Well here it is at last, earshot 16 in another bumper issue just in time for Christmas. The news has just been announced that former Stax executive Al Bell and one time owner of Stax Records will receive the Grammy Trustee Award on 12 February 2011, the highest honour given by the Recording Academy. This is nothing less than he deserves. Bell is now chair of the Memphis Music Foundation at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. For the past 50 years Solomon Burke has been such a powerful force in Soul Music that it is difficult to imagine how his legendry contributions to the genre will not be greatly missed. In these austere times I would like to wish all readers A Merry Christmas and a Happy 2011. Don’t let the Con-dems grind you down.
the tony middleton sessions - two
The French never really got a handle on Soul Music as a nation, nor Rock ‘n’ Roll come to that
(except for Johnny Hallyday). Their singers who made an international connection - Richard Anthony, Edith Piaf, Juliet Greco, Charles Aznavour, Serge Gainsbourg, Francoise Hardy etc didn’t fit comfortably into this musical genre. But in Paris they did get into Ray Charles, after he appeared there in 1955 (watch his ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’ on You Tube) and again five years later. They do love Jazz though and Ray had enough of that in his music to appeal. Of course the French believe that they invented Jazz via New Orleans, then Chicago and the world but that’s another long and complicated story. So the creative visionaries at Atlantic Records in New York took the unusual step of opening a Paris office in the mid ‘50s and Ray Charles records sold very well there. So well in fact that in 1962 a budding French promoter Phillipe DeBarge went to New York to try to hire Ray to do some concerts back in Paris. This didn’t materialize but he must have thought he’d struck gold when he discovered Tony Middleton at the Turf Restaurant and after hearing him sing, offered to send a free ticket to Paris. Tony, who despite cutting some great records had not managed to have a big hit and was looking to make a change to something better so this is how he made his move to Paris and an extraordinary bid to find fame and fortune there. Kurt Mohr the famous French/ Swiss discographer and music journalist takes up the story - “I was working for Odeon Records, taking care of the foreign repertoire and doing “ye ye” sessions when the guy from Versailles label asks me would I help out his secretary, interviewing a guy, speaks only English for a bio you know. Chick’s nice, so yeah, why not? Next thing we’re over to his pad and Monique introduces me to a grinning Mr. Middleton. He’s a singer and has been featured at one of those exclusive clubs and they want to do some promotion and a record session. Yeah, why not? I don’t know nothing about him (and so does nobody else) but there’s a record laying around with his name, on Alfa; never seen this label before, but this smells like R&B. I start groovin’ ever so lightly and Mr. Middleton can’t make up his mind whether it’s worse to have a square Frenchman on his back or a nutty discographer, so I try to ease his dilemma. He, being a nice guy, tries to remember all his records for me and possible personnels (Oh Lord!) and in return I’ll see that he can get a nice session together, with Mickey Baker (sure he knows of him!)”.
McHouston ‘Mickey’ Baker was of course the prolific New York session guitarist who appeared on many a hit from the mid ‘50s onwards. Not to mention his own chart topper ‘Love Is Strange’ and ‘There Oughta Be A Law’ as Mickey & Sylvia on Groove and Vik. He had emigrated to Paris a few months earlier. Kurt fills us in “Two weeks later we have his session scheduled for 5pm. With Mickey we go pick him up at another session where he’s doing a title for the Movie soundtrack of ‘Adam & Eve’. Michel Legrand is always a gas to me and I discover that Tony has a most exciting gravel voice and for an ‘unknown’ he sure knows how to take care of business.” ‘Eva’ was a British movie shot in Venice and France by director Joseph Losey in 1962. The ‘Adam & Eve’ song appeared on the soundtrack and was issued in France and the UK by Phillips on an EP but not in America. Kurt continued to recollect - “Tony seems not displeased at the recognition and Mickey is mulling things over in his mind as we drive over to the next studio. Contrary to French habits, he wants to record everyone together, band, choir and Tony on top of it – no overdubbing. Yeah, we had some slight trouble in getting optimum balance, but baby, I’ll never forget all those faces of everyone, when they heard themselves wailing on that rompin’ and stompin’ arrangement of ‘Meet Me At Madison Square’. Yes, these are French chicks shoutin’ like out of amen corner, and it didn’t take ‘em long to get the knack of it. As for ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ (not my favorite kind of tune), I still think it beats Ray Charles’ version by being more gritty. Soul music wasn’t popular in France at the time and Tony was still strictly unknown outside the chosen dozen habitués of his night club.” Versailles shortened Tony’s surname to Milton but the first EP, packaged to look like a ‘live’ recording, ‘Tony Milton a L’Epi- Club’ didn’t catch on though the company were sufficiently impressed to front another session. It was at this Parisian club owned by Madame Castel that Tony had his residence making 3 or 4 appearances a week - mostly at weekends. Many celebs came to visit him there including Thelonious Monk, Marlene Dietrich, "Moustache" (locally famous owner of the restaurant of the same name), Nancy Holloway, Bridgette Bardot, Edith Piaf and Sal Mineo turned up one night to sit in on drums. Middleton also headlined at the Alhambra Theatre and when he wasn’t working frequented the Mars Club, the Blue Note and the Lido, making many guest appearances at each venue. He stayed at the Hotel De La Paix before he found an apartment in Montparnasse on the Left Bank and often dined at La Tabla his favourite restaurant with visiting friends. As Kurt reported - “We did another session for Versailles and again it was the same gas. Tony was literally dancing and swinging around his mike, always managing to squeeze his face in the right place at the right moment, to the delight and excitement of everyone concerned. And you just dig Georges Arvanitas cutting loose with a memorable organ solo on ‘Comin’ Home Baby’. Yeah it was another good session”. All three EPs had disappointing sales and were soon deleted. Despite several trips to the Paris flea markets, at Kurt’s suggestion, I was never lucky enough to find either of the Versailles records.
Tony also made an appearance in an all-French movie ‘Nous Irons à Deauville’ (We Will Go To Deauville) singing ‘Oh Yeah Ah Ah’ a track he’d recently cut for Versailles Records. The movie was directed by Francis Rogaud and starred Sacha Distel and Colette Castel, it was released in 1962 but was not shown outside France. However Middleton’s appearance can be viewed on YouTube and in addition to Tony’s great rendition features some interesting hand jivin’. Kurt opined - “On the few of his American recordings I’ve heard, Tony seems to be criminally mismanaged – dreary string arrangements and the like. I am sure that with the right A&R man and given the right kind of material, he could become in no time one of today’s greatest great soul singers, right beside Wilson Pickett, Chuck Jackson and Solomon Burke”. Tony has a broader musical scope than either of the greats that Kurt mentioned and by 1968 when the original article was published he still had many of his greatest recordings to cutand his vocal talents still had more time to fully mature but in the near future he would soon match those artists best recordings with the finest arrangers and producers of all time. Mohr and Baker continued their association and when Kurt moved to Odeon Records so did Mickey and together they made and released a string of singles for the label. During his time in Paris Tony was written up in ‘Paris Match’ and had a wonderful time. The French took to him very well and threw a number of parties in his honour. Other than Paris and Deauville he didn’t get to see much more of France but did often visit The Black Angel and Le Moulin Rouge (Restaurant) in Belgium. In Tony’s own words “The French were fabulous - I had the time of my life”.
The magnetic power of New York drew Tony back after 2 years away from home. His Parisian recording legacy had provided artistic highlights but commercial disappointment. None of these special tracks from the 3 sessions were issued in America and only the theme from the ‘Eve’ movie was released outside France. And so for avid collectors like myself they have proved among the hardest, if not impossible, of his rare recordings to find. He swiftly returned to recording demos before signing to Phillips where Hal Mooney produced a session for him which yielded two pop singles ‘Send Me Away/ I Need You Tonight’ and ‘Too Hot To Handle/ I Just Couldn’t Help Myself’. The flipside is a straight ballad – the kind of thing Presley was doing around that time. ‘Too Hot…’ was a catchy mid tempo item that given airplay could have hit pop. Of these four ‘I Just Couldn’t Help Myself ‘ stands up best today. Once again the theatre beckoned and Tony starred in a production of ‘Porgy & Bess’ in addition to Vernon Duke and John Latouche’s ‘Cabin In The Sky’ alongside Rosetta LeNoire and Ketty Lester that had a lengthy run at the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York and this cast production was recorded there in February 1964. Another highlight that year came when Tony sang with Mary Lou Williams‘ Mass at the New York City Center an Alvin Ailey Production with Judith Jamison. Middleton later joined this production at Wolf Trap (Foundation for the Performing Arts) with Mary Lou Williams.
Towards the end of the year Middleton’s American recording career moved up a gear when Burt Bacharach cut ‘My Little Red Book’ with Tony’s vocal and this record found international release along with the flipside ‘What’s New Pussycat’ (the original cut by Joel Gray) with Bacharach’s orchestra on Kapp. Both of these songs found more success with later versions by Manfred Mann and Love (in the US) – but Middleton’s version benefits from a great production that he responds positively to and is far superior to either cover. Tom Jones’ version of ‘What’s New Pussycat’ was an international hit via the movie of the same name that also featured Bacharach on the soundtrack. Tony then co-wrote and cut the superb ‘You Spoiled My Reputation/ If I Could Write A Song’ with Johnny Pate and this became one of his most highly rated classic recordings. Then followed a spiritual return to France when the great Arranger/ Producer Claus Ogermann wrote and recorded ‘Paris Blues’ with Tony who gave one of his most memorable performances. This song is featured several times on YouTube but my favourite version cleverly splices scenes from Martin Ritt’s 1961 movie ‘Paris Blues’ onto Tony’s superb vocal track creating perfect visualization moments. Though this record saw little chart action at the time, down the years it has grown into yet another Middleton classic, his powerful and sincere delivery are matched by a unique Ogermann production and flipside ‘Out Of This World’ has also persisted to become another popular standard. (peter burns)
Tony Middleton Sessions 2 compiled by Peter Burns
Edited excerpts used here come from A Strange Encounter by Kurt Mohr, first published by Soul Music (#28 17 August 1968) a long defunct UK specialist magazine to whom Kurt regularly contributed many Discographies. When I was first trying to put together a Tony Middleton and the Willows discography in early ’68, I wrote to Kurt at his family home in Switzerland and our combined efforts were published alongside the original feature. Sadly Kurt Mohr died 4 November 2007; his obituary can be seen in Earshot 9.
Earshot 16 continues - CLICK TO READ MORE >>