If you are new to the Flamingos and in the market for a cheap compilation you would be better off starting with Jasmine's earlier Dream of a Lifetime set. For established fans, however, this new CD set is notable for including the group's 1957-1958 sides for Decca - the first time, as far as I am aware, that they have been issued on CD, with the sole exception of Ladder of Love.
On that basis alone this new collection really is something to celebrate, even though the bulk of the collection is made up of tracks on End (their next label) which haven't exactly been rare on CD in recent years. It's certainly convenient to have them together so cheaply, but it's only worth discussing the Decca material in detail.
The mystery is why the Decca sides haven't been issued on CD before in the UK. They've been in the public domain for several years now, so (assuming they had been able to source them earlier) Jasmine could have included them in their Dream of a Lifetime compilation.
It's an omission which may, I suspect, have been a canny marketing decision: opting to end the previous collection with a selection of End recordings meant that Jasmine were able to include I Only Have Eyes For You as the final track, perhaps to ensure the collection had the widest possible appeal. But whatever the reason, this new 2CD set rectifies matters and provides the missing End sides so it's the perfect complement.
The Decca recordings - tracks 1-9 on CD One (Ladder of Love was on the earlier set) - are fascinating to listen to and have considerable charm if you already know and love the group. It has to be said, however, that they aren't exactly neglected masterpieces - at least, not as recorded. Some sides are heavily marred by overproduction. Helpless has the group's sound sweetened by what sounds like a white female chorus and a ludicrously OTT climax, as though the group are being squeezed into being a more commercial proposition. Maybe it's to do with the fact that Decca were a big company, not a small indie, and there was greater outside control. And songs like the Rock and Roll March just sound dreadfully square - now and, I suspect, then.
The best of the bunch, balladwise, is Kiss-A-Me, where Nate Nelson's voice transcends the female backing, but it's still frustrating to think of what might have been had it been recorded during their Chess period with a sparer, more sensitive arrangement. (As some readers may know, Chess/Checker put out the demo version of I'll Be Home, recorded in an office, because the studio version sounded "plastic.")
Jerri-Lee is pleasant, however, and Where Mary Go (originally recorded by Canadian group the Diamonds then covered by the Flamingos, which is a bit of a turnaround) is okay in a Harry Belafonte vein. Hey Now! is the only track which gives a flavour of their frenzy on Chance Records in the old days.
Track 10 is the old chestnut Music Maestro Please and it's obvious we have now moved into the End era: it's a different, more spacious sound, familiar to those who have heard I Only Have Eyes For You. As I said in my review of the earlier Jasmine set I prefer the earlier R&B sides, but I can certainly appreciate that this new phase of the Flamingos' career feels like a natural development of aspects of their style rather than something imposed from outside on their sound. Certainly, Terry Johnson was happy to go along with label boss George Goldner's wish for them to do standards with a twist: "I was open to the idea, because I wasn't raised on R&B; my parents listened to Patti Page, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots and Bing Crosby. When George said he wanted me to change the structure of the songs and give them a nice flavor, I was excited because it was such a good challenge for me." (You can read more on Marv Goldberg's highly recommended R&B Notebooks site, which also explains why the Decca sides are so little known.)
The End sides will never be as exciting for me as their earlier output, but there is no denying their appeal as late night listening. Coupling that with the chance to hear those less than perfect - but wholly fascinating - recordings on Decca I will give this four stars, but really fans and collectors will want this whatever. Considerations about sound quality seem of less import in the current case given the rarity of the first nine tracks. To the best of my knowledge you won't currently find 'em anywhere else. (As to whether there are better transfers of the End material to be found, that is something I'd encourage you to investigate for yourself.)