Stories of artists passing on songs which would go on to be mega-hits for other artists abound in the music business. However both The Mystics and The Flamingos share the distinction of having compositions that were written expressly for them swiped at the last minute by artists whose stars were shining just a little bit brighter at the moment.
The parallel stories of the 2 groups runs deeper than that, though. Both of those compositions were written by the famous songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and both groups ultimately did receive Pomus-Shuman gems that went on to become hits.
Song-Shopping at the Brill Building
In early 1959, Pomus and Shuman were coming off of a string of hits they had written for Fabian and Bobby Darin. (Songs they had written for James Darren and Bobby Rydell would chart soon after.) Their employers at the time, Hill and Range publishing, thought a logical next step for the duo would be writing for some of the NY-based vocal groups that were beginning to make some noise in the trades and on the charts. Following the success of Danny & The Juniors‘ “At the Hop” and The Elegants‘ “Little Star” in 1958, Hill & Range manager Paul Case became convinced that, with the right material, street corner vocal groups could provide a legitimate and lucrative vehicle for his scribes to reach the top of the charts.
By this time, 1619 Broadway in Manhattan (better known as the Brill Building) was becoming the epicenter of NY-based songwriters and music publishers. Writers were looking for artists and publishers, publishers were trying to place their best material with rising stars who had chart-potential and up-and-coming artists were shopping for songs. When the five Italian boys from Bensonhurst known as The Mystics visited the Brill Building looking for material and popped into the sprawling penthouse offices of Hill & Range, Case thought they’d be a good match for some of the material Pomus and Shuman were churning out at the time.
Thanking the stars
It has been documented that, by this time, Doc and Mort had come to grips with their ground-breaking days (think Big Joe Turner and Ray Charles) being behind them and were enjoying the spoils of some of their mainstream teen-pop outings. When The Mystics came calling, they had just the song – “It’s Great to Be Young and in Love.” There was just one problem. It wasn’t great to be young and love and Doc knew the lyrics didn’t ring true. Being a teenager was tough enough and being in love just complicated matters. The song needed to be melancholy, not celebratory. The re-tooling began. Lyrics “It may be raining but the sun is shining in my heart. I’m not complaining because I know that you love me from the start” became “Each time we have a quarrel, it almost breaks my heart ‘cause I am so afraid that we will have to part.” Thanking stars up above morphed into asking stars up above and “A Teenager in Love” was born. The Mystics were ecstatic and went home to perfect the harmonies on what was sure to be their break-out hit.
Two equally credible stories survive about what happened next. One would have Laurie Records owner Gene Schwartz deciding he didn’t want such a great piece of material recorded by an as-yet unproven group. Another version is that the song was overheard by their Laurie label-mate Dion’s manager who used his clout and his client’s track record as an earner to win the song for Dion & The Belmonts.
As it turned out, Dion didn’t initially care for the song, later recalling in an interview that it sounded “wimpy” and against-the-grain of the image of the group.
Nonetheless, Dion put his best “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” hurting on the song and it became a Top Ten hit for the group in the U.S. Upon release, two covers emerged in the UK and the song gained the unusual distinction of occupying 3 of the top twenty spots at once on the British chart. Its influence would later be documented by artists as diverse as Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon.
Pomus and Shuman, meanwhile went back to drawing board and, rumor has it, 24 hours later, had cranked out the “Little Star” / “All the Pretty Little Horses” -inspired “Hushabye.” It spent almost four months on the national charts and went on to be covered by The Beach Boys, who have proclaimed The Mystics’ version a heavy influence on their sound, as well as Jay & the Americans and Robert John. It remains the Mystics’ biggest hit and signature song to this day.
“Kiss Me Quick”
Hill & Range had what essentially amounted to an exclusive on Elvis Presley’s new material, acting as publisher of all of Elvis’s recordings, in partnership with the King himself (as well as, of course, the Colonel.) Still, by 1960, Pomus and Shuman had failed to get any traction writing for Presley. He had rejected “Turn Me Loose” which went on to become a hit for Fabian. Finally, they managed to place “A Mess of Blues” as a B-side to “It’s Now or Never.” It’s not entirely certain what transpired after they wrote “Kiss Me Quick” expressly for The Flamingos, but it is certain that the song never made it to the group.
After “Quick” got captured by the King, Doc and Mortie once again went into consolation prize mode and penned “Your Other Love.” The Flamingos happily recorded the composition and put their own (albeit Drifters-inspired) spin on the song. It went on to become one of The Flamingos last charted records before the original group splintered. It was also covered by both Dean Martin and Connie Francis.
Sources & Recommended Reading
Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson
Pomus & Shuman: Hitmakers Together & Apart by Graham Vickers
Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues by Joel Selvin