This month it will be 40 years since Russ Winstanley booked Wigan Casino for its first Northern Soul all-nighter, starting at 2am on a Sunday morning. The faithful paid 75p each to dance until 8am to rare black American records – and though the price has gone up a bit, the scene is now bigger than ever.
It was Wigan Casino that partially influenced Robert Stigwood to make the film Saturday Night Fever, and household names from Peter Stringfellow to Mick Hucknall were inspired by the Northern Soul scene. When ITV showed a documentary on the Casino for its This England strand in 1977, it reached an audience of 27 million and the reverberations are still being felt.
The phrase Northern Soul was coined by the late London journalist and rhythm & blues guru Dave Godin in his weekly Blues & Soul magazine column in June 1970 to describe a danceable type of rare soul cherished in clubs across the North and Midlands. The sound was based on the 4/4 beat of the Four Tops’ Tamla-Motown classic I Can’t Help Myself, although it would come to be associated with faster stompers as heard during the Wigan Casino era from 1973 to 1981. But the most important element was its emotional, soulful content.
The momentum of the scene in the Sixties derived from the British white working class, which instinctively saw common causes that linked it to the black American experience. But in Britain the marker was class, not race. Godin once said that it’s not the colour of your skin that counts against you so much as the way you talk or your educational disadvantages or what your daddy does for a living.
The greatest aspect of Northern Soul is its resolute determination to call its own shots. Although plenty have tried, it has never been owned by an elite. Godin reinforced this by adopting the signs and slogans of America’s black civil rights movement: the clenched fist and “Keep the Faith” badges. He even kept it safe from the Hush-Puppied cultural élite in London by including the word “Northern” in the name. The headline of that particular column was “That Soul Sound with the Up North Groove” and his reference was the club where it truly began, the legendary Twisted Wheel in Manchester.
Though more scattered, the scene now is bigger than ever, with dedicated Northern Soul conventions in Los Angeles, Hamburg, Gothenberg, Las Vegas, New York, Detroit, Chicago and Tokyo. The records, always expensive and collectable, now fetch a king’s ransom, especially on the Japanese market. This popularity is reflected on the internet, with sites dedicated to its infamous clubs – the Twisted Wheel, the Golden Torch, the Blackpool Mecca – and its DJs such as Richard Searling, who has a long-running-soul show on Smooth FM in the North West.
There are online juke boxes, recommended lists of records and footage of performances at Wigan Casino all over YouTube. Although the original vinyl prices have gone through the roof (in 1996 Scottish double glazing business man and soul collector Kenny Burrel bought Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You for a reported £15,000; a demo of Darrell Banks’s Open the Doors to Your Heart went for a mere £900), compilation CDs and the internet are opening up the scene to those who for years have had their noses pressed against the glass looking in. The greatest achievement is that a whole generation of soul fans from the Sixties and Seventies has saved, catalogued and cherished a raft of independent black American culture that otherwise would have been lost and is now making it available to the next wave of enthusiasts.
My Favourite Northern Soul Tunes
Forgive me , I’ve been listening to northern soul for 35 years. It was hammered down our throats at our local youth club in old Trafford when what we really wanted was Roxy music and Bowie , I even went to Wigan Casino once back in 1980 to the hostile glares of the Soul fraternity who looked at me and my mates dressed in our Quadrophenia style mod boy outfits and scorned our naive fashionista behinds out of the building. As a teenager I listened to Wigan Casino oldies DJ Dave Evison on Piccadilly Radio in Manchester on Mike Shaft’s Taking Care Of Business playing tunes like Eddie Parker -I’m Gone and The Montclairs – Hey You as I struggled through my Physics homework.
In 1982 when I presented my first radio show on BBC radio Derby I immediately recruited Wigan Casino Oldies DJ Dave Evison to present a regular 20 minute slot every week and attempt to make a novice like me understand what the Soul scene was all about – when Dave took his talents and record collection off to Signal radio in his native Stoke-on-Trent I recruited Guy Hennigan , 60’s mafia man extraordinaire and avid collector on to the radio and was mesmerised by the sheer soulfulness of his weekly selections. I was grateful when Guy Hennigan followed me to Key 103 in Manchester in 1989 , so we could at least play Garnet Mimms at least once a week alongside the likes of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, it was somehow apt. When I moved to Sunset Radio in early 1990, the UK’s first official Black Music station, I was followed on air every Sunday by Richard Searling who guided me in the direction of some great songs as well. Since then I’ve always played northern soul on my radio shows, it’s the roots of club culture, it’s truly underground and it’s all about the music, the passion and that soulful feeling
As far as Northern Soul is concerned I’m an admirer and a fan, but sadly and in even more ways gladly , after 35 years of listening and learning from some of the best and interviewing the late legendary Detroit producer Richard Popcorn Wylie, Edwin Starr, Eddie Holman amongst others I’m still an outsider in every way on the edge of a scene that is and will be forever triumphantly private. So apologies to the true believers who’ve kept the faith for this list of my favourites from my limited,yet loving, admiration for your scene. This is a top 100, but it’s not carefully compiled and it’s certainly not in any particular order, as the great songs came into my head I wrote them down and tried to check that they weren’t double entries.