Music for Music: Tommy Hunt
When the Last Word is the Right Sound: Tommy Hunt
By Dan Ursini © 2017
Writing about Caroline Shaw’s vocal music made me think about how the use of pure vocalized sound was built into the DNA of rock and roll by Fifties-era doo wop groups of which the most accomplished was The Flamingos. Their biggest hit, a 1959 cover of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” is a superb example of how important the right wordless riff can be.
A while back, I got in touch with Tommy Hunt, a singer with the original Flamingos. He remains an active performing presence in the UK and Europe:
Mr. Hunt explained to me over the phone from his London home the inspired spur-of-the-moment arrangement of this song. While on tour in the late fifties, the group’s manager had lectured them about how they could handle singing this rock and roll kid stuff—but the real test was whether they could take old standards like “I Only Have Eyes for You” and make it their own. A long silence followed. Then from out of nowhere, Hunt found himself vocalizing a muted “doo-bop-sh-bop” – which start 27 seconds into this track:
The other singers struggled for a moment but quickly it fell into place—the entire arrangement which, to this day, is a marvel: dreamy but apprehensive; romantic and earnest but enigmatic. The part Hunt improvised creates a balancing tension essential for a song so loaded with contrary implication. Ever since its 1959 release, this song has resonated in the American psyche. Rolling Stone lists it #158 on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It is referenced and sampled in of dozens of TV shows and movies. Sometimes the last word isn’t a word at all but a sound that yet carries the truth.
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine ; he wrote performance art pieces presented at Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication. In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org