Obituary: Ralph Martin, original member of the Willows

Ralph Martin, an original member of the Willows, the 1950s rhythm and blues vocal group who hit the national charts with “Church Bells May Ring” in 1956, died at Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center in Bronx, New York, March 25, 2010 of complications from colon cancer. He was 75.

Born in Harlem, New York on February 12, 1935, second tenor Ralph Martin and his twin brother, baritone Joe Martin, joined forces with Richie Davis, Tony Middleton, and John Thomas “Scooter” Steele to form the original Five Willows in their West 115th Street neighborhood in 1952. “We used to call ourselves the Dovers,” Ralph recalled in a 1993 interview.

The Five Willows signed with Peter Doraine’s Allen label the following year and scored a regional hit with their original composition, “My Dear Dearest Darling”. “Pete Doraine got the band for us,” Ralph explained. “We rehearsed in a nightclub with saxophonist Don Archer and his band. We rehearsed our brains off with the band (before the recording).”

The Five Willows recorded collectors’ prizes in “Dolores”, featuring Ralph’s floating falsetto tenor, “White Cliffs of Dover”, and “Love Bells” for Doraine into 1954 before waxing a pair of unsuccessful discs for Herald.

Signing with Morty Craft’s Melba firm in early 1956, the Willows (they had dropped the “Five” after Joe had overslept and missed a matinee show during an Apollo engagement) brought “Church Bells May Ring”, a song that Herald had rejected, to their first session. Craft had budding songwriter Neil Sedaka overdub chimes on the doo-wop rocker, which sold over 4,000 copies around New York in the first two days after it was released. The song peaked at #14 on the R&B chart and #62 on Billboard’s pop list, eclipsed by a cover version by the Diamonds on Mercury. “I liked it by the Diamonds,” admitted Ralph. “But I still felt I’d been robbed.” The Willows ultimately sued Craft for non-payment of royalties and were awarded a lump sum of $1200 after the label owner declared bankruptcy.

At Easter, 1956, the Willows appeared with Alan Freed at the famed Brooklyn Paramount Theater, along with the Platters, Flamingos, Cleftones, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, among others. “At the Paramount, they’d rip your clothes,” remembered Ralph. “They’d tear your clothes off or rip them off your back. We couldn’t leave to go out and get lunch the block was so filled up. They’d want to tear your clothes off.”

Although the Willows never hit the national charts again, they performed and recorded regularly for Melba, Club, El Dorado, Gone, Warwick, and Heidi, into 1964. The Martin twins appeared on every record and recruited Joe’s wife, Dottie, to replace Tony Middleton after he left to embark on a solo career in 1959. After a one-off performance in 1972, Middleton, Davis, the Martin twins, and Steele reformed the group for personal appearances in 1983. They worked sporadically until 1989.

In 1998, the four surviving original members reunited, playing various concert venues on the East Coast, appeared in the successful PBS-TV event, “Red White and Rock” in 2002, and performed in England in May, 2005. After Joe Martin suffered a stroke in 2003, his place in the group was taken by Desi Edwards, Tony Middleton’s son. The quartet last performed together in 2009. “Ralph had cancer that had spread through his body,” first tenor Richie Davis relates. “A couple of days before he died he just collapsed coming out of the building where he lived building in the Bronx and they brought him to the hospital. He was on a respirator until he died. We were together more than 50 years, and we had some really good times. I’ve known Ralph since we were 10 years old. When he was young, he had a voice like Clyde McPhatter. I will certainly miss him.”

Martin was preceded in death by his twin brother, Joe, who died in 2005, and fellow Willows John Thomas Steele (1934-1997), Richard Simon (1936-1995) and Freddy Donovan (1939-1986). Survivors include one daughter, one granddaughter, and his fellow Willows, Tony Middleton, now 73, and Richie Davis, 74.

In their Harlem neighborhood, the Bop Chords, Channels, Ladders, Laddins, and Harptones were all inspired by the early successes of the Five Willows and the Five Crowns. Today, original copies of their records can sell for hundreds of dollars and their national hit, “Church Bells May Ring”, remains a doo-wop era favorite. “It was the sound,” Ralph summed in 1993. “It was different. It was our sound. It was original and it felt good singing it. I don’t mind saying I wish I was up there singing.”

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