James Brown
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Billy Butler
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Terry Callier
Sam Cooke
King Curtis
The Drifters
Walter Jackson
Lou Johnson
Ben E King
Knight Brothers
Curtis Mayfield
Tony Middleton
Clyde McPhatter
Esther Phillips
Wilson Pickett
The Willows
Eugene Record

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In the early 50s, twin brothers Ralph and Joe Martin and Richard Davis who were students at the Chelsea Vocational High School in Harlem New York, formed a group called the Dovers. The Dovers built up a familiar repertoire of popular songs that they performed at neibourhood venues like the Rockland Palace, the Chelsea Vocational High. Tony (Wright) Middleton joined the group and shortly after, they changed their name to the 5 Willows. Their earliest recordings were with the Allen label, who issued ‘My Dear, Dearest Darling’ and though it sold well in NY, it did not reach the national R&B charts. The second single ‘Dolores’ didn’t catch on and so they tried a version of a NY vocal group favourite, ‘The White Cliffs Of Dover’ and predictably that also fell short of expectations. They moved to Herald who issued two singles in late ’54, both led by Richard Davis and despite good reviews, they also failed to chart. Herald did not want ‘Church Bells May Ring’ which they considered too gospel and dropped the Five Willows, who worked on without a label for the next two years. During this period Tony made a solo record ‘I'm On My Way’ but still performed with the group.
Tony was restored to lead for the Willows career hit ‘Church Bells May Ring’, when it was finally issued by Melba records in April ’56 and went to #11 R&B/62 pop on the singles charts. With this hit, the Willows established a larger following. They headlined a national tour and received some TV and radio exposure but they did not receive any payment from their record company. So they left the label and issued a lawsuit against Morty Croft who had just become sole owner of Melba. They cut a number of singles for small NY labels like El Dorado, Gone and Cub but could not get another hit, however due to the continuing popularity of ‘Church Bells…’ Tony & the Willows were almost constantly touring the East Coast cities from ‘56 for 18 months but by the end of ’57, after the failure of ‘Let’s Fall In Love’ on Gone, Middleton had enough and went solo. Richard ‘Scooter’ Davis (aka Rico) was called up and the other three Willows called it quits.
Two years later the Willows were reformed featuring Joe’s wife Dotty Martin as female lead. They recut ‘My Dear, Dearest Darling’ for Warwick and went out on the road to promote it. Over the following five years, they made several appearances (with some layoffs), members changed and gradually the original line-up (minus Tony) were back together. They made two fine singles for Heidi in ’64. ‘Tears In Your Eyes’ featured Dotty and Rico in duet and sold well enough in NY for the label to issue a second single ‘Sit By The Fire’. Both sides of this single were very like the Drifters, with Davis trying to capture the vocal inflections of Ben E King and Rudy Lewis. These two outings were the Willows last recordings and they stopped performing in ’65.
Promoter and Magazine publisher, Larry Marshak approached Tony to reform the Willows in 1970, in order to appear on his successful ‘oldies’ concerts held at the Academy of Music in New York. Tony, Rico, Ralph and Joe reformed as a quartet and performed together until late ’89. After appearing at the Valley Forge Music Theater in October ‘89, with a number of other oldies vocal groups that included the Chimes, Emotions, Sensations, Teenagers, Wrens and Delrons, the Willows finally and officially retired.

Peter Burns September ‘04

Other SoulMusicHQ references
Tony Middleton

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Full Biography
Photo and graphic scans

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