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The Willows

Church Bells May Ring

Harlem was teeming with young groups. The Five Willows coalesced around West 115th Street in 1951, twins Ralph and Joe Martin (second tenor and baritone, respectively, born February 12, 1935 in Harlem) and tenor Richard Davis (born in Queens on August 6, 1935) originally joined by future Five Crowns Wilbur 'Yonkie' Paul and Dock Green. They were initially known as The Dovers. Green was replaced by bass John 'Scooter' Steele, born March 9, 1934 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Last in was Paul's replacement, tenor Tony Wright, born June 26, 1934 in Richmond, Virginia, who later changed his surname to Middleton. Inspired by the tree of the same name, the group changed its handle to The 5 Willows in 1952. They solicited Peter Doraine's Abbey label. By the time he got around to recording them a year later on their originals My Dear, Dearest Darling (led by Tony) and Rock Little Francis with saxist Don Archer's band, Doraine was working for Allen, owned by Victor Allen, who was in the moving van business.

The quintet encored on Allen with Dolores b/w All Night Long and then a pair of standards, The White Cliffs Of Dover (long a group favorite) b/w a Davis-led With These Hands. Next was a '54 single for Doraine's Pee Dee logo, twinning the Allen masters Love Bells and Please Baby. Singer Mayme Watts and saxist George Kelly wrote the quintet's first Herald single, Lay Your Head On My Shoulder, in 1954 (backed with Baby, Come A Little Closer). Charlie Singleton and Rose Marie McCoy collaborated on both sides of their Herald encore, Look Me In The Eyes b/w So Help Me, that same year. Herald put the "5" in quotes, like The "5" Royales.

The Willows jettisoned the "5" at Morty Craft and Ray Maxwell's Melba Records. Their first outing on Melba in early '56, the rollicking Church Bells May Ring (listed on early pressings as Church Bells Are Ringing), was penned by the group and Craft. Steele had left town, so The Willows recruited Richard Simon to sing bass on the song; 16-year-old Neil Sedaka was overdubbed on chimes. For the flip, Baby Tell Me, new permanent bass Freddy Donovan got his first shot. Church Bells May Ring was a #11 entry on 'Billboard's R&B 'Best Seller' charts. Its #62 pop showing was dimmed by a Diamonds cover on Mercury that zipped up to #14 on that chart. Do You Love Me, The Willows' Melba encore, rocked even harder (My Angel, penned by Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, adorned the flip). Little Darling was their Melba swansong; it came out after the quintet had left the label over a lack of royalties.

The Willows paused at Carl Edelson's Club Records to wax This Is The End b/w the blazing Don't Pull, Don't Push, Don't Shove near the end of '56. Middleton received featured billing on The Willows' '57 singles for Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman's El Dorado label (a very poppish The First Taste Of Love) and George Goldner's Gone (a blistering rendition of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's Let's Fall In Love).

Middleton had cut his first solo single for Saxony in 1956. After Let's Fall In Love, he was indeed gone, his solo career seeing releases on Triumph, Big Top, Alto, Roulette, United Artists, Philips, ABC-Paramount, Kapp, Mala, A&M, and more. The Willows carried on, the Martins joined by Joe's wife Dotty to remake My Dear, Dearest Darling for Craft's Warwick label in '59 and cut two singles for Heidi in 1964. Donovan was felled by cancer on May 17, 1986. Ralph Martin died March 25, 2010 in the Bronx of colon cancer, and his twin Joe passed away five years earlier.

- Bill Dahl -

Various Vol.8, - Street Corner Symphonies 1956

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