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A year and a half later, a treasured voice returns — and maybe so does a city

It was just a step up from the floor to a low stage, just one nod to the band, just the first soft words of “My Funny Valentine,” that standard of standards by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart: “Stay little valentine stay.”

That’s all it took and without the slightest mention of taking more than a year off for a pandemic, Tony Middleton, well-known to New Yorkers who cherish the art and human depth he brings to his singing, was back. On a recent Saturday night in the lounge of Tribeca’s Roxy Hotel, he sang in front of an audience for the first time since the COVID era began, facing a crowd settled in front of tables that held martinis and fluted glasses of Prosecco, dinner for some.

Middleton, dressed in a dramatically bright blue suit, moved on to other familiar songs. “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “My Way,” and the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” have always echoed the ups and downs of life. But as sung this night by this time-tested singer — Middleton turns 87 next Saturday – every nuance bristled with a sense of raw survival that reflected this moment, in this city making its way from catastrophe to recovery.

“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,” Middleton sang with a serious slowness that felt more like a grief-laden Mahler adagio than any popular song. The implication of vast, collective loss made hearing it almost agonizing. Surely, Paul McCartney could never have imagined it being heard at a time like this, and Middleton seemed to give it this new dimension intuitively.

One of those sitting in front of him, listening to Middleton and his band—pianist Jon Weber, bassist Marco Panascia or drummer Dwayne “Cook” Broadnax – was Phyllis Cortese, Middleton’s long-time manager. Cortese told me between sets that Tony and the band had not managed to rehearse before this evening’s show.

She said she hadn’t heard him sing for 16 months until he opened his mouth at the Roxy.

“I’d call during the year and ask him, ‘Tony, are you doing anything to keep your voice in shape?” Cortese recounted. “’Are you vocalizing?’ And he said, ‘No.’”

“That’s Tony,” she said. “He has that confidence that when he needs it, when he comes back, it’ll be there. He comes to life when he has an audience. It was nerve-wracking for me. I didn’t know, when he got up there again, what am I going to hear?”

Middleton’s emotive, agile baritone may have sounded more weathered than before he and the world faced the COVID cataclysm, but a steely resilience had gathered inside that voice. Before anyone knew a virus could stop New York, I’d gone to hear him in different settings—the Carnegie Club on 56th Street, the Kitano Hotel, at Park Avenue and 38th St, where he was a fixture at their weekly jazz brunch and sang in public for the last time on March 8, 2020.

On this night, his singing felt strong but distinctly different.

“He sounds great,” I told Cortese, whose soft features carried more than the usual professional worry as Tony moved slowly behind her, helped by a cane. Separately, they mingled with a crowd of about 35 people who almost filled the room.

In normal times, loyalists travel from all over the metropolitan area to hear him. Tonight, some had called to tell Cortese they remained too anxious to brave an evening inside.

In truth, it wasn’t a purely typical Saturday night in New York. The city outside was filled with worries about crime and whether office buildings will ever fill with workers again.

“I took the subway down from the Upper West Side, and it was virtually empty. It’s Saturday night in New York, and there were so few people we could social distance,” one woman in the audience told me. “We got out at Franklin Street, and there was a nice buzz of young people in Tribeca. The flower is just slowly opening.”

As she said that, Tony pushed out of the crowd and sat with me.

“It’s there, Tony, your voice is right there,” I told him.

I meant it. The critics who have compared Middleton’s voice to that of Joe Williams and who rank him among the most masterful and distinct male vocalists to emerge in the middle of the 20th Century would have found those views confirmed tonight. I told him: “What do they say about having to live life to sing about it? In some sense, you sound better than before.”

“No,” Tony said, shaking his head. “It’s been a hard year. You know what happened to me, right?”

I hadn’t talked with him in the many months. “No, I don’t,” I said. “What?”

Middleton’s lips barely moved: “A stroke.”

“A stroke?”

“A small stroke.”

“Were you in the hospital?”

“Yeah,” Tony said.

“I can’t tell from your singing,” I said. “It feels like everything you want to get across comes across.”

Responding to an inner alarm clock that told him to start his second set, he stood up with startling energy and headed back across the room.

He walked with a persistence against the odds that is not new for Middleton, as it isn’t for anyone who endures an until-death-do-we-part marriage to one of the arts. Early on, he won recognition as the lead singer of the Willows, one of the most popular Doo-Wop groups to emerge from Harlem, and had a hit called, “Church Bells May Ring.” He’s made other records, sung in several Broadway shows, lived in Paris and had a hit in Europe called, “Paris Blues.”

Drawing on the traditions of jazz, soul and r & b, he sustains them with phrasing that brims with genuine feeling but stays subtly controlled. He does so as one of the last living connections to a rough-and-tumble era when Black singers and their musical styles began to find mainstream audiences through recordings produced by companies run mostly by Jews.

Before COVID hit, following Middleton from club to club, I was starting to study his career in the complex context of those music business figures and their impact on American culture. That adventure was interrupted like so much else. Before this show, like countless people, I heard a lot of music that was wonderful but remote.

Middleton settled into his chair on stage for his second set, and gave a nod to his pianist. The room’s mood turned quietly serious for his rendition of “Georgia,” after he ceremoniously gave credit to Ray Charles. It woke up with a jolt of high spirits to his exuberant singing of, “My Girl,” the Temptations hit.

After singing a few more changeless songs in this changed world, he closed with a Cole Porter hit from near the end of World War II, “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” possibly the most wrenching song about separation ever written.

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