and just to be rubbing elbows with all of them and being inducted at the same time as them was such a rush.  It was all so exciting.  Frankie Valli...he was the one who inducted us into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.  After he heard me do the song, he came over to me and said, 'Listen, hey man, you got to keep this music alive.  Did you see what you just did to the audience?  Why don't you put yourself together a group like what I just heard?  It'd be very, very successful for you.'   Because I didn't have a group at that time.  I was recording and producing.  So that inspired me to re-form The Flamingos because they were my harmonies and ideas.  Like I was exciting. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  And that song continues to keep on giving.  It shows up in movies and television all the time.  I heard it for the first time, not on the radio, but while watching the coming-of-age film, "My Girl" at the theater.  I was just a kid myself and yet even then, the song left a mark.  And then 10 years later, the song made an appearance while I was watching "The Sopranos." ("Everybody Hurts" S4:E6 - 2002)  Is that a coffee-spitter for you when that happens?

Terry Isaiah Johnson:  It's very cool.  And I smile.  I applaud myself. (laughs)  It's very exciting when that happens.  And the money that I receive from it. (laughs)  Because every time it's in a movie or on TV or on the radio, I get paid.  So it's always a great feeling.

Casey Chambers:  "'s a hit!" (laughs)  You wrote your first charting single for The Flamingos..."Lovers Never Say Goodbye" in 1959.  That was an important song for you on many levels.

"Lovers Never Say Goodbye" - The Flamingos / 45 Single (1959)

Terry Isaiah Johnson:  That's right.  That was my first charting song.  When I was 14 years old, I became a songwriter.  I had my own group in Baltimore called The Whispers.  That was my group at the time.  We went to Philadelphia to Gotham Records and recorded "Are You Sorry?" (1955)  Everyone who heard it loved it.  But the music business, I don't know, it must not have been the right time.  But when I got with The Flamingos, I played it for them and they fell in love with it and they wanted something like that.  So, "Lovers Never Say Goodbye" was like a follow-up.  And it was easy for me to make up another story and change it around.  I thank God for my talent to be able to do that.  But yes, that song, "Lovers Never Say Goodbye"...crossed The Flamingos over into the pop market. They never reached the pop market before.  It had always been R&B.  Once we got into the pop market, doors opened that were closed to them before.

Casey Chambers:  What was it like being in a rock and roll band back in the '50s?

Terry Isaiah Johnson:  It was rough.  It was rough for black artists.  Because of the prejudices.  People didn't want you in their towns.  Different bathrooms.  Different hotels.  Different restaurants that you had to go to.  It was pretty rough.  The only thing I can say good about the 50s when I was traveling was making the money and pleasing the audiences.  Doors were closed to black entertainers.  Like Sammy Davis Jr.  Even he had to go through the kitchen in Las Vegas at the big hotels and he was the star there.  You know what I mean?  It was pretty rough, but that's the way it was in the world.  And I'm so thankful that the world is more open now.

Casey Chambers:  Were you guys kickin' it by bus in those days?

Terry Isaiah Johnson:  Sometimes.  With a big tour.  Like with Sam Cooke. Roy Hamilton. Jackie Wilson. James Brown.  When there were maybe 10 or 15 different acts, we had two or three tour buses taking us around.  After the tour was over, when we would do our own going to Miami Beach...we all had our own cars.  So, you know, that's the way it happened.

Casey Chambers:   You guys appeared in a couple of classic Alan Freed movies.  Classic and historic rock-n-roll films.  He really liked The Flamingos, didn't he?

Terry Isaiah Johnson:  Alan Freed.  He loved us. We were his pets.  Not only did he love our music and harmonies...that special way it was structured, but we had dance routines.  Everything we did, it was smooth.  Not as erratic as say...The Temptations.  But we had a very classy thing about us.  And on our fast songs, like "Jump Children" which if you look on YouTube, you'll see the real talent of The Flamingos with the dancing abilities.  Doing the splits.  One guy slapped through the legs of another.  And then coming up together and doing the basketball with one guy in the middle pushing them up and down with his hands.  I mean...really unique.  Alan Freed loved that.  He would always have us closing or next to closing because of our dance routines and the smoothness of our harmonies.

"Jump Children" - The Flamingos / from the movie "Go, Johnny, Go!" (1959)

Casey Chambers:  Very, very cool!  Energy to spare.

Terry Isaiah Johnson:  Yeah, I was young. (laughs) I was young.

Casey Chambers:  Toss me over a couple of Mean Bean Java Monsters and I'll try to catch up with ya! (laughs)  Ritchie Valens was in that movie, too.  He performed "Ooh, My Head."  Was that the last time your paths crossed?

Terry Isaiah Johnson:  Ritchie was...he was a very beautiful person.  As a matter of fact, we all played at the same place in Iowa.  That same night they all had a plane.  Their manager was able to pull some strings and get them a plane in.  The rest of us all had to drive or get on the bus. It was heartbreaking.  The Bopper.  All three of them, man.  It was just horrible.  We had just got finished playing together.  They said, 'We'll meet you there.'  I said, 'Okay.  Meet you there.'  And they never made it.   It still feels like...oh, man...providence, ya know.  Destiny in other words.

Casey Chambers:   Performing on "American Bandstand" was almost considered a rite of passage and you guys appeared quite a few times, didn't you?

Terry Isaiah Johnson:  Many times.  And after the shows, Dick (Clark) would always have us join him for dinner and maybe go up to his suite.  He'd have some champagne and things like that.  Yeah, there were certain people that he wanted around him.  And I was really fortunate to be one of them.  Chuck BerryJackie WilsonChubby Checker.  He loved Chubby because of "The Twist."  Chubby had a real big fad going on at that time.

Casey Chambers:  When I think of R&B or doo-wop from the 50s, I always imagine singers getting together on street corners keeping their hands warm over a fire barrel and harmonizing.  Was that really a thing?  Was there a lot of that going on when you were first starting out?

Terry Isaiah Johnson:  Yeah, there sure was.  Matter of fact, that's how it was with my group.  We sang on the street corners or go to each other's houses when we could.  A lot of that.  But the word doo-wop.  Doo-wop... I don't know where that word came from.  I even thought sometimes it came from when we sang, 'Doo-wop sho-bop.'  That word was invented much later.  Alan Freed, he would call it rock and roll.  You know what I mean?  So yeah, doo-wop.  I don't know.  Little Anthony refuses to work under that title.  He refused to be on a doo-wop show.  He refused because his music was like our music.  It wasn't (singing)  'Do, do, do, do, Dodo.  Do do do do Dodo.'   I'm not knocking it because it was great music, but I would say our stuff had more of a pop feel.

"I Only Have Eyes For You" - Terry Johnson and The Flamingos (2013)

Casey Chambers:   Do you recall the first record you ever bought at a record store?

Terry Isaiah Johnson:   Yes.  Yes.  It was "Proud Of You" by Sonny Til and the Orioles.  He lived down the street from where I lived in Baltimore.  He was a big to-do...ya know what I mean?  And I looked up to him.  And I loved his style of music.  And then I got into The Swallows.  Listened to their music, too.

Casey Chambers:  This all comes back full-circle because you recently recorded a beautifully updated version of, "I Only Have Eyes For You" and you've done it again.  I downloaded my copy from Amazon and it sounds fantastic.  A real Valentine treat.  (Check it out!)

Terry Isaiah Johnson:  Yes.  That's what I was shooting for.  A sexy and fresh new arrangement for a new generation of lovers.  It's a fresh take that's still familiar, yet nothing at all like The Flamingos version.  And I really believe we've captured it.  I've been getting so much positive feedback from younger listeners.

Casey Chambers:  The song is yours completely and it's a great take.  This has been a lot of fun for me.  What an honor speaking with you today.

Terry Isaiah Johnson:  Thank you so much, Casey.  Thank you.

"I Only Have Eyes For You" - Terry Isaiah Johnson

Terry Isaiah Johnson Official Website

Terry Johnson Facebook

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers


Anonymous said…
great to hear about the good old romantic days

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