Saturday, October 2, 2010

Cry Baby, Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters (1963)

My new best friend, Pandora, continues to knock 'em out of the park, with discoveries daily without too much effort on my part. Today's offering is Garnet Mimms.

I love me a good torch song, and one of my favorites has always been Janis Joplin's Cry Baby. As it turns out, though, her version was a cover. The original torch singer on this was a man, Garnett Mimms, and the song was written for him specifically. The divine Mr. Mimms version charted first, and it landed high on the R&B and pop charts (this was just a year before I was really listening to music though so I never heard it). This guy had pipes! Why am I just now discovering him?  Everything I'm reading says he was "criminally underappreciated."

Ignorance of the provenance of many songs is rampant, and combating that ignorance - including my own - has become one of my greatest motivations for continuing this blog. I don't watch American Idol, but I just saw a piece stemming from a 2009 performance of Cry Baby by Allison Iraheta.  Simon Cowell referred to the song in front of 30 million viewers as Joplin's song. A gigantic missed opportunity to say whose song it really was, especially since he is still alive, and has spent many years since leaving the music business ministering to his own church flock in Philadelphia as well as to prison inmates.  

Mimms was born in West Virginia but moved to Philadelphia after high school graduation.  He idolized Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, and it shows. Around Philly, Mimms sang with various gospel ensembles and then made the usual move to secular music, forming a doo-wop group called the Gainors with Howard Tate (here's their biggest hit, The Secret). New York called to Mimms, though, where producers Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns wrote Cry Baby to showcase his spectacular gospel-inflected voice. It skyrocketed to success. (Ragovoy is the same guy who wrote Time Is On My Side and Piece of My Heart, songs that were recorded by black artists before they were covered by white.)

Just after that, however, something happened that conspired to keep Mimms in the background. Late in 1963, and continuing until early 1965, Billboard suspended its R&B chart, maintaining that the crossover phenomenon largely spurred by Motown's ascent made the pop chart fully representative of the spectrum of popular music at that time. An interesting concept, but a British Invasion-Motown collision in 1964 made it virtually impossible for other R&B acts to get the attention they deserved. And so it was with Garnett Mimms. 

Once Billboard restored the R&B charts, Mimms regained some traction with I'll Take Good Care of You, but getting singles on the radar screen was a losing enterprise after that. He went to the UK and performed with Jimi Hendrix there; he tried funk in the 70s. But he never again had the momentum that he did with Cry Baby.

Still, I have friends who not only remember him but saw him live in 1966. My music pals Jim and Chuck were two of those who were blessed to see Mimms in a big soul revue here in Akron, Ohio, headlined by Otis Redding. The mind reels just thinking about what the entirety of that experience must have been like. On the same freaking bill were the likes of James Carr, Percy Sledge and Sam and Dave. 

I'll play Mimms out with another great Ragovoy song that he recorded, As Long As I Have You, a dynamic ditty that one Robert Plant would probably have a lot to say about since he's covered it for years in Band of Joy, early Led Zeppelin and Priory of Brion. The rest of us have probably never heard of it, because it was no more than a forgotten LP track until the advent of YouTube. That's just wrong, but there's no time like the present to come up to speed. 

And I'm not done yet - two years ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a great story on Mimms and a new recording he was enticed to do, Is Anybody Out There?  Not sure what might have happened in the intervening two years, but I see I have more research to do ...  

1 comment:

Holly A Hughes said...

Another great piece of musical excavation! Y'know, I'm pretty sure I'd heard this song at the time, because when Janis' came out I always thought of it as a cover. But I couldn't have told you who did it. Fascinating about that little glitch with the Billboard charts; it explains why so many acts I heard once or twice on the radio never really got traction. Wonder if there was some pay-off from Motown to guarantee they'd have a lock on the charts?