It’s been a heart-thumping, foot-tapping, brain-spinning adventure of a life so far for Kidderminster’s own Mr Tee.
Mr Tee – otherwise known as Francis Terry Thomas, also known as Francis T, or just plain Terry – has rubbed shoulders with soul and rock icons and promoted a number one hit in America.
He’s DJ’d at iconic venues like Blackpool Mecca, discovered rare soul tracks in the back streets of Miami and been a familiar face on the soul scene at Wigan, Manchester and the Midlands.
He once ran a fancy dress and joke shop called…you guessed it…Mr Tee Hee’s.
He’s exchanged banter with Robert Plant at a private ‘dansette’ party in a local pub.
And he saw Marvin Gaye perform in Los Angeles at The Greek weeks before his death:
“He came on in a dressing gown and went off in a thong.”
Now in his 65th year, and as he begins to recover from a life threatening illness, Terry is in a good place to reflect on a life so far filled with the fast rhythms, brass-backed harmonies and cool swagger of the northern soul scene.
“Music has been in my life for as long as I can remember but it was northern soul that really got me passionate and interested and that passion has never died.”
We meet in the bowels of Mr Tee’s Rock Shop in Kidderminster’s Horsefair.
It’s a vinyl mecca for collectors and musical aficionados, lined with what is conservatively predicted to be 100,000 vinyl records sorted alphabetically and by genre.
The shelves are stacked with CD collections and rare seven inch singles, while the walls are covered with cool promo posters and framed record sleeves from pop, rock and soul legends.
There are posters for festivals you wish you’d been at, and artworks celebrating bands you’ve never heard of.
There’s space to display an enormous Prince collection, rare photos of David Bowie through the ages and original Leonard Cohen LPs – all reflecting this year’s trade in posthumous memorabilia of rock’s fallen.
Led Zeppelin feature heavily, with second hand picture discs, signed albums and posters and rare new collections, all testimony to the proximity of rock icon Robert Plant, who lives a few miles down the road and is an occasional visitor and friend.
Terry tells a wonderful story of being invited to join Robert and friends in an upstairs room at Wolverley’s Queen’s Head pub to swap musical choices.
There is a brilliant collection from the 70s and 80s – if you were a fan of Madonna or Michael Jackson, of new wave pop or punk, of Mod or soul, there will be something here to bring memories flooding back.
Prog-rock features heavily – the likes of Rush, Cream, Crosby Stills & Nash, Neil Young et al – as does folk and world music.
But the highlight and the biggest draw for regular visitors is the continually expanding northern soul collection, including memorabilia and books.
Terry’s first foray into buying and selling northern soul was in the early 70s. He spent his weekends at all-nighters in Blackpool and the north west (he originates from Stockport), his weekdays at work.
He began importing soul tunes from little known US record labels and, from a table outside the double doors to the famous Highland Room at Blackpool Mecca, he began to sell them on.
He quickly established himself as a record dealer of repute among the dance audience, DJs and record collectors, and by 1973 he was dealing more seriously with higher value records.
“I’d make more in a night selling records than I was making working a full week at work,” remembers Terry.
At about this time he and his mate Terry Hodges, a badge maker from Kidderminster, began designing and creating pin badges. Interest spread like wildfire through the northern soul community and before long the Terrys were making unique badges for events at the Mecca for the new West Midlands Soul Club.
Soon they began making badges in collaboration with record labels and bands, and the trend was picked up by Mod, Two-Tone and Punk.
The Specials purchased badges he’d created, and UB40 and Steel Pulse were among his direct clients – he’d make the badges for them to sell on to their fans.
Now, some 35 years later, the badge business continues to find new outlets. In the late 1990s the demand for badges from Japan outstripped the British market – “we did half a million Mod and Punk badges in Japan in a year,” says Terry.
The first badge he created featured Soul Power 76 – now an iconic collectable among soul fans.
“I also love a badge I created and made for a Glasgow record shop to promote a new band that was just emerging – the band was Simple Minds.”
The two Terrys remain the biggest creators of CND and peace badges – something that gives them a certain amount of pride.
When I first visited Mr Tee’s some 12 odd years ago the badges were battling for space with a mountain of records, many piled precariously in high rise piles and split boxes.
It was not what retail marketers would refer to as a “customer friendly experience”.
“It was a bit of a mess,” admits Terry. “But I’m a hoarder by nature, everything has a value to me, so throwing anything out is very hard.”
The focus back then was on wholesale trade and badges – the shop was more of a storage place than a browser-friendly venue.
It was a diagnosis of cancer two years ago that triggered the shop makeover that visitors now enjoy. The man responsible was “the other Terry”, Terry Hodges, who has remained his firm friend and business partner through the decades.
It’s a relationship that’s become more tender, I suspect, in the past two years. When Terry began a gruelling course of treatment and operations, it was Terry Hodges who roped in volunteers and rallied the troops to oversee the reorganisation.
It remains a work in progress but a delighted Terry says the place is “transformed”.
“Terry Hodges and the team of vinyl volunteers have done an amazing job.”
As he now prepares to go back to work, hoping his ill health is behind him, he’s determined to spread the word and share the love about vinyl.
If you’re a fan of northern soul, a vinyl geek, a badge collector, or you just fancy spending some time in the company of some cool, friendly characters, drop in. The guys will even make you a coffee if you volunteer to dig through the hundreds of records still waiting in boxes in the attic to be catalogued and checked over!
Mr Tee’s Rock Shop, 65 Blackwell Street, Horsefair, Kidderminster DY10 2EL