First the facts
Michael Vernon Greenwood was born under the sign of Aquarius at the family home in Potters Bar, England on February 13th, 1951. His father was a Yorkshire engineer and the son of a self-made textile entrepreneur, and his mother a Cumbrian farmer’s daughter.
His parents were restless souls, and much of Mick’s early childhood was spent on the move. A month before his 12th birthday, the family emigrated from the leafy London suburb of Thames Ditton to the small rural town of Halifax, Pennsylvania, situated twenty miles up the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, on the edge of the Alleghenies in Iroquois Indian territory.
“I remember standing on deck of the Queen Mary ocean liner, passing Ellis Island heading for NYC’s docks in heavy January snow. It was the winter of ’63, and I’m sure the culture shock of moving continents would prove to be my saving grace...”
Musically, Mick was predominately self-taught, and found an affinity with the piano at around 4 years old, and at 14 was given a Kent electric guitar with a Sears Roebuck amp. After an initial disappointing cacophony, the guitar stayed in its case until Mick broke his right wrist on the wrestling mat at school. Wearing a cast, but still able to hold a pick between his thumb and index finger, he decided it was time to pick up the guitar and teach himself a few basics. With practice he started writing songs, and later formed his high school band, The DearSirs.
“Making music, writing songs and playing to people was such a carefree time in retrospect. Crazy rehearsals in bizarre locations getting the band together, then off to gig. I’d collect the money, pay the guys, then throw my share of dollars on top of an old trunk in my bedroom. Whenever I went on a date, I’d just grab some of the crinkled notes in my hand, and stuff them in my jean’s pocket without counting how much was there, and head out. Usually worked out fine. (The Cinderella license proved more of a problem!)”
Gap years were hard to achieve in 1968 due to the Draft and the war in Vietnam, so after graduating from Halifax High, Mick got accepted to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, ostensibly to pursue a career in law. Becoming more prolific as a songwriter, he played with several bands including Charlotte’s Web as well as performing solo in clubs further afield like New York’s Bitter End. In conjunction with a very basic tape recording, Mick was contacted by the legendary John Hammond of Columbia Records who became instrumental in launching Mick’s recording career.
“So off to Dickinson where I became one of the first asked to pledge a fraternity, and consequently one of the first to depledge back to the state of ‘independent’. The campus was full of facilities (and pretty women) and I had keys to the darkroom, art department and access to the music department, so the creative went alongside the academic.”
“One evening I went into the music department armed with my much-loved Martin D12-35 and sheets of A4. The room had a very basic reel to reel tape recorder and one microphone that recorded my vocal and at the same time picked up the sound of the guitar together with my bare feet keeping rhythm on sheets of A4 paper. No overdubs or retakes, just a crude tape of my songs. I didn’t know at the time how important this tape would become. I drove to New York with my lady Nancy and dropped off the tape at Columbia Records A&R Department. I didn’t have an appointment and it was the only tape there was. A few weeks later the phone rang, and it was the legendary John Hammond calling to arrange meeting up. Pure magic! In my ignorance, I didn’t know who John Hammond was, but he was to prove to be an incredibly important figure in my life. It’s worth noting that at this stage I didn’t have a manager, lawyer or entourage of hangers on. They would, however, manifest themselves later! ”
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In 1970 Greenwood was returning to England for a few months to take up a planned third year abroad at Exeter University and Exeter College of Art. John Hammond arranged a meeting with CBS London, and Mick was signed on the spot. Recordings of LIVING GAME, Mick’s highly-acclaimed first album, began at CBS Studios, and half way through, David Howells (Stock, Aitken and Waterman) who had done the actual signing became head of A&R at MCA Records in London, and negotiated taking Mick with him to MCA to be one of their major new signings.
The album was completed at Sound Techniques in Chelsea (the famous recording studio where Nick Drake & John Martyn recorded their best works along with Cat Stevens, John Cale, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Richard Thompson, Incredible String Band, Sandy Denny, Pentangle and others).
The sessions went so well that the celebrated musicians involved became his backing band on the road, Jerry Donahue, Pat Donaldson and Gerry Conway, along with keyboards/arranger Tony Cox. Other contributors were Fairport’s Dave Pegg and top jazz musicians– Karl Jenkins, Bud Parkes, Derek Wadsworth, Lynn Dobson, and Dudu Pakwana.
The Commonwealth Institute in Kensington was hired as the reception venue, and the highly-acclaimed LIVING GAME album was released throughout the world on MCA to great reviews, and among other accolades became Cashbox’s Import of the Week. There were some comparisons made, but the consensus was Mick had a range and originality of his own.
“This was a crazy period, things were happening fast, and a lot of looking back becomes blurred. Before I knew it, I had two managers (at the same time), a lawyer, an accountant, a press secretary, a truck, roadies and a state of the art PA system! I remember being invited to the reception for Wings at the Empire Ballroom, Leicester Square, and getting introduced to Elton John who said, “You’re the guy that’s meant to sound like me.” “No,” I replied, “you’re the guy that sounds like me.” It was an amusing and fairly amicable exchange, though interesting to now realize we were both on the MCA label in America and Canada from 1973. Someone had to win. CBS Studios was the first time I’d ever been in a professional recording studio. Then the move to Sound Techniques, a unique creative environment tucked away in the back streets of Chelsea. It used to be a dairy, control room upstairs overlooking the studio downstairs. Lots of mics, a Hammond B3 and a Steinway grand. I would go on to make three albums here. My relationship with John Hammond continued, despite the apparent skulduggery involved with the change of record companies. Years later on a trip to New York, we went to a nightclub in Harlem, and despite generously introducing me to folk as ‘a big star in England’, he also heavily reprimanded me for not staying with Columbia years before. “You would have been a household name by now” he said. I’ve come across a lot of bullshit in this business, but when a man of John’s stature and influence makes such a statement, it is to be believed. ”
Touring and television followed, and changes in personnel prompted the name ‘The Cockington All-Stars’ named after the farmhouse on the remote north Devon coast where Mick was living and writing new material. The lineup included Barry de Souza on drums, Dave Peacock on bass (a la Chas and Dave), with Jerry Donahue and Tony Cox remaining. With this collection, Mick returned to Sound Techniques to record his second album, TO FRIENDS. The record also features excellent backing vocals by Barrie St. John, Doris Troy and Jimmy Helms. TO FRIENDS was again well received and highly acclaimed, and acknowledged Mick’s change of direction.
It was 1972, and after appearing with the band on programs like The Old Grey Whistle Test, and performing solo at venues such as the Cambridge Folk Festival and German Top Of The Pops, Mick and the band toured the States, playing Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Palladium with Hot Tuna (a Jefferson Airplane offshoot), and Atlanta’s Coliseum with The Byrds, as well as clubs like The Earl Of Old Town in Chicago and the North Beach Revival in San Francisco.