GARNET MIMMS (By Dominic Turner)

Born Garrett Mimms, 16 November 1933, Ashland, West Virginia (Some sources say 26 November)

The first time I heard the name "Garnet Mimms" mentioned was while skimming through a Robert Plant biography during my teens (I kid ye not!). History records that Birmingham's favourite rock-blues screamer would regularly perform Mimms' "As Long As I Have You" in his early days with the Band Of Joy, a pre-Led Zep blues/R&B outfit. Of course, the Internet was still a pipedream back then, and attempts to find out more about the eloquently-named Mimms proved fruitless. Many years on, and having heard the best of his output, it's plain that Garnet Mimms remains very much a peripheral figure in the history of black music, despite commanding enormous respect among soul aficionados around the world.

The Mimms family moved from Virginia to Philadelphia when Garnet was still a youngster. Given his classic religious upbringing, it was only normal that Garnet began singing in local church choirs. Blessed with a natural talent, he soon graduated to full-blooded gospel groups of a certain renown, such as the Evening Stars, the Harmonizing Four, and the Natural Four. His next group, the Norfolk Four, led to his recording debut on Savoy in 1953.

But Mimms did not feel that his vocal abilities need be limited to gospel. On returning to Philadelphia in 1958 after completing his military service, he discovered that times were changing and doo wop music had become serious business. After a brief stint in a secular outfit called the Deltones, Mimms wasted no time in forming a bona fide doo wop quintet, the Gainors, consisting of Sam Bell, Willie Combo, John Jefferson, Howard Tate (another figure destined for great things as a soul singer), and himself. The Gainors made frequent trips to the recording studio over the next three years, and cut a total of eight singles for three different labels: Red Top (later absorbed by Cameo Parkway), Mercury, and Talley Ho.

With little success to speak of, the Gainors folded in 1961 and Mimms and Bell left to form a new group. Together with Charles Boyer and, unusually enough, a female member, Zola Pearnell, they gave rise to Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters. Mimms was probably disillusioned with Philadelphia by now (shades of W.C. Fields perhaps?!) and, convinced that the city was more concerned with the teen idol phenomenon, persuaded his new bandmates that the future for their musical direction lay elsewhere.

Relocation to New York brought a meeting with legendary songwriter and producer Bert Berns. Under Berns' wing, they signed for United Artists and began a collaboration with a second historic songwriter/producer, Jerry Ragavoy. The partnership was immediately fruitful, yielding the classic "Cry Baby", an epic R&B tune which pretty much defined the sixties soul genre. The record was a smash hit, staying in the U.S. R&B chart for three whole months and reaching the no. 1 position. Even more surprising. "Cry Baby" hit number 4 in the pop chart, no mean feat for an uncompromising soul record. Janis Joplin also cut a stunning cover of the song (probably the version most people are familiar with) in 1970.

The Enchanters were warming to the task. Another Ragavoy tune, "Baby Don't You Weep" (surely the inspiration for Billy Joe Royal's wonderful "I Knew You When" a couple of years later?), scored a hit later in the year, and this was followed by a peerless cover of Jerry Butler and the Impressions' Abner classic "For Your Precious Love". United Artists had themselves a star. Garnet Mimms was something different: a singer with an extraordinary range (from powerful tenor to nerve-tingling falsetto) and an ability to switch from one genre to another with the greatest of ease. Indeed, the partnership between the Enchanters on the one hand and Ragavoy and Berns on the other was very much an experiment in applying Mimms' gospel and deep soul roots to the new uptown soul in vogue in New York.

Somewhat surprisingly, Mimms and the Enchanters parted company in 1964 following their sixth United Artists single, an impressive cover of the Jarmels' "A Little Bit Of Soap". The Enchanters did continue with Sam Bell as replacement lead vocalist, but there was little hope of recreating the magic of those previous UA releases. Mimms, on the other hand, was far from finished, and struck out on a promising solo career. The recipe was pretty much unchanged: powerful gutwrenching vocals grounded in the great southern tradition, but applied to the more polished and sophisticated soul/R&B sounds coming out of Detroit (read Motown) and New York. Ragavoy's production, together with vocal support from the likes of Dionne Warwick and Cissy Houston, was a fundamental part of such memorable singles as "Look Away", "It Was Easier to Hurt Her" (surprisingly a B-side when first released in 1965!) and "Looking For You" (a staple item in the collection of any serious Northern Soul collector). Mimms' last UA chart success was to be "I'll Take Good Care of You" (1966), a fine Berns/Ragavoy composition which just made the top 30. In retrospect, it's difficult to dispute that United Artists made some real clangers along the way; For example, the Motownesque pounder "As Long As I Have You" (a potential hit if ever there was one) somehow remained an obscure album track.

In 1967, United Artists relegated Mimms to their minor Veep subsidiary label, where he cut three singles, including "My Baby", another song subsequently covered by Janis Joplin, before moving on to Verve. At some stage during this period, he even supported Jimi Hendrix, but such label-hopping is usually a sure sign of a career on the downward spiral. Mimms realised that his last chance lay with his popularity on the Northern Soul circuit in the UK. Skipping across the Atlantic for a quick tour of British soul clubs, he was moved by the warm reception he received around the country. A live LP was recorded at Brighton Polytechnic (sorry. I just had to get that in!) but sales were disappointing. Mimms did manage one last visit to the charts with the frantic "What It Is", a 1977 recording for Arista credited to Garnet Mimms & the Truckin' Company. Even while nodding towards the rampant funk-disco scene, Mimms (like Joe Tex and Gene Chandler at around the same period) showed that he could still produce relatively worthwhile music, albeit a far cry from his United Artists years with Berns and Ragavoy. Nevertheless, he retired definitively from the music business soon afterwards, and has since become a born-again Christian.

So there you have the Garnet Mimms story. A blending of Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Solomon Burke and Chuck Jackson in roughly equal measures, a repertoire that dips into practically every area of sixties black America... but criminally ignored by the masses.

Recommended listening:
"Cry Baby/Warm and Soulful" [Beat Goes On, 1995]
"Best of Garnet Mimms: Cry Baby" [EMI/Capitol, 1993]

 
These pages were saved from "This Is My Story" for reference usage only. Please note that these pages were not originally published or written by BlackCat Rockabilly Europe. For comments or information please contact Dik de Heer at dik.de.heer@hetnet.nl

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