November 23rd, 2010

Milkwood

milkwood
Milkwood, summer 1969, left to right: Ron Frankel, Jack Geisinger, Louis McKelvey, Mary Lou Gauthier and Malcolm Tomlinson

Mary Lou Gauthier - Come Run.mp 3.5mb

Milkwood had all the credentials to be a rock ‘n’ roll sensation. Barely months after forming, the Anglo-Canadian group won an album deal with the prestigious Polydor Records label and recorded with legendary producer Jerry Ragavoy at New York’s Hit Factory in the summer of 1969.Differences between Milkwood’s management and the label on distribution delayed release, ultimately pulling the band apart before the album could be released, and the record was subsequently shelved.

The tracks have languished in the vaults for 40 years but this author is working with Canadian re-issue label Pacemaker to license the tapes from Universal and release the tracks on CD for the first time later this year.

At last, aficionados of Sixties rock will be able to discover this long-forgotten group that promised so much and drew praise from such revered artists as Jimi Hendrix and The Band; the latter even went on record saying they wanted to record with the group’s female singer.

Milkwood was the brainchild of Irish-born guitarist Louis McKelvey, who envisaged the concept for the band in the summer of 1968 after leaving his former group, Influence, whose rare and sought-after album has also been released by this label.

First on the list for the new project was Montreal-born drummer Ron Frankel, who at the time was playing with late soul legend King Curtis in his backing group, The Kingpins. An accomplished drummer, Frankel had started out playing in Montreal group, The Soul Mates with several future Influence members.

The drummer was also married to a French-Canadian singer with an exceptional voice – Mary Lou Gauthier.

Gauthier had sung at St Patrick’s Basilica in Montreal at the age of 9 and by the age of 16 had won a nationally-televised talent competition before hooking up with Frankel, first in lounge band, Five of a Kind and then in King Curtis’ group.

milkwood2.jpg
Article from Circus magazine, December 1969

Intrigued by the guitarist’s concept for the band, Frankel and Gauthier both expressed an interest in forming a band with McKelvey and (while the Irishman returned to the UK for six months in July 1968), they brought in bass player friend Ronnie Blackwell from the Montreal scene to join the fledging and unnamed group.

Blackwell had first played professionally with R&B outfit, Kenny Hamilton and The In Crowd, which is where he first met Frankel, and later with Pops Merrily, the house band at the Esquire Show Bar in Montreal.

After working briefly with US singer/songwriter Jesse Winchester, Blackwell hooked up with the pop group The Five Bells and participated in a short tour from Miami to Puerto Rico.

Back in Montreal in early 1969, he ran into Frankel and Gauthier who told him about McKelvey’s plans to form a group.

Over in London, meanwhile, McKelvey quickly tracked down his former colleague from early 1960s group Jeff Curtis & The Flames, Malcolm Tomlinson, and convinced the drummer to return to Canada with him.

Though Tomlinson had enjoyed some success since McKelvey’s departure for Montreal in September 1966, playing with future Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre in The Noblemen, The Motivation, The Penny Peeps and Gethsemane and recording with Elton John, he didn’t need much convincing.

After arriving in Toronto in late January/early February 1969, the pair contacted Ron Frankel and Mary Lou Gauthier, who still expressed an interest in pursuing McKelvey’s project. Frankel did voice concern that having another drummer in the group might undermine the internal dynamics, but the issue was easily resolved as Tomlinson could also be called on to play guitar and flute, as well as share lead vocals with Gauthier.

Completing the line up with Ronnie Blackwell, the band rented a basement apartment on Church Street (and later a large house on Westmount Avenue in the St Clair neighbourhood) to rehearse some recent McKelvey compositions.

Around this time, the owners of the Penny Farthing club introduced McKelvey to Vietnam War draft resister and California musician David Mandel, recently departed from his role as lead singer and guitarist with Toronto band Leather. Mandel volunteered to roadie for the group and helped name the band.

Says Mandel: “Louis and I were sitting around in the wee hours one night at the first home the band had. Louis had been, as always, playing his guitar for hours on end. We were chatting, and I think he asked if I had any ideas for a name. I immediately said, ‘Milkwood’. Louis asked why and I said: ‘Cause your guitar work is mind-boggling, the beautiful music you get out of your axe is like milking wood.’ He liked it, the rest liked it, and the name stuck.”

According to Billboard magazine, the group inked a deal with Polydor Records before it had played a single show. Whether this is true is not clear, Milkwood made their live debut in early May and immediately made an impression.

Blackwell remembers one particularly appreciative fan of the group, who caught the band’s set (most likely on 3 May). “One night in Toronto we were jamming at the Penny Farthing. All of a sudden I looked up and there was this guy standing in the door looking in, headband and all. It was Jimi Hendrix! He stayed in the doorway for the entire set and left as soon as we stopped. A while later in Cashbox, he talked about his tour of Toronto and how he had seen this real funky band with two drummers in a small Toronto club”.

Milkwood’s mixture of blues-flavoured hard rock and strong ballads proved popular with local promoters, who booked them for a string of shows at the city’s top rock venue, the Rockpile, supporting visiting acts The Who [19 May], Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention [24 May] and The James Cotton Blues Band and Grand Funk Railroad [25 May]. They even headlined on 21 June with Brother Brent in support.

“I recall that The Who passed on to our group through one of their equipment guys that they had enjoyed our music,” remembers Blackwell.

Milkwood’s bass player also has fond memories of the Zappa show. “That was a fun night because after the concert most of the musicians hung around and we jammed. The bass player for Zappa and I took turns playing bass and it was a blast.”

That same month, McKelvey, Tomlinson and Blackwell were called on to play on Jay Telfer’s ambitious solo album, Perch. Unfortunately, the former A Passing Fancy’s leader’s project was subsequently shelved despite notable contributions from the cream of the Toronto music scene, including Kensington Market members Keith McKie, Alex Darou and Jimmy Watson, singer/songwriter Murray McLauchlan and future Chris De Burgh sideman Danny McBride.

McKelvey’s blistering guitar work is evident on the cut, “Washed Down” (which also features Malcolm on drums). Tomlinson and Blackwell meanwhile add some solid drumming and bass to the bluesy “War Baby” while Tomlinson also showed off his flute skills on the experimental “To All”.

During late May/early June, Polydor Records contacted the band’s manager Richie Miller about recording the band after receiving a four-song demo, including Blackwell’s “Fantasy Girl” and McKelvey’s “I’m Not Married”. Then, Blackwell abruptly lost interest and left!

Blackwell regrets leaving at this crucial time. “Till this day I am not really sure why I left. I was younger than the others and one day just made this stupid decision to leave.

“There had been a lot of ego clashes and I had a hard time figuring out if I was the cause so I think I just sort of volunteered to leave. No one tried to talk me out of it so I figured that was what should be. I should never have left. We had the potential to make a real impact. Louis could write a hard driving song and then turn around and write a great ballad.”

With recording sessions set for July, and the band lined up to work with noted producer Jerry Ragavoy at the Hit Factory in New York (abetted by engineer Eddie Youngblood), the group desperately needed a replacement.

To salvage the sessions, McKelvey put out the call to former Influence bass player Jack “August” Geisinger.

Looking back on the sessions, McKelvey has this to say: “Influence [the album] was done really quickly like in two or three days. With Jerry Ragavoy it was quite meticulous [on Milkwood’s album]. We rehearsed well for them and took our time on the tracks. There wasn’t a lot of overdubbing but there was some. Everything sounded great.”

While recording the album, Frankel remembers some special guests turning up in the studio unexpectedly. As Mary Lou was laying down vocals for the song “There’s A Man”, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm entered the studio and informed the musicians that they had really enjoyed her performance.

During Milkwood’s New York stay, Mary Lou Gauthier vaguely recalls doing a show with Dutch group, The Golden Earring, which might have been an audition for something. The band also got some publicity photos taken in Central Park.

With the recordings done, Milkwood returned to Canada in August and embarked on a six-week tour. At one show at the Penny Farthing, members of Led Zeppelin turned up after their eagerly awaited Rock Pile debut on 18 August. John Bonham even sat in with the group for a few numbers.

It was at this point that the band turned down an offer to appear at the forthcoming Woodstock Festival.

Having missed out on the most famous rock event of the Sixties, Milkwood did participate in Toronto’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Revival Concert on a bill that also featured John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and McKelvey’s idols Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Mandel remembers some interesting guests at the band’s house before the show.

“The then unknown Alice Cooper had been asked to back up Gene Vincent. Cooper’s manager Shep Gordon and Milkwood’s manager [Richie Miller] were old friends from either Phoenix (where Cooper was then based) or LA, which is how the Cooper invite was arranged. Cooper and Gene Vincent practised for the gig in our basement.”

When it came to Milkwood’s own performance, the group played a well-received set. Little Richard was ready to follow the group when a last minute rescheduling delayed his performance, says Mandel.

“He was scheduled to go on, and was already up on the backstage with his band members when the limo carrying John and Yoko, Klaus Voorman and Eric Clapton arrived. When he learned his appearance was being pre-empted by the Brits, Richard burst into tears and was inconsolable, but his entourage was urged offstage by the festival managers.”

The concert appearance resulted in a flurry of bookings. On 19 September, six days after the revival show, Milkwood played at York University in Toronto, sharing the bill with Teagarden and Vanwinkle. Then, the following month, the band appeared at Toronto’s famous Electric Circus on 11 October.

Less than a week after a performance at the Hawk’s Nest in Yorkville Village on 17 October, Milkwood hit the road and travelled to Ottawa to play a small club date. One night, the musicians headed over to the renowned Café Le Hibou to catch Van Morrison, who was playing from 21-26 October.

“We went down to see his show,” recalls McKelvey. “Malcolm and Mary Lou got up and sang ‘Come Running’ with him.”

“He didn’t know we were professionals, we just showed up,” adds Mary Lou Gauthier.

Milkwood’s guitarist remembers sharing a bottle of whiskey with Morrison in the club’s dressing room after the show ended.

Dave Mandel was also present and has fond memories of the night in question. “Morrison drank at least one whole bottle of whiskey backstage in a quick barrage of gulps between sets, and you sure would never have known he’d taken a drink – amazing performer, amazing hollow leg!”

Moving on to Montreal, Milkwood were introduced to label mates, Life through former Influence drummer, the late Frank LoRusso (aka Yum Yum). Through Yum Yum, Tomlinson was enlisted to provide a superb flute solo to the track, “Lovin’ Time”.

While Life’s album would see a release that year, Milkwood’s own album was being held up. Unfortunately, a dispute over distribution between Richie Miller and Polydor had delayed the album’s release, leaving the band minimally employed and bored.

Creative and personality differences added to the group’s problems and the album was shelved in December, perhaps because Ragavoy sensed that there might not be a group to promote it. His instincts were right. That same month Milkwood imploded.

Judging by the producer’s comments to Toronto’s Globe and Mail in its 27 November edition, Ragavoy had had high hopes for the band, so must have been bitterly disappointed by Milkwood’s premature demise.

“They have a lot to say and I think there’ll be good things happening with this group,” he told journalist Ritchie Yorke from his New York office.

Mary Lou Gauthier has her own take on the band’s ultimate split. “We put our hearts and soul into it [the album]. We were a group of fiery passionate people who were reluctant to compromise in any way.”

In the wake of the band’s demise, Frankel did sessions for Jesse Winchester, but otherwise kept a low profile. Plagued by ill health, he lives in Montreal.

Mary Lou Gauthier, meanwhile, recorded a brilliant single for Polydor in September 1970 entitled “In The Summertime” c/w “Come Run” and later became a noted session singer, appearing on records for April Wine and Celine Dion. She later sang with Celine Dion in a long-running engagement at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and has recently recorded some new material with her second husband.

Original bass player Ronnie Blackwell later became a computer consultant and now lives in Las Vegas. “After I left I was playing with a band in Vancouver but they sucked. I knew I would never play with a band again that had so much promise and talent.”

From the ashes of Milkwood, McKelvey, Tomlinson and Geisinger launched the aptly titled Damage, a gritty hard rock band that was especially popular with local biker gangs.

Consisting of drummer Yum Yum, occasional member Walter Rossi, and (later) ex-Majestics bass player Chris Vickery, Damage played a few notable dates – an appearance at the Toronto Rock Festival at Varsity Arena [26 March 1970] and the Electric Circus [8 May] – but crumbled soon afterwards.

Malcolm Tomlinson spent a brief spell in former Elektra band Rhinoceros before recording with Syrinx and Bill King. In 1973, he became a member of Rick James’s original Stone City Band, which cut an album’s worth of material that was shelved. Tomlinson later pursued a solo career, issuing two strong albums in the late 1970s. He remains active on the live scene.

McKelvey briefly worked with Hank Squires during 1970, acting as a session guitarist for Squires’s short-lived studio group Marble Hall. McKelvey contributed to the group’s lone single, “Marble Hall” (originally recorded as a demo with Influence).

He also briefly worked with Chris Vickery and future Goddo member Doug Inglis in the rock group Powerhouse, formed in October 1970. Powerhouse opened for Lighthouse at Ryerson Great Hall in Toronto on 4 December but in early 1971 McKelvey lost interest and dropped out to pursue a non-musical career.

Music has remained his passion, however, and in 2004 he lent his guitar skills to local group, The New Signals’ debut album. McKelvey continues to play at his club in Toronto.

Milkwood roadie Dave Mandel meanwhile lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has just released his new original-compositions CD album, Realtime.

Thanks to Louis McKelvey, Mary Lou Gauthier, Malcolm Tomlinson, Ronnie Blackwell, Ron Frankel, Jack Geisinger, Dave Mandel, Rosemary White, Norman LoRusso, Jay Telfer, Carny Corbett, Bill Munson, Mike Paxman and Chris Bishop.

Nick Warburton is a UK-based freelance writer, who has written for Shindig, Record Collector, the Garage Hangover website, Vernon Joynson’s book series and Richard Morton Jack’s new book, Endless Trip.

Copyright © Nick Warburton, 2014, All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any from or by any means, without prior permission from the author

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