The Willows and Tony Middleton©2004JCMarion


Among the many residents of Harlem, New York, in the early 1950s, was a group of young men who got together and blended their voices in song. They were among many who tried to take this route and rise above their surroundings in a quest for fame and fortune. There were many, and the list of successes were few. However hope is always eternal and so it was with this particular vocal hopefuls. They called themselves The Dovers and they were twin brothers Ralph and Joe Martin, Scooter Steele, Rich Davis, and Bobby Robinson. Doc Green was a sometimes member and soon Robinson left the group to pursue other interests in the music field. Some of these interests would be a record store in the heart of Harlem, and the establishment of historic New York City independent record labels Robin (later Red Robin), Whirlin Disc, and Fury Records. Robinson's place in the budding vocal group was taken by a neighborhood guy named Tony Middleton. The quintet was now complete and ready to take on the world. Local gigs and appearances helped the Dovers create a "buzz" in the area, and led them to a meeting with Peter Doraine. He soon became the group's manager and had them change their name to The Five Willows, and also organized their first recording session. The result was "Please Baby" and "Love Bells" which was released on Doraine's PeeDee label on #290.

Doraine then merged forces with Victor Allen and the Five Willows were set to record for the new Allen Records label. The group went into the studio with more confidence this time and vowed to do better than their first side which disappeared almost as fast as it was released. They did their best on the second try and waited for the results. In June of 1955, the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area reported good sales in the R & B field for a recording on the Allen label by The Five Willows on a song called "My Dear Dearest Darling". The record is released as #1000 for the label. The flip side is the mysteriously titled "Rock Little Francis". By the month of July "Dearest" is a big seller on the West coast, especially in Los Angeles. The record continues to be a good seller throughout the summer. By mid - September a new side by the group is out. It couples the songs "Dolores" and "All Night Long" and is released on Allen #1002. This time the record does not chart at all and is a failure. Within a couple of months the group records a cover version of Eddie Fisher's hit "With These Hands" and their version of the old pop tune and vocal group favorite "The White Cliffs Of Dover" on #1003. Again, the group does not hit paydirt, and to complicate matters even further, Allen Records ceases to exist. By early 1954 the Five Willows are adrift without a hit or a label. But that situation does not last long.

In June of 1954 Al Silver of Herald Records announces the signing of The Five Willows to his label. By mid-summer the Five Willows have their first effort for Herald Records out on the street. The songs "Baby Come A Little Closer" and "Lay Your Head On My Shoulder" are released on #433. Once again they fail to sell or gain airplay, and they try once more when in November "Look Me In The Eyes" and "So Help Me" are out on Herald #442. The second failure on the Herald ends their association with that label and they are cast adrift again and spend most of 1955 trying to assess their chances after three years and one moderate success to show for all their efforts. Later in the year they cross paths with Morty Craft who is launching a new record label to be called Melba Records and he decides to go with the Five Willows. They run through a tune that Tony Middleton has put together called "Church Bells Are Ringing" and decide to record this ballad as a first try for their new label. Further re-working the song, the group decides to jack it up and sing it as an up tempo rocker and this seems to give life to both the song and the group. "Church Bells Are Ringing" and "Baby Tell Me" are released on Melba #102 in mid January of 1956. The group had decided to drop the "Five" from their name so now they are simply The Willows.

From the start "Church Bells" is a resounding success at long last for the group. The record breaks out everywhere at once. The title is quickly changed to "Church Bells May Ring" to coincide with the lyrics of the tune. There are two significant legends that surround this record. The first is that the great bass break was done by a substitute singer that appeared with the group only for the recording session. According to the legend, his name is Richard Simon. The second tale is that the famous pealing chimes during the song were played by Neil Sedaka then part of the original Tokens who also recorded for Melba ("While I Dream" on Melba #104). By March The Willows are a hot property, highly in demand for personal appearances and television spots throughout the country. By March the cover versions of the song are popping up including one by The Diamonds on Mercury. In April The Willows are one of the crowd favorites at Alan Freed's "Easter Jubilee of Stars" at the Brooklyn Paramount. Others on the group heavy bill were The Platters, Valentines, Rover Boys, Flamingos, Cleftones, Royaltones, and Teenagers. After that week the group headed up to Hartford, Connecticut, for a big show at the State Theater hosted by Larry Dixon star of WJKO radio in Springfield, Massachusettes. In late May the Willows return home to Harlem for a big show to benefit the New York City Board of Education. In July as sales of "Church Bells" finally begin to tail off Melba records releases a new record by The Willows. The songs are "Do You Love Me" and "My Angel" and are on #106. This record goes nowhere and the group tries again late in the year this time on the Club label with "This Is The End" and "Don't Push, Don't Pull, Don't Shove" on Club #1014. The owner of the label Carl Edelson, formerly with Apollo Records, signed the group and quickly had them in the studio. The result however is the same as their previous effort for Melba. Melba incidentally re-releases "My Angel" with a different flip side "Little Darlin" on #115, but the result is the same.

Despite their failures on record, The Willows still have name recognition for their monster hit of the year before. They appear at a big show in Philadelphia's Mastbaum Theater in March of 1957 that headlines Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps, Nappy Brown, and Eddy Cochrane. In May the group now known on record as Tony Middleton & The Willows record for Eldorado Records. "The First Taste Of Love" and "Only My Heart" recorded with the Ray Ellis Orchestra is released on Eldorado #508. In April of 1958 The Willows appear at a Rock 'n Roll Revue in New York mc'd by Herman Amis of WOV radio. There was a quick one-off release for Gone Records of the songs "Let's Fall In Love" and "Say Yeah" on #5015 which also went nowhere. By now Tony Middleton had left the group to try a solo career, and Rich Davis and Scooter Steele had also left the group. The Martin twins, Dotty Martin, and Fred Donovan now comprised The Willows.

In December of 1958, Herb Abramson one of the founders of Atlantic Records announces his new record company to be called Triumph Records. One of his first signings is Tony Middleton former lead singer of The Willows. In January of 1959 "I Just Want Somebody" and "Count Your Blessings" by Tony is released on Triumph #600. In March Middleton appears on Alan Freed's television show to premier his new record of the tunes "Blackjack" and "The Universe". The songs will be released on Triumph #605. In all promotions for the Triumph label, Middleton is always noted as the singer of "Church Bells May Ring". He records for a new label called Pala Records at the end of the year with the songs "Untouchable" and "I Need You". He is also signed for a nine month European production of the show "Free And Easy" as Little Augie, a role slated for Sammy Davis Jr. when the show comes to Broadway in 1960.

In the early 1960s, both The Willows and Tony Middleton looked elsewhere for success. The group recorded a few records for obscure labels, then in the 70s hit the oldies circuit. Middleton had little success as a solo singer for Alfa, United Artists, and Philips, and did find a niche for himself in the music business as a demo singer for established artists, and also did some song writing. By the 1980s he had come full circle joining the remaining Willows on the oldies circuit. "Church Bells May Ring" remains one of the most recognizable jump tunes from the nineteen fifties, and will live forever. With that one tune, The Willows had made their mark on the music of America and the world.

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