TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Garnet Mimms is all but forgotten today, but he was one of the early voices of soul. His records have been long sought by collectors, especially from his glory days on United Artists and Veep Records. Thanks to a new collection of those recordings, called "Looking For You," rock historian Ed Ward has Mimms' story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYTIME YOU WANT ME")
GARNET MIMMS: (Singing) Come on back. Come on home. You went away and left me alone in this empty place. Everywhere I go, all I see is your sweet face. Though my pain keeps on growing, there's one thing you should be knowing. Come on back.
ED WARD, BYLINE: Listening to the way he sings, it's undeniable that Garnet Mimms came up in the church and had a gospel career of sorts before hitting the big time. He was born Garrett Mimms in 1933 in West Virginia, but everyone called him Garnet for some reason. And after he'd grown up singing next to his mother in church, the Mimms family moved to Philadelphia, where he was in several gospel groups that made records. His day job was in the laundry at Temple University, though, and he'd listen to the radio and heard Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke there. In the Army, Mimms put together an R and B group, the Deltones. And after he mustered out, he formed the Gainors, a group that included his friend Sam Bell and another future star, Howard Tate. The Gainors made a record for Cameo, but the group never caught on, so Garnet and Bell formed The Enchanters with Zola Pernell. And after a few gigs in a club in 1963, they invited producer Jerry Ragovoy to one of their shows, and he was hooked. Ragovoy was in the process of moving to New York to write and produce with Bert Berns, and Ragovoy was so excited about the first song he and Berns wrote that he called Garnet up and told him to bring The Enchanters to New York to cut it. And so a masterpiece was born.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRY BABY")
THE ENCHANTERS: (Singing) Cry, cry baby, cry baby, cry baby, welcome back home. Now he told you that he'd love you much more than I, but he left you, and you don't, you just don't know why. And when you don't know what to do, you come running and start to cry, cry baby.
WARD: Ragovoy knew it was a hit. The labels he took it to disagreed. There had never been a record that sounded like it. But finally, United Artists took a chance on it. United Artists was one of the film studios that had recently entered the record business, but their inexperience couldn't hold "Cry Baby" back. It shot to the top of the R and B charts and went to No. 4 on the pop charts. Warner Bros. had also started a label - Loma - for black pop music. And The Enchanters went over there to record while Garnet stayed with UA. Ragovoy produced both acts and changed Mimms' sound for his first solo record.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME BABY")
MIMMS: (Singing) Tell me, tell me, baby. Tell me, tell me, baby 'cause I've got to know, I really got to know. I can't go on unless you tell me so. Say it wasn't you, girl, that they saw last night, dancing and carrying on with my best friend till the early bright. Tell me you were home in bed. Tell me you were down with the flu. Tell me anything, baby, but don't let me find out that you been untrue.
WARD: This was truly revolutionary. And it was an R and B hit, although the Beatles probably were responsible for it not doing as well on the pop charts as it might have. There were only so many slots on it, after all. But Mimms kept on hitting the target with the help of great production from Ragovoy and from backup vocals by a group of women, also former gospel singers, who would later make their own records under the name, The Sweet Inspirations. "One Girl," his next record, didn't do as well as his previous records, but he made up for that with "Look Away" in the summer of 1964.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK AWAY")
MIMMS: (Singing) All alone standing here by myself, and my girl is walking right down the street with someone else. There's not a place that I can run in a town this size. So I just better look away. I said I better look away. I said I better look away before she sees the tears in my eyes.
WARD: But something must've gone wrong after that. For two years, Garnet made records for UA and none of them hit. It wasn't the end, though. Out of nowhere, in the spring of 1966, Garnet Mimms had another hit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL TAKE GOOD CARE OF YOU")
MIMMS: (Singing) I let you go. For what a fool I was to hurt you so. But now I know all of the good times, the big city sights. I had enough of the bright party lights. They'll never make up for the long, lonely nights because I need you. I need you. I need you. And I promise that I'll take good care of you.
WARD: But that was it. United Artists started a soul label, Veep, and Mimms made some records for them but to no avail. Eventually, he and United Artists and Jerry Ragovoy parted company, and he recorded for some other labels. Janis Joplin had a hit with a remake of "Cry Baby" in 1971. And then in 1977, Mimms had a one-shot disco hit with "What It Is" that did pretty well. In 1978, though, his father died, and Mimms went through a personal re-evaluation. He returned to the church, and today, he's an ordained minister and sings only sacred music.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Austin. The music he played is from a collection of Garnet Mimms's recordings called "Looking For You" on Kent Records.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BABY")
MIMMS: (Singing) And when I work hard all day long, well, it don't bother me no how. Oh, tell me how could anything be wrong when I got my baby, when I got my baby.
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")
KIKI RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) Hi. I got some good news to tell you.
MYA TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) What?
RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) About me and Chester.
TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) Girl, (laughter), I know what it is. You're breaking up with him?
GROSS: That's a scene from the new film, "Tangerine," about two trans women who are sex workers in LA. Tomorrow I'll talk with the director, Sean Baker, and with one of the film's stars, Mya Taylor. Baker discovered Taylor at an LGBT center in LA. Join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.