This song was written by Henry Warren and Al Dubin for the Busby Berkeley movie musical Dames in 1934, where it was introduced by Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Ben Selvin recorded it that same year and landed at #2 on the charts. The Flamingos recorded it in 1959, and it also appeared on the American Graffiti soundtrack from 1973.
Frank Sinatra recorded this in 1962 with the Count Basie Orchestra, and Johnny Mathis named an album after this song in 1976. The Count Basie Orchestra did it again in 1990 with George Benson; Art Garfunkel made a very romantic version on his 1975 Breakaway
album, which topped the UK chart and peaked at #18 in the US. The Lettermen did a version in 1966, and Jerry Butler covered it in 1972.
The Flamingos honed their vocals at the Church of God and Saints of Christ in Philadelphia, where there were no musical instruments, just voices. The songwriter/producer Phil Hurtt
, who also attended this church, told us: "If you listen to the harmonies of The Flamingos, you can hear one of the things that separated them from a lot of the Doo-Wop groups was their sound. Flamingos' sound was a smoother, accurate harmony. Their blend was awesome."
The Flamingos' version was arranged and co-produced by Terry "Buzzy" Johnson, a Baltimore native who joined the group as a first tenor in 1956. Fellow Flamingo Nate Nelson encouraged him to go crazy with the song, but he couldn't figure out what to do with it. All he knew was the other versions were way too vanilla for his taste. The answer finally came to him in a dream. He told Sound on Sound:
"I was laying down in my room with the guitar on my chest, playing around with the chords, but no matter what I tried it just didn't fit. Finally, it was about 12 or one in the morning, and I was so tired that I fell asleep, and in my dream I heard 'I Only Have Eyes For You' just the way it came out on our record. I heard the 'doo-bop sh-bop' [backing vocals], I heard the way the harmony would sound - I heard the harmony so clear, and I heard the structure of the chords. As soon as I woke up, I grabbed the guitar off my chest and it was like God put my fingers just where they were supposed to be. I played those chords and I heard the harmonies, and so I called the guys. I woke them all up and I said, 'Come over to my room right now! I've got 'I Only Have Eyes For You'!'
They were like, 'Are you crazy? It's almost four o'clock!' and I said, 'I need you all now, otherwise I may not be able to remember.' So they came to my room, all of them grumbling, and when they heard me do it they looked at me like, 'What the hell is this?' They laughed at me: 'What's 'doo-bop sh-bop, goo-bop sh-bop, boo-bop sh-bop, loo-bop sh-bop, shoo-bop sh-bop"?' You see, although in my dream it was 'doo-bop sh-bop', I had everybody doing a different thing, changing things around to make sure no one could really pick out what we were saying."
George Goldner, who produced the track with Johnson, didn't think it was commercial enough to be a single, so the group kept it as an album track and recorded a cover of Russ Columbo's "Goodnight Sweetheart" for the first single. That is, until DJs got wind of "I Only Have Eyes For You" and changed their mind.
Jake Carey (bass) was the shortest member of the group, which made it difficult when he couldn't reach the mic at the same level as the other guys during the recording session, where the music and vocals were being recorded simultaneously. To his dismay, they asked him to stand on a stack of phone books. "He was mad as hell," Johnson told Sound on Sound. "He said, 'I'm not a midget!' but we told him, 'We're not going to bend our necks down to suit you. The mic has got to be at a certain level for all of us.' So, we put Jake on three or four phone books and that's how we recorded, with the background singers on one mic and the lead guy on another."
Art Garfunkel performed his rendition on the second episode of Saturday Night Live, which aired on October 18, 1975 and was hosted by Paul Simon.
The Flamingos' version was featured in several movies, including the 1983 astronaut drama The Right Stuff, starring Ed Harris, and the drag racing drama Heart Like a Wheel, also in 1983.
It also prominently appeared in the 1991 comedy Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead during a romantic beach scene with Christina Applegate and Josh Charles, and in the 1991 drama My Girl, starring Anna Chlumsky and Macaulay Culkin. It was used in the 1993 Robert De Niro film A Bronx Tale and in the 2003 romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give, starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton.
The '90s hip-hop group the Fugees sampled this on "Zealots" from their 1996 album, The Score.