Strangely enough Mirwood is a household name. Admittedly only among a few select residences dotted around the north of the UK and the odd foreign outpost, but the cry “Go and put some Mirwood on Agnes” is as common up there as “Do you want a cuppa Arbuthnot?” That’s because two generations of Northern Soul devotees have been brought up, while dandled on their mother’s knee, to the sounds of Jackie Lee, Bobby Garrett and the Olympics playing on the phonogram.
To research the label properly was therefore a daunting task. This wasn’t just a group of records that happened to come out under the same brand name, but a musical sound that has determined a way of life for thousands of people who like their soul music “fast and viberant” (sic). Unfortunately what has been written about the label has been sparse, speculative or utter balderdash. To put that right and to maintain Kent’s high standards, I’ve been locked away in a garret (no relation) at Ace Towers to plough through the reams of paperwork that fortunately came with the label’s purchase. Given access only to a toilet, tripe and onions, Eccles cakes and a direct line to five hand-picked soul gurus, I’ve come up with eight thousand words of wisdom which includes 914 facts and two jokes. I pray it was worth it: God (better known as Fred Smith), will be my judge.
The North’s love affair with Mirwood started innocuously enough with a cool dance number called The Duck. The singer Jackie Lee happened to have been on half of a successful male soul duo called Bob & Earl. His partner Bobby Garrett also recorded for the label as a solo act, which just the occasional recording together. The Duck was a big US hit and saw a lot of life inEngland’s trendier discotheques in 1966. The follow up album sold well too, but hidden among the tracks was the blueprint for what would become the Mirwood sound. Producer Fred Smith along with arranger James Carmichael used the LP to develop their own house style and tracks like ‘Do The Temptation Walk’, ‘The Shotgun And The Duck’, ‘Everybody Jerk’ and even re-cycled old hits like ‘Hully Gully’ and ‘The Bounce’ were given his brand new groove. The sound was urgent but smooth, with a relentless beat that was enhanced and bewitched by the celestial sound of vibes. They completed and polished off this beautiful gem of a sound and discerning soul fans became aware that a new dimension had been added to the discotheque sounds.
The next clue to the new direction was a release from stalwart R&B group the Olympics, previously best known for their 50s, Coasters-sounding, rock’n’roll hit ‘Western Movies’. ‘Secret Agents’ was a lifetime away from that old sound and was of course a full-on Mirwood production that did get a UK release at the time.
It was the next Mirwood US single that would presage the second bath of masterpieces. The Belles’ ‘Don’t Pretend’/ ‘Words Can’t Explain’ was a double sided slab of uptempo soul heaven that was written by group member Sherlie Matthews. She would go on to be hugely influential in the path the company would take. Her writing talents were spotted and she was signed as a staff writer and went on to provide such soul classics as the next Olympics single and their biggest Mirwood hit ‘Mine Exclusively’. She then contributed ‘The Same Old Thing’, ‘My Little Girl’, ‘Oh My Darling’ and ‘Baby Do The Philly Dog’ among many others.
Despite the quality of the Belles single they never got to record as a unit again. Sherlie’s writing skills and the group constantly being used as the sublime Mirwood backing singers saw to that. Additionally the two other group members were world famous soul sisters (literally), who were signed to other companies as solo acts. Their success as a group would have presented Mirwood with a bigger headache than ever signing the Ikettes up from Ike Turner, and changing their name to the Mirettes did.
The single failed to register anywhere except in LA but along with Richard Temple’s ‘That Beatin’ Rhythm’, Bobby Garrett’s ‘I Can’t Get Away’, The Sheppards’ ‘Stubborn Heart’ and Jimmy Thomas’ ‘Where There’s A Will’, were discovered by teenage soul fanatics in the UK in the early 70s. They went on to sell thousands to an audience of Northern Soul fans, that eventually covered the globe (albeit sparsely). The producers could never have even envisaged that; let alone aimed for it!
So what’s the music like then? Well, it’s about being young, vital and full of optimism; falling in and out of love, living for the moment and revelling in life. If you can’t remember what that was like, then this compilation will give you a thrilling reminder.
“But who were those famous sisters in the Belles?” I hear you say. That along with the Northern Soul classic that was given the same release number as the Sheppards but never came out, the true identity of the singers on the Belles ‘Let Me Do It’ and who ‘The Same Old Thing’ was going to be credited to, are facts you’re going to have to buy the CD for. I’m not spending half my life eating tripe to give you lot free entertainment.
By Harboro Horace