By Nick Warburton
Milkwood had all the credentials to be a rock ‘n’ roll sensation. Barely months after forming in spring 1969, 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 that summer.
However, differences between Milkwood’s management and the label on distribution delayed its release, ultimately pulling the band apart before the album could be issued, and the record was subsequently shelved. Nick Warburton tells the story behind this fascinating band and the efforts to get the tracks released on CD for the first time.
Ask any aficionado of Sixties rock music about Milkwood and most likely they will never have heard about the band. That’s not a surprise really because the group’s album has never been released and there is little documentation that they ever existed.
And yet it might surprise readers to learn that during its eight month existence, this long forgotten band drew praise from such revered artists as Jimi Hendrix and The Band; the latter even going 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 yet to be released on CD (See Strange Brew story: http://thestrangebrew.co.uk/articles/influence-part-1).
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 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 seven years later 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.
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 a BBC radio session with Elton John, he didn’t need much convincing.
During the late summer and autumn of 1968, Tomlinson had been a regular guest at McKelvey’s rental property in Colville Square, Notting Hill and the pair jammed frequently.
McKelvey’s then Canadian partner, Rosemary White, who’d come over in October, remembers Tomlinson bringing his Gethsemane band mate Martin Barre over to the house a few times.
“I think they both applied for the same [guitar] job [with Jethro Tull],” she says. “Martin got it but Malcolm didn’t seem to be very bothered by that. I remember him saying, ‘He’s just the right guy for the job, it’s just great’.”
Left without a band and intrigued by McKelvey’s musical ideas, Tomlinson followed the guitarist back to Toronto in late January/early February 1969 and the pair contacted Ron Frankel and Mary Lou Gauthier, who still expressed an interest in pursuing a musical collaboration.
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.
Rosemary White, who’d returned from London in March, believes the musicians’ informal jams provided much of the inspiration behind the development of these songs.
“Everyone would just break into music,” she says. “Mary Lou would be almost scat-singing. There were no words. Then Ronnie would break out a rhythm. Of course the flute would come out and Malcolm would be going nuts on the flute. You just had the best music happening, of course with Louis on guitar. I think a lot of the songs that they wrote and recorded were inspired by these jam sessions.”
Also present by this point was Vietnam War draft resister and California musician David Mandel, who had been introduced to McKelvey by the owners of the Penny Farthing coffeehouse and had 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 (the most likely date is 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 added 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.”
The second part of Nick Warburton’s Milkwood feature can be found here: