Midnight Cowboy – Toots Thielemans or Tommy Reilly – solved!

The theme from Midnight Cowboy is one of the best known pieces of music played on harmonica.

This is the version from the Soundtrack Album of John Barry’s music for the Jerome Hellman – John Schlesinger film Midnight Cowboy.

Everyone knows who played it, don’t they…
It was Toots, wasn’t it???

I stumbled over this question when someone told me it wasn’t Toots Thielemans, it was the British harmonica soloist, Tommy Reilly. It turned out to be more complicated than this.

The making of Midnight Cowboy

John Schlesinger began filming Midnight Cowboy in Florida, Texas and New York in 1968 and during 6 months of post production he realised that he needs some contemporary music for the film. John Barry had written music for Bond films and had also been involved with the UK popular music scene in the 60s as the leader of the John Barry Seven, and an arranger for pop singers, so he was asked to supervise the music for the film.

Some of the music had already been chosen, like Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin‘, sung by Harry Nillson, but more, dramatic music was needed – something which was to become as famous as Everybody’s Talkin‘. A lonely harmonica tune that almost anyone could play.

The recording of the harmonica soundtrack with Toots Thielemans

John Barry said, “I wrote the harmonica theme, in which the counter melody is more important than the melody, giving a general repetitive feeling like going nowhere, to reflect the underbelly of New York. For the actual melody, I wanted something very unsophisticated, that any guy sitting outside a gas station in Texas could play. “

“We kept the instrumentation very simple, 12 string guitars, a rhythm section and the harmonica, so that the theme of Midnight Cowboy in the score would fit in with the musical language of the Nillson song.”

Toots Thielemans was living near New York at that time and his chromatic harmonica brought great tenderness and longing to the theme. He also can be heard on some of the re-recorded Nielsen pieces in the earlier part of the film. All the harmonica heard during the film is played by Toots.

The recording of the Film Music Album with Tommy Reilly

The commercial release of music from the film Midnight Cowboy is a bit more complicated. Eight of the twelve tracks on the sound track LP, called the Original Motion Picture Score released by United Artists Records (Liberty 1A 054-90639), were from the New York film soundtrack recordings, but the other four tracks, including Midnight Cowboy and Joe Buck rides again, were recorded in London in June 1969. This time the harmonica on Midnight Cowboy and Joe Buck rides again was played by Tommy Reilly. Any other harmonica heard on this album is by Toots.

The release of the single versions of the Midnight Cowboy Theme

Following the release of the LP soundtrack album, Toots and John Barry released a 7″ single (45rpm) of Midnight Cowboy on Columbia and Tommy Reilly and The John Scott Orchestra released a 7″ single (45rpm) version on Polydor.

Toots Thielemans and John Barry
Tommy Reilly and John Scott

These recordings show that it was Tommy’s idea to bend the notes in the main theme. Tommy always thought that that Toots was perfect for the movie and did a fantastic job.

The double CD “Midnight Cowboy – Expanded Original MGM Motion Picture Score

Much of this information comes from the CD notes of the excellent and comprehensive double CD “Midnight Cowboy – Expanded Original MGM Motion Picture Score“. [Quartet Records – QR434, MGM Records – QR434, Universal – QR434].

CD1 has the original LP tracks and some bonus tracks, including alternate versions of Toots playing Midnight Cowboy. CD2 has the music from the original film score. The CD booklet does not say Joe Buck rides again was played by Tommy Reilly.

Background to the John Barry recordings in London

Tommy Reilly’s manager, Sigmund Groven, added more background to the reason for the London re-recording of Midnight Cowboy. “John Barry had worked with Tommy several times before, including on the 1966 Marlon Brando film “The Chase” (soundtrack on CD: Varese Sarabande VSD-5229), and he wanted to feature Tommy in the Midnight Cowboy score.

As it happened Tommy was unavailable; he was on tour in Australia at the time, so John Barry asked Toots to play in the film. However, when Tommy was home after his Australian tour, John Barry was very pleased to be able to use him on the London sessions for the album.”

There are some great videos of Tommy and Toots playing Midnight Cowboy.

Toots plays Midnight Cowboy at 90 years old
Tommy Reilly plays Midnight Cowboy on Dutch TV

Extra Information.

1 – There are two recordings of the theme from Midnight Cowboy recorded by Toots Thielemans and John Barry after the release of the film. The commercial 45rpm version (above) has a “fattened” harmonica sound (flanger?) and the alternative take, which is also on the double CD, sounds like a straight mono recording.

2 – Popular concerts of John Barry’s music (including Midnight Cowboy and Dancing with Wolves) provided regular work for harmonica players. In the UK this has included Jim Hughes and Harry Pitch when Tommy Morgan could not make it from California. Phil Hopkins was once summoned to John Barry’s house in London as there were problems with Tommy Morgan’s UK visa.

Phil auditioned successfully and returned home to practice hard for the concert at the Albert Hall. Just before the performance he got a message that the visa had arrived and Tommy would do the gig. Phil got a cancellation fee and acknowledged that the audience got a better deal hearing Tommy Morgan play the harmonica themes.

3 – Shortly after the London recordings for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack album Tommy had a telephone call from Polydor Hamburg where he had already made two commercially very successful albums with Kai Warner: Melody Fair and Latin Harmonica. He flew over the next day. They played him a recording from a new film score and asked him if he could play the harmonica exactly the same as the uncredited player on the LP.

The first take was perfect. The producer said: “You are a genius”, and Tommy started to laugh. The producer said: “What are you laughing for?” and Tommy admitted: “That’s me playing on the original record!” The single (Polydor NH 59323), with John Scott as musical director, and with Tommy credited this time (!), climbed the charts in many countries. (Sigmund Groven)

4 – Despite the success of the two recordings by Toots Thielemans and Tommy Reilly, the version recorded by two pianists, Ferrante & Teicher, was nominated for the 1969 Grammy in the category Best Contemporary Instrumental Performance. I don’t think John Barry was very pleased either.

Captain James Reilly, RMSM

Captain J. Reilly, R.M.S.M. (1886-1956)

Copyright – David Reilly

Captain Reilly was a conductor and taught trumpet at The Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, London. Immediately after WW1, he moved to Canada to become the bandmaster of the 153rd Wellington Battalion Band that was stationed in Guelph. His son, Tommy Reilly, was born there in 1919. He set up a jazz and concert band for the military and then he took charge of the Elgin County Military band. In the late 1920s, James Reilly moved to the Elmdale Public School in St Thomas, Ontario. He was very successful and his orchestra, accordion and harmonica bands won many prizes – more here.

In the early 1930s, Captain Reilly wrote to Dr Meyer, who was head of Hohner (UK), asking if he could bring the Elmdale School harmonica band to play concerts in England. Unfortunately this was not possible.

Later, when Dr Meyer and Charles Millard were discussing setting up an organisation for harmonica players in the UK, which became “Harmonica Song Band League”, they realised that they needed a good musician who could write the necessary tutors, arrangements for bands, and supervise the training of groups which were being formed by Mr. Millard. They approached Captain Reilly about their plans for forming the National Harmonica Song Band League (HSB) and it was agreed that he was the man who could develop the musical side of it. History proved them right.

James Riley - The Right Way to Play Book

Capt. Reilly returned to the UK with his family and helped to get the new Hohner organisation going. He helped to arrange the music published by Francis Day & Hunter, he wrote the HSB Tutors, and arranged new pieces for the growing number of harmonica bands in the UK. Initially tremolo based bands but later chromatic harmonica bands. See end.

His son, Tommy Reilly, started playing harmonicaprofessionally aged 16 years.

When the British College of Accordionists (BCA) was started soon afterwards, he took a lively interest in this it too, building on his experience teaching the accordion in Canada. He also took on the training of the Junior Band of the B.C A. which very soon reached a remarkably high standard under his conductorship.

Captain James also wrote several highly successful elementary pieces like “Windsor March,” “Searchlight Tattoo.” etc., which found a ready sale amongst the many elementary bands springing up throughout the country.

When the B.C.A. set up examinations, they opened a number of Examination Centres, and Captain Reilly was appointed as one of the College Examiners, a role he carried out for many years.

After WW2, Captain Reilly was also appointed Sales Manager of the Hohner Musk Department. He persuaded a number of new composers to write for the accordion and the harmonica, and built up the largest Accordion and Harmonica Music Catalogue in this country.

As the popularity of the harmonica and accordion grew, he was much in demand as an adjudicator for Music Festivals all over the country. He also contributed a lot to the smooth running of the competition section of the annual “Accordion Day” festival.

In the early 1950s he started a Harmonica Staff Band for the Hohner Organisation He developed this into a successful orchestral group which gave many successful demonstrations and concerts.

Captain Reilly retired from Hohner in 1954, when he was a Vice President of the National Harmonica League (formerly the HSB). He died a year later.

He was probably responsible for teaching the majority of the harmonica players in the UK over his time with the HSB/NHL through the many tutors he wrote, the guidance he provided and the music he published.

This is based on an appreciation by Dr. O. Meyer, the MD of Hohner (UK), when Captain Reilly retired in 1955.

Tommy Reilly – A Life in Music – Vintage Tommy Reilly.

This is an extended version of the review that was published in the Aug/Sept 2019 issue of Harmonica World.

Cover from Tommy Reilly CD

Tommy Reilly – A Life in Music – Vintage Tommy Reilly.
Chandos CD2014
3 – CD Review by Cheng Jang Ming

Tommy Reilly is widely recognised as the master of the chromatic harmonica. He was born 100 years ago and he died 19 years ago. This collection of tracks was selected and lovingly assembled by his son David and Sigmund Groven. They have also written the extensive CD booklet covering his life and music. It is a great tribute to a unique virtuoso and giant of the chromatic harmonica.

Tommy learned violin and harmonica as a schoolboy in Canada. He started touring Europe at the age of 17, playing chromatic harmonica after his family returned to live in London. He was arrested in Leipzig in 1939 where he was studying violin and he was held in internment camps in Germany and Poland for the whole of the Second World War. The camps contained many other musicians and the imprisonment gave him the chance to practice and develop his approach to the harmonica. Being a violinist, he based his techniques on the playing of his idol, the violinist Jascha Heifetz. Tommy had access to food parcels from the Canadian Red Cross and he exchanged the coffee he received with a prison officer for Hohner harmonicas, a very precious instrument at that time. He managed to keep his violin all through the war, but it was stolen on the flight back to Britain at the end of the war in 1945.

Once he was back in London, he began to build a career playing harmonica in music halls and on the BBC.

The tracks range from his first recording, Deep Purple, made on his return to England in 1945, to his early 78rpms, and unreleased and commercial recordings made up to 1980. All the tracks have been carefully restored to bring them up modern standards.

There are tracks from Tommy’s many appearances on BBC Radio in the 1950s where he played classical music and standards. These led to 78rpm recordings on Parlophone where he was one of George Martin’s first artists. Together they employed new techniques such as echo and overdubbing on tracks like Bop! goes the Weasel and Dinah.

Tommy was a violinist in his youth and much of the inspiration for his harmonica playing came from studying Jascha Heifetz, I believe that although his instrument is harmonica, he still thinks like a violinist. You can hear his violinist style at play in his versions of Scarlatti’s Sonata, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Rachmaninoff’s Serenade, and in David Reilly’s Age of Innocence.

In fact, Zigeunerweisen is for advanced violinists, and in recent three decades several harmonica players have performed it in its entirety. But no matter how well they manage it, it always sounds to me like a tremendous effort from them. It would surprise many people that way back in 1953, Tommy Reilly had already conquered this song, not with great effort but with ease. He did it not by playing the entire work, but by picking the relevant parts. His version, rendered with impeccable ease, rhythm and vigour, truly sounds as fluid as a violin version.

Tommy’s own arrangements of El Cumbanchero, Jealousy, Begin the Beguine, The Breeze and I, are full of playfulness and ingenuity. These songs, in their original form, are rather easy ones for harmonica. But after being arranged by Tommy, they become advanced pieces for harmonica while still keeping their original lyrical flavours.

I first heard Gigue played by Tommy in one of his early videos. This is from Bach’s “Partita No. 3 in E major BWV 1006” for unaccompanied violin, a rather unusual piece to play on harmonica. The partita contains 6 pieces, the most famous one for harmonica players is Gavotte en Rondeau, made famous on harmonica by both Tommy Reilly and Larry Adler. They have their own arrangements (both transposed to key of C major). This Gigue is played by Tommy in the key of G major instead of the original E major. It is a very nice study piece for harmonica.

Voice from the Past, this is the first time I have heard this orchestra version. I really love this arrangement for harmonica accompanied by strings and guitar. It brings to me a deep sense of nostalgia. I couldn’t help it, I listened to it over and over again several times, as I consider this to be one of Tommy’s best performances.

I have the opportunity to listen to many old recordings of Tommy and also all his published CDs and many LPs. I actually prefer his vibrato from his early years, more intense, more violin-like. And this CD again confirms my feeling, because all tracks are from 1970 or earlier, except the last two.

The Red Flame is an original composition by Tommy. This song, and Hora Staccato, showcase his unmistakable throat staccato, so incredibly fast and yet distinctly clean. How on earth can anyone play throat staccato in octave at such high speed? He invented the Silver Concert harmonica only in 1967; I wonder how he could play so fluidly using those old 270 Super Chromonicas in the 1950s and 1960s.

Many of these recordings have not been easy to find in the past and I was pleased to be able to hear some old favourite again. The 30 tracks on this CD cover all the music styles Tommy is known for – classical pieces, popular music, Irish music, pieces written for harmonica, his own composition and arrangements and musical novelties.

This retrospective look back at Tommy’s recordings is a great introduction for anyone who is unfamiliar with his work, as well as providing some great listening for lovers of music everywhere.

In the CD booklet, Sigmund Groven provides very comprehensive background details on all the songs in this collection. Tommy’s son, David, also recalls his vivid memories of his father playing his harmonica. You will never regret reading their writings!

At £9.99, it is a real bargain. The tracks are available for streaming and as a download from Chandos .

You can hear Tommy speaking and playing in these interviews by the BBC.

Here is a musical tribute to Tommy Reilly

SPAH – The first 20 years

The Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica, SPAH, was founded in 1963 by Earl Collins (1924-88), Gordon Mitchell (1927-2001) and Richard Harris (1938-2015). Fortunately, the youngest member of the trio, Richard Harris, was an enthusiastic photographer and recording engineer so you get a chance to hear the history of SPAH as it was happening.

This blog post is taken from a cassette tape of the soundtrack of a video that Richard made in 1983, from his vast archive of recordings, to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of SPAH. It is tribute to Richard Harris as well as SPAH. Richard was ahead of his time. Without his foresight and hard work this detailed audio history would not have been possible.

Here are Richard’s notes which accompanied the cassette he sent.

SPAH – The First 20-Years – featuring “THE HARMONICA MEN”, trio. Produced and narrated by: Richard Harris.
History of SPAH via music and the spoken word. Relive excerpts from the first SPAH meeting, Dec. 1962. Here the voice of founder Earl Collins, words of wisdom from harmonica greats like Tommy Reilly, Blackie Shackner. Remember firsts such as Richard Hayman’s Harmonica Concerto, April 1978, the first CanSPAH concert November 1965. And the radio and TV programs – a sampling includes the “I’ve Got A Secret” Show and the 8′ harmonica that stumped the panel. But, that’s history – history that will be remembered by early SPAH members and now 20 years later by you. All on a premium cassette in stereo (recorded 1983 converted to digital in 2018).

You can read more about the history of SPAH by visiting the excellent SPAH Archives webpage written by Manfred Wewers.

Tommy Reilly – In his own words

Tommy Reilly set the standard for playing chromatic harmonica and he was mainly responsible for the acceptance of the harmonica as a solo instrument on the classical stage. He had a prolific recording career. He was born in Canada in 1919 but spent most of his life in the UK.

Here Tommy talks about his musical life and plays some music on two BBC radio programmes – Music Weekly (Michael Oliver, 6 May, 1979), and Studio Portrait (Wilfred Parry (piano), 10 February, 1967).

Tommy’s silver chromatic harmonica was developed before the first radio programme in 1973 and after the second one in 1967.

1 – Music Weekly – Talking about the harmonica – Tommy Reilly
2 – Music – James Moody
3 – Talking playing the harmonica and repertoire – Tommy
4 – Villa Lobos Concerto for Harmonica – Tommy Reilly
5 – Talking about his Silver Harmonica – Tommy Reilly
6 – Parash’s Aria – Stravinsky
7 – Studio Portrait – Talking about composers – Tommy Reilly
8 – Caprice – Gordon Jacobs
9 – Scherzino – James Moody
10 – Talking harmonicas – Tommy Reilly
11 – Strawberry Fair – Leonard Morris
12 – Seventeen Come Sunday – Leonard Morris
13 – Talking history and harmonicas – Tommy Reilly
14 – Chanson Russe – Stravinsky
15 – Talking film music – Tommy Reilly
16 – Après un Rêve – Faurè
17 – Talking about Polish customs – Tomy Reilly
18 – Bulgarian Wedding Dance – James Moody

Major Chromatic Harmonica Soloists.

Four soloists were mainly responsible for rise in the popularity of the chromatic harmonica in the 1930s, 40s and 50s – Larry Adler, John Sebastian, Ronald Chesney and Tommy Reilly. They were all entertainers and the music they played came from musical shows, classical music and folk music. This programme is introduced by Larry Adler and it contains examples of the music they all recorded on 78rpm records.

There were other performers and they will be featured on future broadcasts.

Major Chromatic Harmonica Soloists.

1 , Ruth Etting , If I could be with you , 0:00
2 , Larry Adler , Smoke gets in your eyes , 0:30
3 , John Sebastian , Ritual Fire Dance , 4:00
4 , Ronald Chesney , Whispering/Margie , 7:15
5 , Tommy Reilly , Can anyone explain, Autumn Leaves , 10:17
6 , Larry Adler, Claire de Lune , 13:15
7 , John Sebastian , Maiden with the Flaxen Hair ,  16:20
8 , Ronald Chesney , Fantasie Impromptu , 18:20
9 , Tommy Reilly , Traumerie , 21:35
10 , Larry Adler , Body and Soul , 24:00
11 , John Sebastian , Malaguena , 27:07
12 , Ronald Chesney , Volare , 30:36
13 , Tommy Reilly , Jealousy , 32:57
14 , Larry Adler , Bolero , 35:40
15 , John Sebastian , The Harmonica Player , 39:08
16 , Ronald Chesney , The Flight of the Bumble Bee , 40:49
17 , Tommy Reilly , Hora Staccato , 42:57

Golden Age of the Harmonica on BBC Radio – 1950 to 1960

Imagine you are back in the 1950s. Tune your AM Radio to the BBC and listen . The harmonica was heard in many radio comedies, variety and serious music shows in the 1950s.

Here are some examples featuring Tommy Reilly, Larry Adler, Ronald Chesney, Max Geldray, The Morton Fraser Gang and The Three Monarchs. Shows mentioned include Dixon of Dock Green, The Grove Family, The Navy Lark, Educating Archie, The Goon Show, Workers’ Playtime, and Variety Bandbox.

Light Programme , Opening , 0:00
Workers Playtime , Essex , 0:16
Tommy Reilly , Medley , 0:31
Tommy Reilly , Dixon of Dock Green , 4:42
Tommy Reilly , Family Joke, The Navy Lark , 5:58
Educating Archie , Ronald Chesney , 9:25
Ronald Chesney , Blues in the Night , 12:05
Ronald Chesney , Hora Staccato , 16:35
Variety Bandbox,  , 18:07
Morton Fraser Gang , Medley , 18:15
Morton Fraser Gang , Body and Soul , 20:24
Three Monarchs , Beer Barrel Polka, 23:10
Three Monarchs , Small Talk , 25:05
Three Monarchs , Bach goes to Town , 28:52
Max Geldray , The Goon Show , 30:09
Max Geldray , Side by Side , 31:46
Max Gelday , So Rare , 32:54
Light Progamme , Larry Adler Programme 1 , 34:20
Larry Adler , Smoke gets in your Eyes , 35:10
Larry Adler , Holiday for Strings , 38:40
Larry Adler , Genevieve Film Music , 42:04
BBC Light Programme, Closedown, 48:43

Old Harmonica Favourites – Part 2 – Quartets, Trios, Duos and Soloists

More popular harmonica group favourites from the 1940s and 50s are from a large collection of recordings assembled by John Bryan (1924-2014) who built up contacts and friendships around the world who exchanged music with him. This broadcast covers tracks from many harmonica groups and soloists.  See also Part 1, Old Harmonica Favourites.

1. Dick Hayman – Saturday night in the Central Park – 2:07
2. Dick Hayman – Tootle oolie dooley – 2:41
3. W. W. Macbeth – Listen to the mocking bird – 1:03
4. W. W. Macbeth – Carry me back to the old Virginny – 1:16
5. Luciano – Esmeraida – 0:47
6. Luciano – Gipsy melody – 0:34
7. Morton Frazer Gang – Caravana – 2:45
8. Morton Frazer – Chelsea – 2:21
9. Nelson y su conjunto – De buen humor – 2:31
10. The Snapshots – Limehouse blues – 2:23
11. Cappy Barra Harmonica Gentleman – Voodoo –  2:42
12. Hotcha Trio – Saloon bar rag – 2:54
13. Ronald Chesney – Chiqui chaqui – 2:12
14. Los 5 Acordes – El jazz me entristece – 2:13
15. The Multicats – Avalon – 2:39
16. Tommy Reilly – Swiss merry go-round – 1:55
17. Trio Candido – Premier flirt – 1:49
18. The Herold’s Trio – Swing polka – 2:01
19. Roberto Abularach – Sombrero de copa – 2:49
20. Os Harmonicistas – Dinah – 1:49
21. Los Armonica Tango – El entreriano – 1:58
22. Walter Gomez & Picaros – Popurri italiano – 3:02

Old Harmonica Favourites – Part 1 – Quartets, Trios, Duos and Soloists

These popular harmonica group favourites from the 1940s and 50s are from a large collection of recordings assembled by John Bryan (1924-2014) who built up contacts and friendships around the world who exchanged music with him. This broadcast covers tracks from many groups and soloists. Some of the tunes are from the period of the musicians’ recording ban in the 1940s.  Harmonica players had not been allowed to join the Musicians’ Union and so were brought in to accompany singers.  As a result of their success harmonica players were finally admitted to the MU. See also Old Harmonica Favourites – Part 2.

1. POLKA DOTS – Intermezzo – 2:48
2. HARMONICATS – I love you – 2:34
3. PLEHAL BROTHERS – Saturday – 2:34
4. PLEHAL BROTHERS – Dalbacks – 2:27
5. DON RIPPS – Its a dew dew dewey day – 2:06
6. TOMMY REILLY – Family joke – 2:22
7. THE MULCAYS – Caravana – 2:15
8. LARRY ADLER – Sur le chein de Bahama – 2:35
9. TRIO HARMONIE – June night – 2:00
10. TRIO HARMONIE – Get up on the stairs – 2:39
11. MORTON FRAZER’S – Gang medley number one – 2:13
12. HILL BILLY’S TRIO – La danse des petite loups – V2:52
13. TOOTS THIELEMANS – The Sheik of Araby – 2:08
14. HARMONICA GENTLEMEN – In our old home town – 2:50
15. HARMONICA GENTLEMAN – Am I all of your future? – 2:30
16. HOTCHA TRIO – Goody goody – 2:47
17. CARL FREED – Ridin’ the reeds – 2:41
18. PHILARMONIC TRIO – Two o’clock boogie – 2:20
19. THE MADCAPS – Limehouse blues – 2:16
20. BORRAH MINEVITCH – Jamaican rumba – 2:34