This issue earshot has been a trifle rushed there’s been a bit burning candles at both ends to get it ready for pre-Christmas December issue. Due to things mainly out of my control. So, apologies ahead for any typos etc. The incomplete Rafferty Discography and last goodbye obits for Benny Spellman, Carl Gardner and Jerry Ragavoy will also be added and probably other items I will attempt to put any mistakes right in mid January as there are bound to be a few. In the meantime work goes on to change the future format to enable a more ‘hands on’ approach from yours truly. Sadly we come to the end of our series on Tony Middleton Sessions, although not quite, because the Willows will be featured in the next issue. Here’s wishing my faithful readers a Cool Yule and a much better 2012. (peter burns)
tony middleton sessions 4
By the beginning of the 1980s Tony Middleton’s recording career had all but ebbed slowly away however his performances were still in much popular demand at venues such as The Big Apple Café on the East Side of New York. Johnny Hartmann would often come by to see Tony and even sing a song or two himself. In fact, when Johnny was going through a period of bad health, he’d asked Tony to fill in for him on a gig in Japan but although all the arrangements had been made, sadly Hartman died before the contracts were signed, so the event never materialized. Tony was still making demos and singing on the odd commercial but he also worked a day job with UPS when things were slow. He sang at the Carnegie Tavern with the Ellis Larkin’s trio, performing the songs from their Swingin’ For Hamp Concord Jazz album, some of which still has a home in Tony’s personal repertoire today. Norman Mapp, another gifted singer/ songwriter and Middleton fan, would often drop in at the Big Apple Café to share Tony’s spotlight during that period. As the eighties rolled on his New York venues changed and he regularly appeared at clubs such as The Coriander and the Brick Top with Bucky Pizzarelli. Helen Humes and Zoot Sims would stop by and jam with Tony there. Other regular performances were at the San Marco in Greenwich Village and Rodney Dangerfield’s Comedy Club where Rodney often had vocalists perform. The 1980’s were still a period in New York when there was wonderful entertainment available and many nightclubs were open until the wee hours of the morning. Another popular club during this period was Jimmy Weston’s where Tony sang with Al Haig on piano. Middleton’s musical director during the ’80’s was Danny Smalls, writer of ‘Untouchable’ and they often performed together at the Baby Grand as well as playing on some Jazz Boat Cruises out of NY to Philadelphia. Danny Smalls (aka Dashan)was most responsible for having Tony sing ballads as well as his upbeat tunes. Of course, there was Eddie Condon’s, a great jazz room, where Tony sang with the well-respected bassist Bob Haggart and fabled trumpeter Yank Lawson. At this time Tony recorded ‘Misty’ and ‘Just In Time’ with Haggart & Lawson at A&R Studios onto acetate, but unfortunately these tracks were never released.
Between 1983 –‘89 Tony performed with the Willows at various shows and musical events and has continued this association right through the 90’s and down the years up until the present day where not one of the original line up except him are still working. His solo career also spanned these years interleafing with the Willows as he continued to perform at various New York, European and UK venues throughout the decade. By 1993 having had no recordings released for twelve years the Broadway Angel label issued the Cabin In The Sky, a New York revival cast recording on CD. This great Vernon Duke score had been cut in February 1964 by the all black cast that had featured Rosetta La Noire, Ketty Lester and Sam Laws as well as Tony starring in the ‘Joe’ role. The original production of Cabin In The Sky was performed in the early 1940s and was turned into a hit movie by Vincent Minnelli in 1943. Twenty years later this revival production had taken Broadway by storm and a further 12 years on it and Tony Middleton made their debut on Compact Disc.
Due to the growing Northern Soul interest in Middleton’s excellent sixties recordings such as ‘Paris Blues’, ‘To The Ends Of The Earth’, ‘My Little Red Book’ and others, Tony was booked to appear at the annual Soul Music Festival at Prestatyn, Wales in March 2002. Where he performed on the same bill as his best friend Ray ‘I’m Just A Drifter’ Pollard. An unofficial amateur DVD of their rehearsals and performances was in circulation after the event but did little to enhance the careers of these two great artists. Tony’s program included ‘You Spoiled My Reputation’, ‘To The Ends Of The Earth’, ‘Paris Blues’, ‘Georgia On My Mind’, ‘It’s Not Unusual’ and for his encore he reprised ‘To The Ends Of The Earth’. In September the following year Tony played another UK concert this time at Cleethorpes (in the North East of England) at the invitation of famed Northern DJ and UK Kent label boss Ady Croasdell. Ady rang me and with the suggestion that as I was one of the few UK music journalist to have written about Tony in the past, I might like to finally meet and interview him at the 100 Club in Oxford Street where he would be making a rare appearance in early October. I jumped at the chance and had the good fortune to finally meet and see this great singer perform live in an intimate small-club performance. For me it was the perfect birthday present. In the following months I campaigned for a CD to be compiled and issued of Tony’s greatest recordings but none was forthcoming until he issued one himself on Fable in mid 2000s. This album entitled the Paris Blues – The Solo Sides was featured on the CD Baby Website and included some of his best and rarest sides including ‘Drifting’, ‘Black Jack’, ‘Untouchable’, ‘A Garden In The Ghetto’ and a previously unissued Willows track ‘Farewell’. Though it’s a dub from Tony’s single collection it remains one of my favourite albums. Middleton returned to the UK again in May 2005 this time with the Willows (including Richard Davis, Ralph Martin and Tony’s son Desi Edwards - Middleton) making their British debut performance at the Hemsby Music Festival. Amongst their program they sang ‘Dolores’, ‘Stay By The Fire’, ‘Little Darlin’’, ‘Don’t Push, Don’t Shove’ and of course their most famous ‘Church Bells May Ring’. Tony later returned to perform a demo that he’d cut for Elvis ‘A Big Hunk Of Love’ in a cappella-style that went down very well with an enthusiastic audience.
Tony Middleton had the good fortune to meet his future manager Phyllis Cortese in 2007. Phyllis who previously ran her own Design & Promotion service for the music business, had been semi-retired but was so impressed with the Middleton magic, that she was inspired to work with him to further enrich his career. She told me recently “Working on projects with Tony, utilizes many of the skills I enjoy and mainly, Tony delivers. I never have to worry that I’m overselling him. He is always more than the client or club anticipates!” Gradually over the following year Tony appeared at a number of classy small New York clubs and restaurants and his public began to rediscover his rich vocal talents all over again. Tony put together a superb show at Richie Cecere’s Supper Club in Montclair, New Jersey in May 2007 and this format became the first for many Middleton shows in the coming years. In November Tony performed ‘Weekend In Paris’ a great song that he had co-written but not previously recorded on Mark Kostabi's Game Show and recently this rare item has become available on YouTube. Tony began working with songwriter Philip Springer (‘Santa Baby’) who Phyllis had previously met and they began recording new music in 2008 for a future album. This partnership received some notoriety with a song, ‘Headed Home’, written by Senator Orrin Hatch and Philip Springer as an “across the aisles” tribute to Teddy Kennedy. Tony recorded this song prior to the Democratic Convention August 2008 and it was greatly appreciated by the Kennedys. Throughout this year Tony had been making midweek performances at a Greenwich Village Jazz Room called Smalls with a number of different pianists who included Spike Wilner, Tadataka Unno, Sasha Perry and Kyoko Oybe. Another highly talented 22 year old pianist Jesse Elder, who had already won several ASCAP awards for original music, had met Tony a year or so before he began singing with the Elder quartet at Enzo’s Jazz @ The Jolly Madison Towers, 38th St., Manhattan – this special relationship would grow into a fruitful collaboration over the next few years. They began to play regular bookings at Destino, on First Avenue between 2 - 4 nights a week. The Cat King Cole label issued a 28 track CD of Tony’s recordings that includes such gems as ‘Too Hot To Handle’, ‘Don’t Ever Leave Me’, ‘Spanish Maiden’, ‘Return To Spanish Harlem’ and many other great cuts. His dates at Destino Restaurant, the Metropolitan Room, on West 22nd Street with Jesse Elder proved very popular. Middleton’s magic was now in constant demand and he made appearances at Sunday Brunch in the Blue Note on West 3rd Street (the worlds finest jazz club). Middleton sang ‘Let It Be Me’ at the Blue Note with the Jesse Elder Quintet featuring Logan Richardson, Jeremy Viner, Tyshawn Sorey, Aidan Carroll and was filmed by Sahaiya Abudu who put it on YouTube. In 2009 Tony played at the Anderson Centre for Performing Arts, Binghamton University, NY, The Landmark Theatre Syracuse, and with the Willows at the Westbury Music Fair. His bookings have been solid with Private functions like a Valentine's Day Private Party, Long Island and another highlight was at Long Island University where Tony performed songs from his Doo-Wop past in a show entitled ‘Clay Cole & the Rock ‘n’ Roll Years at the Brooklyn Paramount (1954-1967)’.
When Tony creates a program of songs they might feature a mixture of songs taken from his own catalogue and a number of other show songs or pop/ jazz hits that he enjoys singing, his performances have never been restricted specifically to his own recordings. For the Metropolitan Room, Middleton put together ’Feelin’ Good’, a new menu that featured ‘Stardust’, ‘Cabin In The Sky’, ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South’, ‘I Got Love’, ‘Georgia On My Mind’, ‘Lady’, ’Route 66’, ’You Turned Your Back On Me’, ‘Yesterday’, ‘New York, New York’, ‘Wonderful World’, ‘All The Things You Are’ and ‘Church Bells May Ring’. Reviewer Oscar E Moore, who was in attendance, described the show as an “…amazing musical journey” and reported “Tony sang with a warmth, passion and sensitivity that showed off his smooth, lower sultry range, his belting top notes and easy going, velvety, thick as molasses tones. And his back up trio is one of the best I have ever heard. A classic Billy Kaye on drums, Rob Adkins on bass and the exceptionally talented, 25 year old Jesse Elder on piano”. Similar levels of praise came from Faith Aarons who on my recommendation went to Destino with her son, J Records Urban Promotion Manager Russell Jones to celebrate her birthday that by all reports was a very busy night. Faith described Tony as “Mr. Conviviality” as well as being a great singer he took time out to talk to her between sets. “He had the room tapped”. She has returned to see Tony a couple of times since on quieter nights and afternoons to listen closer to Tony’s set. Annually Middleton teams up with the Barry Levitt Band/ Octet at Iridium on Broadway and in July 2009 they performed ‘Sounds Of Goodbye’, ‘Too Hot To Handle’ and ‘Don’t Ever Leave Me’ with several other songs. A couple of months later he played a benefit called ‘Jazz Meets Popular Music’ with Bill Godwin’s Ink Spots. Among the other gigs Middleton played in ’09 were his weekly appearances in Kitano Jazz at the Kitano Hotel on Park Avenue with the Tadataka Unno Trio, another group that play well together. This year the Manhattan Association nominated Tony for the MAC Jazz Vocalist of the year 2009.
Middleton bookings showed no sign of easing off as 2010 came around and Tony played Kitano Jazz with the Jesse Elder Trio week in, week out entering their second year when they performed a tribute Memories of Nat King Cole that packed the house. In March ‘Big Hunk Of Love’, ‘You Don’t Owe Me A Dime’ and ‘It’s Not Unusual’ were among the songs featured with the Barry Levitt Big Band at the Iridium and in June Tony performed with the Ex Caminos at Southpaw in Brooklyn. The producers Dig Deeper feature a Soul Legend once a month - this was their 24th on their 2nd year anniversary. They performed many of Tony’s soulful songs such as ‘Already Satisfied’, ‘Spanish Harlem’, ‘Paris Blues’ etc to a sold out night. This show went down so well that they took it to the Iridium Jazz Club in March.
Middleton also played several dates at the Rue 57 including a fabulous New Years Eve Party with Sarah Hayes and Tommy C James (the conductor and director of the Duke Ellington Orchestra). Sarah often featured Tony in her shows and she appeared with him regularly on his when he performed at the Essex House and the Palino Club in 2010-11. And for the second year running Tony was nominated for the MAC Jazz Vocalist of the Year Award.
Moving into 2011, in addition to his repeat New York bookings at Kitano’s Garden Cafe, Tony has found a lot of success this year at the Opia, Renaissance Hotel, NYC, where he performs twice a month in a stunning upscale room with several different trios, usually on Saturday nights and occasionally on Monday evenings. Musicians include: Jesse Elder, Tadataka Unno, Kenji Yoshitake, Tommy C. James and many others. It seems that performance bookings continue to be healthy and his popularity is at an all time high. Between Tony’s inspirational singing and Phyllis’ management they have brought this great singer back to his rightful place in the limelight once again. As reported before Tony and the remaining Willows were inducted into the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame on 27 March at the Symphony Hall in Boston and the following month he was part of a two night Jazz Benefit for Japan at the Highline Ballroom sponsored by the Blue Note. Other major names involved were Renee Fleming, Madeleine Peyroux, Joe Lovano, Sonny Fortune, Eldar, Clifton Anderson and many others. This was quite a financial success and Tony brought the house down singing ‘Wonderful World’ with not too many dry eyes in the room! Middleton performed at several other benefits for Japan during this period. For Halloween Tony and Sarah performed from 8 until Midnight at Aza on Third Avenue in Monster Mash! with Matt Baker (piano), Adam Kaback (bass) and Jacob Melchior (drums). It was a graveyard smash. For the future - Last month in November Tony founded his own new Publishing Company “Philtone Music” for a number of songs he has written and so far neglected to publish. He performed with the Willows in a major show in Hauppauge, NY on 19 November and they are booked in February next year @ the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, NJ. There are several other shows coming up in 2012. Tony and Jesse Elder have recently recorded about 14 songs some with the trio, others with the quintet. Beautifully arranged by Elder they are currently being mixed and the intention is to issue an album in 2012. So if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in the Big Apple try to catch Tony Middleton ‘live’ if you can, it’s a unique experience. Check out the dates and venues on his website email@example.com - and Tell Tony and Phyllis I sent you. (peter burns)
The photos of Tony & the Willows at Hemsby 34 by Barry Dixon with inset by Paul Harris thanks to ‘Now Dig This Magazine’ who first published a review of their show in June 2005.
Photo credits: Jacob Blickenstaff,
Tony Middleton Sessions compiled by Peter Burns
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