Eden Ahbez wrote nearly a thousand songs during his long lifetime.
Less than a hundred, however, made their way to vinyl. During my twenty years researching Ahbez’s life and work, I’ve known about a song titled “Green Flamingo” for more than half that time. I’d previously thought, however, that it was never released.
The vinyl copy I have of “Green Flamingo” is released on Chattahoochee Records and is marked for radio as the A-side. (The B-side is titled “Another Show, Another Town,” and is not credited to Ahbez.)
“Flamingo” is by a singer named Robie Lester, written by “Shanklin-Abez-Esmond,” produced by J.R. Shanklin.
First of all, Robie Lester (1925-2005) was a singer and voice-over actress best known for her role as Mrs. Claus in the 1970 Rankin and Bass stop-motion animated film Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. Lester also narrated many storybook LPs for Disneyland Records, recorded ad jingles throughout the 1960s and was a demo singer for producers like Herb Alpert and Henry Mancini, among others. How she met Eden Ahbez and came to record his song in 1965 is not something I know at this time.
As to the writer credits, I may be able to do a little better.
Ahbez and “Shanklin” first worked together during the mid-1950s. The Shanklin in mention is one Wayne Shanklin (1916-1970), best known for Top 40 fare like “Jezebel,” “Chanson d’Amour (Song of Love),” “The Big Hurt” and “Primrose Lane.” Though these songs sound pretty square by today’s standard, Wayne was apparently something of a proto-hippie, and a kindred spirit to Ahbez, according to soul singer Dobie Gray.
“I knew Eden Ahbez,” Gray told Mike Ragogna of the Huffington Post in 2008, “and he was a hippie… so was Wayne Shanklin… They all had their hair long, and they were all clustered in that area around Sunset and Vine [in Hollywood].”
Ahbez and Shanklin first published a tune titled “Hey Jacque” in 1954. It was recorded by Eartha Kitt later that year. The pair co-wrote another song together in 1960—“Star of Love”—which Shanklin’s daughter Martha sang for a 45 produced by her father on Yankee Doodle Records.
It might be assumed then that “Green Flamingo” was just the next thing Shanklin and Ahbez got recorded together. Perhaps not.
I recently found a lead-sheet to “Green Flamingo” that pre-dates the 1965 single by eight years. And guess what? It doesn’t credit Wayne Shanklin anywhere.
When I interviewed Wayne’s son Michael Shanklin in 2007, he said that an acetate for “Green Flamingo” was in his possession, though he didn’t remember the details of how the song came to be. Perhaps this acetate is different than the final single version. For now, however, we just don’t know. Michael Shanklin has seemingly dropped off the face of the earth; none of his contact numbers are working and even the unions don’t know how to reach him today.
Alas, a few questions remain.
One: Who is Lee Esmond? And how did he know Eden Ahbez?
In all my years of research, “Green Flamingo” is the only song I’ve ever seen credited to a Lee Esmond. I’ve never found another copyright or piece of vinyl credited to this mysterious songwriter. And yet he and Ahbez copyrighted “Green Flamingo” together in 1957 and did so without mentioning Wayne Shanklin anywhere.
A copyright of “Green Flamingo” was submitted to the Library of Congress for a second time… in 1965… and therein Shanklin’s name appears first in the credits. So what changed?
It’s hard to say. The original lead-sheet (shown above) is pretty bare bones, as lead-sheets usually are. It calls the song a “blues,” likely Ahbez’s note, as the sheet is penned in his handwriting.
My hunch is that “Green Flamingo” was written with a pop or R&B artist in mind in 1957. The 1965 version is definitely not R&B, though it is pop, maybe what I’d best describe as pop/bossa-nova. Lester’s vocals are cool, subtle and sensual. The arrangement is warm and mellow. It’s a great tune. But is this change in temperament due to Wayne Shanklin’s influence? What did Mr. Shanklin add to the 1965 version that wasn’t already present on the 1957 sheet music?
And what about that name: “J.R. Shanklin”?
I have it on word from Wayne’s daughter Barb that J.R. Shaklin is her brother, making him Wayne’s son, and making “Green Flamingo” another family affair.
J.R., in fact, produced several quality pop-psych singles in Hollywood during the mid-to-late ’60s—including some on White Whale Records, home of the Turtles. It’s a pity he didn’t do more—he’s got less than ten singles by my count—as he’s got a terrific ear.
In the end, “Green Flamingo” is another great addition to the Ahbez canon. It also fills in yet another gap in the “lost years” of the songwriter—the mid-to-late ’60s—where information about his life remains decidedly scant.