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Tony Middleton was born 26 June 1934 in Richmond, Virginia where he grew up and went to school. In the mid 50s, when he was in his late teens Tony moved with his mother to New York. He excelled at sports and he boxed as an amateur into his early twenties. Tony joined the 5 Willows in ’52 and became their lead singer, recording and performing with them until late ‘57 when he went solo. Though Middleton recorded more than 30 solo singles he also cut many more demos and commercials. His voice was used on a movie score when he moved to Paris and his name has been linked with some of the biggest names in the business like Burt Bacharach, Michel Legrand, Stan Applebaum, Leiber & Stoller, Johnny Pate and Klaus Ogermann etc.
His first solo outings after leaving the Willows were ‘I Just Want Somebody’ and ‘Blackjack’ as two singles in ’59. Tony was a face in New York, he had been hustling in the music business for ten years, writing songs, doing deals, in and out of the Brill Building and he was always sharpening his contacts. He recorded the standard ‘Unchained Melody’ with ex Drifters arranger Stan Applebaum for Big Top in 1960 and Alto Records released ‘Untouchable’ a glorious ballad with Tony in top voice. Later in ’61 he tried again with Roulette and ‘I’m Gonna Try Love One More Time’ but none of these records meant much outside New York. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller produced ‘Drifting’ for Middleton in ’62 that had a distinct Ben E King feel to it, reminiscent of ‘On The Horizon’. A couple of months later ‘My Home Town’ a typical mid tempo Big Apple soul sound of the time was issued by Alfa. But he couldn’t get a hit record, so he packed his bags and moved to Paris, France in ‘62.
Middleton cut his first French session with Michel Legrand, who wrote the score for Joseph Losey’s movie ‘Eva’ which starred Jeanne Moreau and Stanley Baker. Tony’s contribution was the glorious vocal on ‘Adam & Eve’ that was featured in the movie and was issued on a Phillips EP in Europe and the UK. Phillips also issued two US singles stateside in ’63 and ’64 ‘Send Me Away’ and ‘Too Hot To Handle’ but with little to no promotion, they went the way of his earlier sides. While in Paris, Tony shortened his surname to Milton and cut a number of well known songs like ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ and ‘Comin’ Home Baby’, under the direction of US guitarist Mickey Baker that were only issued in France. Of these recordings Tony later said “Yeah, they wanted a Ray Charles kinda thing so that’s what I tried to give ‘em”.
When Tony had tired of Europe he returned to New York determined to get a hit at home and he very nearly did this with his next single the powerful ‘You Spoiled My Reputation’ that was issued by ABC. This self-penned slowish ballad was swathed in a sumptuous arrangement by Johnny Pate. Burt Bacharach was sufficiently impressed to record Tony on ‘My Little Red Book’ that became his first UK single. Next came the great and perhaps reflective ‘Paris Blues’, one of Tony’s best recordings. Middleton toured America and was constantly working in NY but things began to slow down and releases were less frequent. ‘Spanish Maiden’ another great side, was issued twice, once on Storm and then on Speed and Tony was rumoured to have cut an album From The Street on Speed in 1970 but if it exists at all, it’s a rarity.
Middleton reformed the Willows to perform a series of ‘oldies’ concerts at the Academy of Music in ’70 and once they began working together again, it rekindled both theirs and their audience’s interest. Along came a golden opportunity for that elusive solo hit in ’72 when he linked up with Klaus Ogermann once again, to cut the superb ‘Don’t Ever Leave Me’. The critics were unanimous in their praise when it was issued by MGM and sales in New York looked promising but it didn’t make it into the charts, even though it was nominated for a Grammy that year. Tony rejoined the Willows once again and toured with them for a decade.
Tony Middleton may never have found that big hit that he was searching for (except ‘Church Bells May Ring’ with the Willows) but he made a series of great records. No one has yet reset these Middleton gems in a contemporary setting. His singles (and EPs) are all collectable now and are financially out of reach for most fans and many of the early singles were pressed in small numbers and are rare and almost impossible to find. A few have been reissued but still his records are not plentiful. No official CD compilation has been released on Tony Middleton and I have never seen a collection album. With so many different labels it would probably be a licensing nightmare but where there’s vinyl there’s still hope.

Peter Burns September ’04

Sources: Interview with Tony Middleton London October ‘99

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Recommended reading
Group Harmony: Behind The Rhythm And The Blues by Todd R. Baptista – Published by TRB /96

Recommended listening
Spotlight On Melba Records Vol 1- Melba /95
The Best Of The Five Willows (24) – Allen SCD 6000