In the beginning came Ric Tic and Mirwood. Obviously Tamla and definitely Okeh were huge and vital, but I think the small indies with the big punch epitomised what was then known as Old Soul. That would be around late ’68 to early ’70 before the music was known as Northern Soul.
Run by Randy Wood, a savvy music businessman with years of experience at the black-owned Vee-Jay company, and having hit from the off with Jackie Lee’s ‘The Duck’, the signs were good for the new Mirwood label. The genius young arranger James Carmichael gave veteran Los Angeles producer Fred Smith the impetus of his youth and that vibes-laden rhythm of the dance craze hit laid the foundation for the next two years of soul dance perfection. The final piece of the jigsaw was Sherlie Matthews, a brilliant arranger of backing vocals whose knack for capturing the “Swinging Sound Of Young Hollywood” would result in some masterly compositions for the label.
Fred Smith not only brought Jackie Lee and Bob Relf (aka Bob & Earl) to the party, but threw in veteran vocal group the Olympics, all acts he had worked with previously. It took the company two goes to make the charts with the Olympics when ‘Mine Exclusively’ went to #25 R&B in mid-66. Their biggest hit for the label was the next one, ‘Baby Do The Philly Dog’, the epitome of the uptempo soul groove – too slick for the average English teenager but perfect for the breed who hung out in smoke-filled basement dives, powered by pills and a love of the music of black America. ‘Philly Dog’ was released at the time on UK Fontana; those cherished copies acted as the swansong for the soul mods but became the revered soundtrack to the Old Soul religion.
Sherlie Matthews tried to get in on the act performing with the Holloway sisters, Brenda and Patrice, on the Belles’ ‘Don’t Pretend’ and providing ‘He’s Alright With Me’ for her good friends the Mirettes (previously known as the Ikettes). She found she was too busy composing and writing backing vocal charts to concentrate on a career of her own and it was a fact that Mirwood’s best-sellers were recorded by the guys.
Jackie Lee came back strong with the storming ‘Your P-E-R-S-O-N-A-L-I-T-Y’ and ‘Do The Temptation Walk’ while his partner in Bob & Earl, Bob Relf (aka Bobby Garrett), joined in with ‘My Little Girl’, whose backing track was erroneously issued on a UK release and became a Northern monster. The Olympics hit back with the double-sider ‘The Same Old Thing’ / ‘I’ll Do A Little Bit More’, the latter title being sampled by DJ Fat Boy Slim and grooved to unknowingly by trendy young Brits decades later.
There were interesting one-offs from Jimmy Thomas, J.W. Alexander, Chicago group the Sheppards and a jazz/soul keyboard groove from session men the Hideaways as well as odd little pop pieces scattered throughout.
For me the company peaked with Jackie Lee’s magnificent ‘Oh My Darlin’’ which, although it still had the on-the-fours rhythm, was so much more than a dance record with a pleading vocal over the perfect backing track – a three-minute musical masterpiece. The adjacent release was Jackie’s duet with Dolores Hall, ‘Whether It’s Right Or Wrong’, a gorgeous, heartfelt soul ballad.
But these releases did not sell and Randy Wood tried outside sources for further success. The main one was Hank Graham’s Hangra stable which used Jimmy Conwell, Len Jewell Smith and Goodoy Colbert’s writing and producing talents. There were two releases on Jimmy Conwell, the second under the alias Richard Temple. The first was the instrumental ‘Cigarette Ashes’, which famously fetched the highest price ever for a 45 in the early 70s and was released in the UK within weeks; the vocal version, ‘That Beatin’ Rhythm’, grew into the epitome of Northern Soul. This production team also worked two excellent releases on Bay Area group the Performers.
That’s the American side of the story. The UK picture was possibly even more enthralling. Collectors knew the first releases from the early UK Fontana singles and the belated 1968 issue of “The Duck” LP on London. Odd Mirwood imports would slowly filter over to the UK and gradually a picture of the label built up in DJs’ and collectors’ minds. The releases weren’t super-scarce but hard enough to locate to become precious and beautiful to behold. The cachet of the vocal and instrumental versions of ‘My Little Girl’ and ‘That Beatin’ Rhythm’ added to the wonder and mythology of Mirwood. It became one of the first labels to be cherished but also one of the first to be exhausted, although the brand was kept alive by a series of dubious early 70s pressings made from the master tapes accessed by LA-based UK Northern Soul wheeler-dealer Simon Soussain. Those pioneering initial finds would also be among the first records spun in the hugely popular Wigan Casino oldies room Mr M’s and the later Friday Oldies All-Nighters.
Ace Records purchased the label in 2003 and we found unissued masters such as Bobby Garrett’s ‘Keep It Coming’, Jackie Lee’s soulful ‘Trust Me’ and the Belles’ cute ‘Cupid’s Got A Hold On Me’. We were able to unravel some of the mysteries that Soussain had initiated with his misinformation. The Belles ‘Let Me Do It’ was actually the Mirettes singing ‘I Wanna Do Everything For You Baby’ and Jackie Lee’s ‘I’ll Do Anything’ was really called ‘Anything You Want, Any Way You Wanna’. They were issued on the two volumes of the “Mirwood Soul Story” CDs and the correct writers credited at last. We found many relevant documents in the paperwork and were able to recount the history of the record company for the first time in any depth.