In the 1980s, going to gigs was my default form of entertainment. Living in Kentish Town in north London, it was a short walk down to Camden, where I spent many happy nights in the Dublin Castle on Parkway, and other nearby venues.
But the Mint Juleps home patch was east London: they emerged from youth theatre at the Half Moon on the Mile End Road, where they had all worked as volunteers. So I don’t remember how I first found them – I don’t think it was round my way. But from the minute I saw and heard them, I was under their spell. Their personalities, their vivacity, their banter, but mostly their glorious voices and harmonies, were an irresistible wave of joy, “like a bolt of sunlight breaking through low hanging cloud” as one fan described it. Their gigs were simply the most enjoyable I’ve ever been to.
They were six girls: the four Charles sisters Debbie, Sandra, Lizzie and Marcia, and two of their school friends, Julie Isaac and Debbie Longworth. (“Four of us are sisters, but I bet you can’t tell which four.”) They had no musical training, and it seems they never set out to be stars: they started the journey to become professional singers when they agreed to a gig in a pub, after the owner had heard them singing at the Half Moon.
They sang unaccompanied, or a capella, and each took her turn in the spotlight, stepping across the stage to sing solo. They handled rhythm and blues, pop, soul, reggae and gospel from the fifties and sixties with complete assurance, style, and an infectious sense of fun.
Sandra would win a roar of appreciation for her astonishing extended “We-e-e-e-e-e-e-ll” at the beginning of Shout. Marcia’s resonant bass lines drove the songs along. And when super-cute, sweet-voiced Julie stepped out to sing One Bad Stud, every guy in the audience imagined she was singing just to him. Debbie Longworth and Lizzie were also great singers – Debbie playfully introduced herself as “the token white”. There were no weaknesses – every song was a delight, and you couldn’t keep the smile off your face.
For me the highlight came when Debbie C took a turn to sing gospel, with Jesus Gave Me Water – a number associated with Sam Cooke among others. Her vibrant, warm contralto, and especially her performance on this song was thrilling, and on the video there’s a lovely moment 56 seconds in when she shoots a look at the camera in annoyance after a slight fluff.
And it seemed to me, in my optimistic and naive twenties, to suggest – even in the midst of the Thatcher era – that we were on the dawn of an age where race would become irrelevant, where people would at last be judged on the “content of their character”, and this joyous music would lead the way. Perhaps it was the lager talking, but we seemed to be travelling so fast. How disappointing that thirty-five years later we are no closer to this destination. If I were black, disappointing wouldn’t cover it.
The group had a decent measure of success. They toured with Sister Sledge, Billy Bragg, Kool & the Gang, Lenny Henry, Shalamar, Fine Young Cannibals and provided backing vocals for Bob Geldof, the Belle Stars, Alison Moyet, Al Green, Gabriel and Dr. Feelgood. They worked with artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and appeared in Spike Lee’s 1990 TV production, Do It Acapella.
They were signed by legendary new wave label Stiff Records, who implicitly acknowledged that they were at their best as a live act by recording them live at the Shaw Theatre in London for their 1985 debut album One Time. They broke into the lower end of the charts with a charming version of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart in 1986 and with Robert Palmer’s Every Kinda People in 1987. They provided the final release on Stiff Records before the label folded: the rap-styled Girl to the Power of 6, produced by the highly successful Trevor Horn – celebrating girl power nine years before the Spice Girls came on the scene.
But their single releases abandoned the joyful a capella style. Their production leant towards 1980s fashions, leaving behind the variety which had been the foundation of their shows. They wrote some good numbers – in particular Debbie Longworth’s Don’t Let Your Heart, which I thought of as their signature song – but their studio recordings weren’t distinctive enough to grab the imagination of the record-buying public.
Some of the records sounded like a natural solo number had been hastily rearranged into a group song, to give all the girls a role. The records never quite captured what made them so special live, and some group members sensed that. In a 2013 interview Debbie Charles recalled frustration at Trevor Horn’s approach to production: “We’ve got a sound already, why’s he trying to give us a new one?”
Arguably Stiff Records lacked confidence in the genre: although the Flying Pickets had shown a couple of years before that a capella groups could have big hits in the UK, they had quickly faded from the charts, being seen as a novelty act.
Listening to the vitality and sheer joy of their live performances decades on, it seems incomprehensible and plain wrong that they didn’t take the world by storm. It may be that the lack of a single focal point made the Mint Juleps difficult to promote, but for me that was one of the attractions – the girls clearly had a lot of fun together, and supported each other as a team. As their career progressed, Debbie Charles and Julie Isaac were increasingly assigned lead vocals, and who knows, perhaps they were offered solo contracts (update – see blog comment below, only from DEBBIE CHARLES herself, no less), but the group stayed together.
I should admit to a track record of championing acts which fail to hit the commercial heights their talent merits. I confidently backed The Panic Brothers (who?) for stardom. I saw a swingin’ soul band called Q-Tips, and concluded that they were a great band, but that their singer was the weak link. That’s right, the singer who went on to fame and fortune as Paul Young. So what do I know? Sorry if I jinxed it for you, ladies.
But happily they seem not to dwell on coming so tantalisingly close to stardom, and in this 2013 interview the two Debbies focus on the things they got to do and the fun they had. From Debbie L: “We were like kids, just messing about and having a good time, but we were getting paid for it as well.” From Debbie C: “Absolutely no regrets at all, I would not change anything. People ask me if I miss the Mint Juleps…I miss sitting in our minibus with those five other people, because we used to laugh till we cried.”
There are other fans who refuse to forget the Mint Juleps. Like Niall McMurray, who has written eloquently in praise of their single Docklands. And like American superfan Robert Doyle, who wrote an outstanding blog piece on them in 2014 (see Part 2: The Music), and started the excellent Mint Juleps tribute page on Facebook the following year. He’s done a great job of keeping the flame alive, finding lost video gems from the past and building a fan community. Mint Julep members sometimes make cameo appearances in the comments – as four are sisters, it’s not difficult for them to stay in touch.
I have no doubt they can all still sing beautifully. Unhappily the Half Moon Theatre is now a JD Wetherspoon pub. But if Debbie, Debbie, Julie, Lizzie, Marcia and Sandra ever feel like getting together for a reunion concert in their east London patch, I’ll be first in line for a ticket. Or perhaps second in line. Just after Robert Doyle.