I had a great visit with Tony Middleton and caught a superb performance at one of his New York hot spots, the refurbished Kitano room. Later this year there are more additions planned for the Artists, Drifters and Impressions sections. I’m still missing the late great ‘In the Basement’ magazine that recently ended its illustrious run but editor David Cole is posting reviews and info on the web so follow him on http://www.basement-group.co.uk/Site/ITB_CD_Reviews.html Earshot 20 should be ready early next year – the plan is to get back to three webzines a year. Some time ago I was recommending a series of 5 album sets issued by Avid Records that are still running. Another great way to collect your favourite music is an alternative 8 albums on CD series being issued by Real Gone Records for around £5 to £15 that include Jackie Wilson, Bo Diddley, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, James Brown, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Tamla - Motown 1961 and many more great Pop, Rock and Jazz artists – check ‘em out!
New York Doo Wop group the Willows were riding high on the Billboard R&B singles chart with ‘Church Bells May Ring’ in April 1956 and it continued to sell well right through that summer and would eventually become a bona fide classic, making them honorary members of the Doo Wop Hall of Fame in 2011. ‘Church Bells May Ring’s’ popularity kept the guys touring, on radio and TV (on Dick Clark’s Bandstand in Philadelphia and on a similar TV shows in Ohio and all points East) for the next 18 months. They made several appearances at Harlem’s Apollo but success for the Willows did not come easy. When they first began, they were very young and not slick enough to beware of the deceiving ways of the record label owners and entrepreneurs of the New York music business. They trusted these people and despite writing most of their songs themselves, one of which was a big national hit, they were cheated out of their royalties, poorly represented and generally mismanaged. They were never booked on a national tour of the USA despite having a million selling record that became a celebrated and much recorded classic of the Doo Wop era. The Willows story really began back at the dawning of the ‘50s when twin brothers Ralph and Joe Martin and Richard Davis had the idea of forming their own vocal group. They were all students at the Chelsea Vocational High School in Harlem, New York, and they called their first group the Dovers. The guys would rehearse at the Martin’s West 115th St. home and during this period other local boys like Dock Green, Wilbur ‘Yonkie’ Paul, Bobby Robinson, Bobby Saunders and John King moved in and out of the line up. John ‘Scooter’ Steele replaced Dock when he left to join the Five Crowns and became a regular member of the group. The Dovers put together a familiar repertoire of popular songs, they counted the Dominoes and the Orioles among their inspirations but they always wanted to write and perform their own original material. After they had rehearsed their songs they would go to Mitchell’s, (a small local recording studio) and cut demos. They performed at neighbourhood venues like the Rockland Palace, Chelsea Vocational High, Savoy Manor, Long Island and other provincial hops. Local boy Tony Wright joined the group and shortly afterwards they changed their name to the Five Willows.
Their earliest recordings were made with the Allen label, who released ‘My Dear, Dearest Darling’ that sold well in New York but did not reach the national R&B charts. Label co-owner Pete Doraine (with Victor Allen) became their manager and publicist and pretty soon their records began to create some interest down the East Coast. The second single ‘Dolores’ didn’t catch on either and so they tried a version of a New York vocal group favourite, ‘The White Cliffs Of Dover’ and predictably that also fell short of expectations. Doraine persisted with a fourth single ‘Love Bells’ and that became the only issue on his PeeDee label. He ran out of money and quickly went out of business disappearing with their royalties. (The ‘Love Bells’ single is now a highly sought after collectable). The Five Willows moved to Al Silver’s Herald Records who issued two singles in late ’54 ‘Lay Your Head On My Shoulder’ and ‘Look Me In The Eyes’, both led by Richard Davis but despite good reviews and local interest, they still had no luck on the charts. Herald considered their song ‘Church Bells May Ring’ too gospel and would not release it. They dropped the Five Willows, who worked on without a label for almost two years. However, although they didn’t stop working for the fifteen months between Herald and Melba their gigs did slow down. They appeared within the 200-mile radius New York, sometimes in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, with Doraine out of the picture their bookings were handled by the Jimmy Evans Agency and to keep things going three group members found jobs in the garment industry.The guys decided to drop the ‘Five’ from their name after playing one or two gigs as a quartet. Then John Steele’s family, probably thinking that it was curtains for the Willows, determined that he would no longer sing with the group and sent him to live in Washington DC with relatives. Tony, always one to keep his options open, cut his debut solo single ‘I’m On My Way/ Lover, Lover’ for Morty Craft’s Saxony label as Tony Middleton. Craft liked Middleton and wanted to record the Willows on ‘Church Bells May Ring’, which now ran at a faster tempo. The group tried to get ‘Scooter’ back for the upcoming session but had no luck, so went in search of a replacement and found two bass men. Richard Simon, who sang on ‘Church Bells May Ring’ and Freddy Donovan who sang on the remaining two tracks ‘Baby Tell Me’ and another version of ‘My Dear, Dearest Darling’ - Freddy became the permanent group replacement. The Willows unwisely signed recording and management deals with Craft and he took them into the studio. Tony sang lead on what would become the Willows career hit ‘Church Bells May Ring’, when it was finally issued by Melba records in April 1956, it went to #11 R&B /62 pop on the singles charts. This gave them instantly good media exposure. Due to a typographic error the original releases read ‘Church Bells Are Ringing’ but it was soon corrected on subsequent pressings and this made the earlier singles instantly collectable. As an added gimmick Craft dubbed bell chimes (played by the 16 year old Neil Sedaka of the Tokens) onto the take after the session. Billboard recommended ’Church Bells May Ring’ as record of the week and as their sales climbed so did their bookings and media appearances.
Though they never really left the Eastern seaboard, the Willows travelled to Philadelphia, Ohio, appeared on Phil McLain’s Show on WERE in Cleveland and Dick Reynolds’ Show on WHHK in Akron. There was some confusion outside New York where they hadn’t yet been seen that the Willows were a white group. They returned to New York to start a 10-day engagement on Alan Freed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Easter Show at the Brooklyn Paramount and here they shared a stage with the Platters, the Cleftones, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, the Flamingos and many more, things seemed to be moving into the big time for them. The guys cut a second session for Melba in mid ’56 and the company issued their follow up ‘Do You Love Me/ My Angel’. After this session the guys discovered something that must have taken the shine off their success when Morty Craft announced that he had sold 50% ‘Church Bells May Ring’s’ publishing to Hill & Range. Before he had initially issued ‘Church Bells …’ Craft had insisted on receiving a 50% cut of the song’s writing credits. This was a common but unscrupulous practice used by too many sharp operators that effectively deprived the Willows of their fair share of royalties. In fact it soon emerged that Craft and his partner Ray Maxwell had retained all the copyright to this recording and the Willows received no royalties at all. They had effectively been cut out of the deal altogether. The Willows abruptly left the label, hired a lawyer and issued a lawsuit against Melba and Morty Craft. Meanwhile because their record had been doing so well, two other groups the Diamonds and the Cadets covered ‘Church Bells May Ring’ and singer Sunny Gale - this was competition they didn’t need. But on the back of the Willows records success Craft was offered an executive post with Mercury Records.
The Willows licked their wounds and moved on. They recorded their next single ‘This Is The End’, a great soulful ballad that featured Tony’s vocal and some superb King Curtis sax licks, on Club records. Danny Terry captured one of the Willows finest performances, which displayed a step forward in their evolution as a group – this recording was a career highpoint. The record received positive reviews and the Willows went on the road to promote it. A week or so later when they returned from Boston they were shocked to learn of Terry’s tragic death. Their new producer and writer of ‘This Is The End’ had been murdered on the streets of Greenwich Village and as a result of his sudden departure, their new label closed down within a short time preventing any chances of further sales. Author Todd R Baptista interviewed the Willows in 1996 and wrote about their dismay and grief at Terry’s murder. He reported that they had fond memories of Terry, believed that he had their best interests at heart and thought that he would have been good for the group’s future. They gave a tribute performance for his girlfriend and family on Thanksgiving 1956. Carl Edelson, the Club label owner formed a new label Michele in 1962 and reissued ‘This Is The End’ as his first release but it was all too late to register much positive recognition.
When they signed to Eldorado in early ’57 their new label billed them as Tony Middleton & the Willows and the group cut a catchy ballad ‘The First Taste Of Love’ that received a lot of good radio play. Producers and label owners Bill Buchanan & Dickie Goodman had a lot of recent success with a novelty recording of ‘The Flying Saucer’ on their other label Luniverse. It reached #3 on the Billboard’s Hot 100 in August 1956 and they followed on with two further hit singles in 1957. They used arranger Ray Ellis to create the lush sound behind the Willows and a white female trio as well as the group in an attempt to pick up some pop sales. The other Willows resented Middleton’s top billing and this caused some friction within the group as it always does when the lead gets top billing. Right after its release they went to Philadelphia to appear at the big venue Mastbaum Theatre. Also included on that bill were Eddie Cochran, Bullmoose Jackson, Gene Vincent & the Blue Caps and Nappy Brown. This single sold reasonably well in New York and so Morty Craft, who was still running Melba at that time, released a Willows single ‘Little Darlin’/ My Angel l’ in ’57 but again they received no royalties and Craft was declared bankrupt a short time later. The Willows case had dragged on for months and eventually Craft made a settlement that only provided $200 for each of the five Willows. ‘Church Bells May Ring’ eventually sold over a million records. During the late forties MGM, one of the biggest major labels had wanted to expand their market from movie soundtracks but had been struggling to keep up with current trends and they hired Morty Craft as Director of Single Sales to invigorate their position in the pop market. According to an interview in 2004 with author John Broven, Craft said that he was responsible for creating hits for Tommy Edwards (‘It’s All In The Game’), Sheb Wooley (‘Purple People Eater’), Connie Francis (Who’s Sorry Now’ and ‘Stupid Cupid’) and Conway Twitty (‘It’s Only Make Believe) among others. When Craft worked for MGM during the ‘50s he also formed a number of his own independent labels. Morty was a shrewd operator; he bought out his partner at Melba before going bankrupt. He sidestepped any serious financial loss and reactivated Melba in 1972 and then again in 1989. In between times he went on to create the Warwick label, Craft, Ster-O-Craft and Ronnex.
The Eldorado label went under but the guys were still writing good songs and producer Sid Wyche liked ‘Laisy Daisy’ and ‘Fooled By Her Kisses’ which he thought Mercury might release. He put together a session using Fats Domino’s Band and they cut the songs with Tony leading on both sides. For reasons as yet unknown the Mercury deal fell through and the tapes disappeared. Uncle Sam called up Richard Davis in August 1958 and the Willows went down to a quartet. Due to the continuing popularity of ‘Church Bells…’ Tony and the Willows were still touring the East Coast cities, however by the end of ‘57 time seemed to be running out for the group, who needed another hit single. George Goldner, who had a good ear for a hit and had been a co-owner of Eldorado put them on another of his label’s Gone Records. At that time George owned (and co-owned) several other labels including Gee Records, where he had much success with Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers and the Cleftones. Goldner liked the Willows and thought he could get a hit with this group. There seems to be some uncertainty of the exact date that the Willows - Tony, Ralph, Joe and Freddy cut what turned out to be their final single - a great reworking of Arlen/ Koehler’s ‘Let’s Fall In Love’. The flipside ‘Say Yeah’ sounded more like Rock ’n’ Roll than Doo Wop and both featured some distinctive tenor sax work. This commercial upbeat single had an infectious sound that surprisingly just didn’t catch on. Shortly after this session Tony left for his solo career, he had been recording demos on his own for various song publishers and in November ’58 he cut four solo tracks for Herb Abramson’s Triumph label. After an appearance at The Gala Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue in the Cooper Community Centre with the Inspirations, Versatones and the Jesters the remaining Willows called it quits.
A year later the Willows reformed featuring Joe’s wife Dotty Martin (ex Creations) as female lead. They recut ‘My Dear, Dearest Darling’ for Warwick and went out on the road to promote it. Why they went back with Morty Craft is hard to comprehend, perhaps they were under the illusion that they might get some of their money back but this time they didn’t make enough for Craft to fleece them again. Over the following five years, they made several appearances (with some layoffs), members changed and gradually the original line-up with Richard and Freddy returning (minus Tony) came back together. After Richard had served his time in the Army he returned to New York and contacted Tony who suggested he rehearse with two of Middleton’s friends Ollie Jones (x Cues) and James Steward Jr. (x Ravens) and set him up with a solo shot. Using Middleton, Jones and Steward Jr. for his backup group Richard cut a novelty number ‘Gingerbread’ c/w a ballad ‘Save Your Love For Me’ in mid 1960 and it was released on Roland Palette’s Palette label (that was distributed by Jubilee) later that year. After appearances in Detroit, Davis made a swift return to the Willows and three years later they made their final recordings for Heidi (a short lived Atlantic subsidiary) in August 1964. Two fine singles were issued that were both produced by Tom Dowd and arranged by Bert Keyes. ‘Tears in Your Eyes’ featured Dotty and Richard in duet and sold well enough in New York for the label to issue a second single ‘Sit By The Fire’. Both sides of this single sounded a bit like the Drifters, with Davis trying to capture the vocal inflections of Ben E King and Rudy Lewis to great effect. These two outings were the Willows last recordings and they stopped performing again in 1965.
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, Richard, Ralph and Joe would continue to perform on special occasions. Coming together again in the early ‘80s to play at Revere Beach, south of Boston. Tony recalled that the host of the evening was DJ Little Walter DeVenne and it was on this occasion that they were asked to perform ‘Now That I Have You’ a ballad recorded by another (West Coast) Willows group on 4 Star in 1961 that had caused some confusion in the past. They liked the record and did so, with Richard taking the lead. John ‘Scooter’ Steele returned and the original five members sang together at Burlington County College marathon concert in Pemberton, New Jersey in September 1983 alongside the Ravens, Spaniels, Jive Five, Falcons, Swallows, Limelites and many others. The Willows performed seven songs from their back catalogue. I’ve never seen it - but according to Davis this was the earliest film shot of the original Five Willows
The quartet reunited again in 1998 and through wonders of modern technology can be seen on YouTube dated that year singing their classic ‘Church Bells May Ring’ with Tony Joe, Ralph and Richard performing in dark suits. The Willows often played in New York, they appeared at Westbury Music Fair, the American Music Theatre, PA and the Tarrytown Music Hall at the start of the new millennium. Renewed interest in the Willows was brought about by an appearance on a PBS-TV special, ‘Red White & Rock’ in 2002 produced by TJ Lubinski. They went on to perform in two subsequent PBS shows over the next six years, one of which was introduced by Jerry Butler and features the Dreamlovers, the Dixie Cups and the Willows performing together on the Wedding Medley. On YouTube there are many clips of different videos of ‘Church Bells May Ring’ by the Willows in live performance, one wearing off white suits - Tony, the Martin brothers and Richard Davis. Legendary radio personality, Cousin Brucie Morrow was one of the hosts on this show, whose book, Doo Wop: The Music, the Times, the Era sited ‘Church Bells May Ring’ as one of the top 100 Doo Wop songs of all time. A later line up with Tony, Ralph, Richard and Desi appeared on My Music: Doo Wop Love Songs (on YouTube in white jackets/ black pants). Also featured are many of the covers of the Willows original by the Cadets, Diamonds and the Four Seasons (see below for more detail). ‘Church Bells May Ring’ certainly remains one of the most memorable Doo Wop Classics of all time.
The Willows opened the season show at the Garden State Arts Centre, NJ to over 7,000 people on 21 May 2010. The audience positively responded to Tony’s greetings and set the pace for the rest of the Doo Wop Show. For this appearance the Willows were Tony, Richard Green, Bill Carey (from the Continentals) and Desi Edwards-Middleton. This was a Dick Fox show featuring many Legends of the Doo Wop world. The last original member of the Willows (other than Tony) Richard Davis retired and though there was no official replacement the Willows line up changed from show to show. In November 2011 this same line-up played a concert in Hauppauge, NY, which was part of a 2-day gala, This amazing show featured the Cadillacs, Capris, Passions, Tom Duffy, the Harptones, Fireflies, Heartbeats, Aquatones, Mello-Kings, Jimmy Clanton, Norman Fox, Joe Villa, the Jarmels, Wrens, Jimmy Charles, the Excellents, Classic Sounds, and Dennis Dorrity. The show started at 6pm and ended at Midnight. The following day seventeen different acts performed. Some of the audience stayed for two days and came from as wide a field as the UK, Australia, France, South Africa and all over the USA.
Photos credits include: Paul Harris, Barry Dixon, Seamus McGarvey, Kristen Baptista, Kreigsmann Studio
The Willows Sessions and info compiled by Peter Burns
the drifters legends
For those like me who were disappointed by the demise of the Drifters and the rise of the boy band that was constructed to take their place and their name. The Drifters name/ mark that is currently owned by their present manager Tina Treadwell (the third in the Treadwell dynasty). If you share my loss maybe you can take some comfort from a group called the Drifters Legends. This group has emerged in the past couple of years due mainly through the work of Butch Leake, who sang with the Drifters (Johnny Moore, Bill Fredericks, Don Thomas and later Grant Kitchings) between 1971-’76. He was a member of the group when they successfully set up a base in the UK and had several hits on Bell/ Arista Records in the early seventies. Butch also cut a solo record for the Superbad label after leaving the Drifters before returning to New York and you can catch up with him on http://butchleake-ct.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/drifters-drifters-legends-on-roadthe.html or longer term Drifters fans might like to take an active part in the Drifters Legends Clubhouse on
Several ex Drifters have been associated with this eminent Legends cluster - Bobby Hendricks, Joe Blunt, Rick Sheppard, the late Wolf Johnson and Clyde Brown and plans are unfolding for the Drifters Legends imminent appearances in the USA and UK plus plans to record an album. This truly could be a very positive development in the Drifters chronicle and I’m sure I am not alone in looking forward to seeing and hearing this seasoned alternative to those other Drifters models currently on offer. (peter burns)
tony middleton at kitanos in new york
I think that this was the first Sunday that Kitanos had opened their Jazz Room since it’s recent refurbishment. The room is a very comfortable space with great acoustics and it seats perhaps fifty. Tony Middleton, Jesse Elder on piano and Kenji Yoshitake on double bass were all on excellent form and it made for a very relaxed atmosphere. Between songs Tony wandered through the room chatting to the guests and the songs on offer that day included ‘In The Still Of The Night’, ‘All The Way’, ‘Thai Silk’, ‘Moon River’, ‘Close Your Eyes’, ‘It’s Almost Like Being In Love’, ‘Wonderful World’, ‘Weekend In Paris’, ‘Changing Partners’, ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine’, ‘Yesterday’, ‘Blues You Can’t Have Me Tonight’, ‘Cabin In The Sky’ and ‘Untouchable’. Tony’s distinctive voice is still in great shape, better than many of his contemporaries like Tony Bennett for instance who enjoys far wider success. Someone from RCA should take Clive Davis down one Sunday and I’m sure he would put Tony on his Urban Jazz outlet. With a little more exposure Mr. Middleton would definitely find a larger audience sympatico – the man is a legend.
I spent a very pleasant afternoon in the company of Tony and his manager Phyllis Cortese and learned even more about his colourful past and at their request I will be editing some my many previous writings and after a series of specific interviews will attempt a biography on this influential but under rated R&B/ Jazz icon that should ready in late 2013. If you are in New York some Sunday soon it would be foolish not to catch Tony at Kitano’s and enjoy the great breakfast that comes with the price of your ticket. (peter burns)