A musical movement born in the industrial North of England, the Northern Soul phenomenon grew out of club-goers passion for black American dance music. It morphed eventually into a craze for rare (and by extension, very expensive) records, and even lionised some quirky artists and even quirkier records.
Eventually, the scene spread way beyond the North and, as many experts will tell you, many of the records could not accurately be described as ‘soul‘.
The Northern Soul culture was (and is) the most nitpicky, touchy, elitist and purist music scene ever – rent with divisions over best versions, best clubs, best trousers and, at the very heart of it, what actually constitutes Northern Soul.
Odd really, when you consider that the records themselves may comprise the most inclusive, accessible, joyous canon of popular music ever . . .
The term ‘Northern Soul’ was first coined by a music writer called Dave Godin, the soul columnist for Blues and Soul magazine, the UK’s most authoritative and longest running soul publication.
Dave also ran a record shop and label in London, called Soul City. He noticed that the shop was regularly besieged at weekends by record collectors from the North of England, who had travelled down to London in search of obscure and rare soul records.
On his forays to the north of England Dave heard music in the soul clubs which was markedly different to the kind of music popular on the London soul scene, and in his column for June 1970 he wrote about the “up North soul groove” . . . and a new genre was born.
In reality, Northern Soul predates Dave Godin’s seminal column, although it is impossible to pin down exactly when it all started.
It is clear that the scene grew out of the 60s mod clubs of the towns and cities in the North West of England, where clubs like The Cavern and Mardi Gras in Liverpool, and The Oasis and The Twisted Wheel in Manchester were well-known for their beat groups.
In between live sets, the club DJ’s would play obscure American soul records on labels like Chess, Stax, Motown and Atlantic – perfect tracks for dancing, which were eagerly devoured by the mod clientele and soon – especially at The Twisted Wheel – the soul spinning and the dancing became more important than the live bands.
The original Twisted Wheel opened on Brazenose Street, Manchester in 1963. It was relocated in 1967 to Whitworth Street and hosted performances by countless visiting American stars, including The Drifters, Don Covay and Jimmy Ruffin.
But the main attraction for the mainly mod audience were the records played by DJ’s Roger Eagle and Rob Bellars. The tracks they played were never heard on the radio, and all but impossible to find in the stores. But that just made the whole thing even more cool.
The Twisted Wheel was closed by the authorities in January 1971, by which time dozens of soul clubs had sprung up throughout the North, and the movement had begun to spread down towards the Midlands. One Midlands club in particular soon earned an enviable reputation – The Catacombs in Wolverhampton, where DJ’s like Carl Dean regularly premiered new Northern Soul sounds.
Other big clubs of the time included The King Mojo in Sheffield, The Blue Orchid in Crewe, The Cat’s Whiskers in Burnley, Va Va’s in Bolton, The Holgate in York and The Torch in Stoke on Trent. Two major venues eventually overshadowed them all. The Wigan Casino and the Blackpool Mecca.
The Mecca was a huge purpose-built ballroom designed to cater for the thousands of tourists who regularly descended on the breezy North West resort. Above the main room though, was a smaller space – The Highland Room – which began to operate as a Northern Soul venue in 1971 under the auspices of DJ’s Ian Levine and Colin Curtis. Curtis travelled regularly to the US for his music, and the Highland Room soon became the place where new, rare records were introduced.
Meanwhile, just down the M6 was the famous Wigan Casino – with its wonderful sprung wooden dance floor – which was (and still is) regarded as the spiritual centre of Northern Soul.
The club had an ever-changing roster of DJ’s, but Russ Winstanley, Richard Searling and Kev Roberts formed the core “holy trinity”.
The famed Casino all-nighters attracted over 2,000 dancers and in 1978 America’s Billboard magazine named it “Best Disco In The World”.
By the early 70s, records released on the big soul labels like Motown and Stax were all well known, and the dancers and DJ’s dug deeper and deeper for obscure releases – which often had had no real impact on their stateside release. But as long as you could dance to them the tracks enjoyed a new lease of life and many became big hits on the Northern Soul scene.
Some of the best Northern Soul records were made on tiny labels as Motown pastiches by moonlighting secretaries and mailmen from Cincinnati and Springfield.
They would only realise the joy these forgotten gems brought to kids in England’s north and midlands when – 20 or so years later and back in their day jobs – they were received as heroes by packed adoring dance floors in Wigan and Cleethorpes!
These days, former Northern Soul hits are used on television advertisements for everything from alcohol to KFC.