Inductee of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2010, Lee Tillman was born and raised in Denham Springs, a small city approximately five miles from Baton Rouge. He started singing as a teenager in the late 50s, as a member of various vocal groups on and around a local college campus. In the evenings he would go to see Lester Robertson perform at a local club who at that time had a record out called “My Girl Across Town”.
One night when Lester called him up on stage to sing two or three songs, local Buddy Stewart was listening in on the entertainment. Stewart was a saxophonist and band leader who took his group The Top Notches around the south in the 1950s and 1960s. He was also later to lead The Herculoids, a backup band for artists including Solomon Burke and Jackie Wilson when they performed in Louisiana.
“That night when I was on stage with Lester, Buddy Stewart came over and offered me a singing job, saying he’d pay me $75 for a weekend’s work” remembers Lee. “He asked me to call over at his house for rehearsal. As it turned out, Buddy’s band happened to have a job on that week. Things happened pretty quickly from there. I told my restaurant supervisor where I worked that I’d have to quit. We had a recording session set up the week, and cut some stuff in New Orleans. No actual record at the time though. Apparently “Have Love Will Travel” got some airplay, and people were asking at record stores where they could get the record. Eventually it was pressed up on Ron (Ron 341). That was 1961. I was 25 years old at the time. I did some performing after that, then no more recordings though until I worked for Sam Montel in ‘64 and ‘65.”
Sam Montelbano was from an Italian family who operated a fruit and vegetable packing business in Baton Rouge. However, Sam had developed an interest in music rather than the family business. He went about setting up his own music store and spent a couple of years travelling as manager with ex-schoolmate Jimmy Clanton after his success of the million selling “Just a Dream”. Around 1957 and in his late teens he formed Montel Records. Hits appeared almost instantly, regionally and on occasion nationally with Lester Robertson, John Fred and the Playboys and other swamp pop acts. By the early 1960s Sam was aware of the emerging R&B sound, and used his Michelle label (named after one of his three daughters), to include these. Joe Tex, whilst still firmly attached to Buddy Killen’s Dial label at the time, did moonlight for other labels including Checker and also recorded “The Next Time She’s Mine” / “I’ve Got a Song” for Sam (Michelle MX-934).
Lee had a total five releases on Michelle and Montel-Michelle, including covers of “Fortune Teller” and Danny White’s “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”. “All These Things” (Michelle MX-929) was originally recorded by Art Neville in New Orleans after he was given it by Allen Toussaint and Joe Banashak. Lee presents a punchier, more uptempo version than Neville’s ballad approach.
His next release was as Lee Tillman and the Secrets “She’s the One I Love” for Whit label (Whit 718). Label mates here included Merle Spears (discussed elsewhere in this book), who Lee discovered only many years later was his cousin. Label owner Lionel Whitfield brought “She’s the One I Love” to Lee, and the track was cut at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans in 1966. The original version was by The Delacardos (Q-City 45 1001; Atlantic 45-2368), a popular North Carolina act at high schools, rock and roll revues and on the college circuit. The Delacardos have long attracted the attention of doo-wop record collectors for their first release in 1959, “Letter to a school girl” (Elgey 1001) and beach music enthusiasts for “Hold Back the Tears” (United Artists; UA 310). Written by The Delacardos’ bass player Ronnie Grier, this was recorded at Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, NC in the same year that Lee Tillman recorded the song. Both versions are known to the rare soul scene in the UK. The Delacardos’ story can be found in It’s Better to Cry, a previous publication by the author.
The Redwal publishing credit appearing on the Q-City, Atlantic and Whit labels refers to the Macon, Ga. Operation which was run by brothers Phil and Alan Walden. Whilst a student at Mercer University Phil set up his own company to promote the career of friend Otis Redding (whom he had met a couple of years earlier) and over forty other R&B acts. In 1965 on the back of the success of the “Otis Blue” album, they set up Jotis Records, and with that, the Redwal production, a publishing and management arm. However the activities of Redwal extended beyond Jotis. Several future stars including Bobby Womack, James Carr, Clarence Carter, Tyrone Davis as were lesser known artists regional artists. The Waldens already knew The Delacardos from the early sixties, when they promoted the band as a live act at a local club alongside Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. How a Carolina record came to the attention of Lionel Whitfield is not known.
The Whit recording was to be Lee Tillman’s last. He found it difficult to pursue a singing career and the necessary travel while trying to put his children through school. However he continued to play in local bands around Baton Rouge, including Buddy Stewart’s Herculoids. “She’s The One I Love” was rediscovered by the northern soul scene in the UK in the early 1980s and received regular plays at various venues then and since. “All These Things” is also of interest to the rare soul collector, on the northern soul and popcorn scenes. These days, Lee is retired and at 78 years old, is a private man happiest on the golf course.
From "Rhythm Message" by E. Mark Windle. Available to order in the new book section.