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.

Toots Thielemans at 100

Toots died in 2016 but he would have been 100 if he had lived until 2022. This year there was a series of events including concerts in Brussels and around the world to celebrate his life and music. You can see more on the event website – 100 years of Toots Thielemans .

I love his music and enjoyed his enthusiastic personality which came across in his interviews.

Here is a great edit from the many conversations he recorded over his long career as whistler, guitarist and one of the best harmonica players. The compilation was put together by a Belgian DJ, Nico Kanakaris, who goes by the name of BlueNotes (Facebook).

Here are some memories of Toots and his life broadcast in German by ‘Das Feature – Deutschlandfunk’ with contributions from harmonica players – Steven de Bruyn, Hendrik Meurkens, Yvonnick Prene, Gregoire Maret … – and many top jazz musicians. Download the music from their webspage –
Der Weg der Mundharmonika – Toots Thielemans und der Atem der Melancholie

Here, Julian Joseph and Julian Jackson talk about Toots Thielemans in the Jazz Legends series broadcast by the BBC in the early 2000s. Julian Jackson is one of the top UK Jazz harmonica players and a session musician. He was been inspired by and had visited Toots. They play a number of recordings by Toots.

Homage to Toots – Steven De bruyn

When I started to play the harmonica 27 years ago, Toots was big in Belgium. He did not only play on films and in concerts, but also on many local music shows and local television series. He was also the godfather of the great Jazz Middelheim Festival and played the national anthem before an International Soccer game.

When I attended a workshop by Toots I had the nerve to play him a tune. He said Cool man, let’s start the second part like that and to my disbelief we played this tune together, Toots on guitar and me on the harmonica in front of all these music students. Afterwards he give me a big hug. He was a lot of fun with his Brussels accent – a true ambassador for Belgium.

After his seventies Toots could no longer play the guitar well, due to a stroke, and only from then on he became a full time harmonica player. He constantly reinvented himself and in the last years of his public performances he really got to the essence of his playing. Very bluesy, very sparse and soulful. He made me cry and laugh at almost every concert I heard him.

Amazingly, the longer I play, the more I play the chromatic, and I realise how wonderful Toots was and will ever be as a human, as a musician and as a mentor.

Thank you Toots for your kindness, humour, passion and inspiration!

This appeared in the October 2016 issue of Harmonica World as part of a special tribute to Toots.

Toots and Jazz – Howard Levy

I was lucky to meet Toots and play with him on two occasions – once around 1980 at a club in Chicago, and then at the Harmonica Summit in 2000 in Minneapolis.

When we met in Chicago, I told him how I chose to play Jazz on diatonic because I loved the bluesiness of the instrument and wanted to play everything on it. I told him that I visualize the keyboard when I play diatonic harmonica. Toots told me that he did the same – he called it keyboard vision from starting music by playing the accordion. I felt a real kinship with him.

He invited me to play a tune in the second set – he had heard of me and I think that he was a little curious. I was very excited and a little nervous so I picked Autumn Leaves, the simplest Jazz tune I could think of. The audience liked my playing. He then played a fantastic version of Speak Low. His knowledge of harmony gave me something to aim for- not just as a harmonica player but as a musician.

In 2000 Toots shared many stories of his early days playing sessions in NYC. When musicians showed a lack of respect for the harmonica. he showed them a stub from a royalty check from Bluesette with him. I loved this story. It showed his fierce, determined side and his great sense of humour and irony.

Toots was a total original. He didn’t imitate other harmonica players. He was inspired by all the great Jazz musicians – guitarists, pianists, trumpeters, horn players etc. and he played with many of them including his explorations of Brazilian music with Elis Regina and Oscar Castro Nueves. He combined these high- level musical collaborations and his encyclopedic musical knowledge into a powerful and emotionally compelling style that appealed equally to casual listeners and the most advanced Jazz players.

Toots was truly beloved by the harmonica world. His personal warmth was genuine. His playing was inspiring and directly touched people’s hearts. He also endeared himself to millions of children by playing the Sesame Street theme song. Many other people enjoyed his playing on film music without ever knowing it was him.

And finally – Bluesette. This innocent, seeming little tune that he wrote around 1960 is actually a 24 bar blues, and he put the clue right there in the title. It took me about 20 years of playing it to realize that. It uses descending be-bop 2-5 progressions a la Charlie Parker, but goes several steps further than the convention of going down to the 4th, continuing down the whole tone scale all the way to the key of the b2 before the final turnaround. It’s also a European-sounding waltz – graceful, humorous, elegant, harmonically advanced and bluesy all at once.
Just like Toots.

This appeared in the October 2016 issue of Harmonica World as part of a special tribute to Toots.

Memories of an Old Friend: Toots – Rob Paparozzi

Toots came to the USA in the 50’s to join the Benny Goodman band and later George Shearing. John Lennon saw this LP cover in a shop in Hamburg, with Toots playing guitar, and decided if the Rickenbacker 325 was good enough for Toots he wanted it and hit the pawn shop on the corner!

He moved to the NY area in the 50’s to Yonkers, Montauk and NYC, In the 70’s I found his number in the AF of M Musician’s Directory and called him. He told me he had no time to teach but would be glad to talk and advise me by telephone and he never refused my calls and we chatted many times.

He said, “we were phone buddies, and was happy to answer my questions and gave me some invaluable practice tips which I will always treasure. In the 70’s he would tell me he was ready to retire from the NY studio scene as he really wanted to be more known as a jazz artist with his own Quartet. I would go see him live in NJ/NY at Ramapo College, Gulliver’s, The Blue Note and Greene St. in NYC.

Years later I went to see Toots at Carnegie Hall called The Magic of Toots with my friend Chris DePino and teacher Robert Bonfiglio. At the end of the show with tears & a big smile in his eyes Toots came up to us backstage and said Guys, I can die now, I played with Herbie Hancock at Carnegie Hall – we all laughed.

I asked him many questions, he loved talking about his work with Quincy Jones and Jaco. He said he met Paul Simon when Paul was a kid. Paul’s dad was the bassist on the old Arthur Godfrey show in NYC in the 50s & 60s!
When the Beatles came to do the Sullivan show in NYC, Rickenbacker Guitars asked Toots to go and demo their Guitar for them in a NYC Penthouse – John loves Toots!

Then only 4 years after John was shot dead in NYC, Toots played on his son Julian’s hit LP Valotte. Three years later in 1987 Julian came up to me in a NYC club and asked me if he could sit in with my band….We did Johnny B Goode!

Toots told me that Quincy wanted to do a record someday with Stevie Wonder and Toots as the featured artists!…Quincy got too busy and that never reached fruition.

These are just a few of my Toots memories, I guess I need to write that book.

Goodbye Toots and thank you so much for everything.

This appeared in the October 2016 issue of Harmonica World as part of a special tribute to Toots.

Toots & me – Antonio Serano

I first met Toots Thielemans when I was only 17 years old, in Seville, during the World Exposition of 1992. My father and I had travelled there to hear and meet the great Toots Thielemans! I was beginning to get interested in jazz so I was really excited! We arranged to meet in the lobby of his hotel for a coffee and chat with Toots before the concert. The moment arrived and suddenly I was there sitting beside the genius of jazz harmonica. I felt the luckiest boy on earth.

I´m not sure what the conversation was about but after 10 minutes Toots said something I will never forget. He looked at me and said: Hey boy! you must be kidding if you think I´m going to let you play with me on stage like Larry Adler did! Imagine how I felt. For one second I was devastated.

Then he continued: Let´s see, what scale would you play on a Dmin7(b5) chord? I answered wrong not only because I was nervous but also because, to be honest, I had no clue of what Dmin7(b5) meant. My knowledge of harmony at that point was only about I IV V progressions. He stoped me and said: You still have to study a lot if you want to come up on stage with me. From that day on I started to take the study of harmony and improvisation seriously and I understood that playing the harmonica very well wasn´t enough if I wanted to play jazz.

I will always thank Toots for being so honest with me on a critical point of my career.

The rest is history…

Thank you Toots!!

This appeared in the October 2016 issue of Harmonica World as part of a special tribute to Toots.

Toots Theilemans Tribute – The Archivist

Jean Toots Thielemans: 29 April 1922 to 22 August 2016

I can say without hesitation that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time. On his instrument he ranks with the best that jazz has ever produced. He goes for the heart and makes you cry. We have worked together more times than I can count and he always keeps me coming back for more. Quincy Jones

Toots was a transcendental musician – if he had picked up any other instrument he would have been just as great. What was remarkable was that he was able to express the full range of musical ideas through the chromatic harmonica. He was playing music through the harmonica rather than playing the harmonica. Howard Levy

I feel best in that little space between a smile and a tear. Toots

Toots was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1922. He started playing a cheap accordion when he was three, but he took up the harmonica at sixteen after seeing Larry Adler in a film and realising what a harmonica could do. During the Second World War he heard a 78 recording of Louis Armstrong and his destiny was sealed.

His friends told him to get a real instrument. He was studying mathematics but he decided to become a jazz musician. He got to hear the local bands like Django Reinhardt and bought a guitar. He taught himself to play and soon got a reputation as a jazz player and after the war he joined a local band, Le Jazz Hot, where he got his nickname, Toots. He learned harmony through the guitar, which stood him in good stead when he played harmonica. Toots sat in at some New York jazz clubs when he made his first visit to the US in 1947, and he played with Charlie Parker in Paris.

In 1950, Benny Goodman asked him to join in his European tour which began at the Palladium in London in 1950. Toots moved to New York in 1951 and soon landed the guitarist’s seat in the George Shearing Quartet. He stayed for 6 years playing mainly guitar with some harmonica. In between gigs he was sitting in with some of the top bebop musicians. Toots recorded his first American jazz LPs in 1955/7, and the chromatic harmonica would never be the same again.

In 1957 Toots became an American citizen and he would divide his time between his Long Island and Brussels houses for the rest of his life. Toots also developed the art of whistling when playing guitar, and the original recording of his most famous composition, Bluesette, was done this way in 1962.

In the 60s Toots became a session musician and he began to be in demand for film music, something which lasted for most of his life. Toots moved more toward jazz in the 70s with appearances with Oscar Peterson, Jaco Pastorius and his landmark recording, Affinity, with Bill Evans in 1978.

Toots sufferred a stroke in 1982 which resticted his guitar playing. He had always suffered from athsma and he began to play more ballads. This suited his new style which used fewer notes, with the emphasis on melody and playing the lyrics of songs. In the latter years of his life, Toots toured with his quartet, usually with Kenny Werner or Fred Hersch on piano. He liked Brazilian music and produced two enjoyable CDs, The Brazilian Project.

Toots used Herbie Hancock as a pianist before Herbie was picked up by Miles Davis. Herbie returned the favour by setting up the two NY concerts which were held for Toots in Carnegie Hall, The Magic of Toots (2006) and The Lincoln Center, Toots 90th Birthday (2012) Toots developed a special musical friendship with Quincy Jones and they recorded film soundtracks and performed in festivals together on many occasions.

Toots was in great demand to play with top singers like Paul Simon, Ella Fitzgerald, Natalie Cole, and Billy Joel. He was the harmonica soloist for many filmscores such as, Midnight Cowboy, The Getaway, Sugarland Express, Cinderella Liberty, Turks Fruit, and Jean de Florette. Toots was cutting back on the demands of touring in his 80s and he finally retired in 2013 aged 91.

Hohner produced two harmonicas for Toots, the Hard Bopper and the Mellow Tone. Both are 3 octave and they are only available in C. The King of Belgium honoured Toots with the title Baron.in 2001. There are many videos on YouTube for anyone wanting to hear Toots. Toots recorded many LPs and CDs and these are available from record shops and online stores. These include two which provide a selection of Toots’ output from the late 40s to the present time, such as the Verve Jazz Masters 59 -Toots Thielemans, and Yesterday & Today from Universal Music BV.

This appeared in the October 2016 issue of Harmonica World as part of a special tribute to Toots.

Here are some great links to concerts and interviews with Toots on National Public radio in NY.