How On Earth Did Black American Music Become Northern Soul ?

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Northern Soul; It’s Grim Up North

I’m going to stick my neck on the line and say that The Four Tops “I Can’t Help Myself” was the song that is and was symbolic of northern soul. Others will disagree and point to other songs. Good on you and everyone has their own opinion but the song with its yearning vocal, quality orchestration and a snare on every beat. This song and others gave rise to the platform that was northern soul.

You know it’s funny how any movement establishes itself, spreads itself and then maintains itself. In regards to northern soul one must remember the conditions of the time that gave rise to its birth.

Strikes in the power industry. Strikes in the pits. Cotton mills being knocked down in Wigan. Football violence and terrorism. Yes for some if not many, life was pretty grim in north west UK in the 60’s and even for those who did have jobs, working a 40 hour work in the steel works is hard graft. Entertainment consisted of formal ballroom dances, working men’s clubs, pubs and bingo.

Northern Soul

The Seeds Of Soul Are Being Planted

It’s strange how the northern soul movement which is synonymous with North West England, had it’s roots in south east England, that is, the 1960s London mod culture. They did not want to listen to the music their folks were listening to. They wanted to listen to modern jazz, then this moved on to bluebeat and RnB and what they wanted to hear were the original records and one of the vehicles for this were places like the flamingo in Soho London.

Soho Flamingo Jazz Club
Clubs of mainly young white kids dancing to black American soul and motown music pretty much all night. Motown had occasional chart success in the 1960’s via The Supremes and others but it must be remembered that Radio I did not start broadcasting until 1967 so throughout the heyday of motown there was not a station for young people.

It’s easy to forget that fact in this day and age of YouTube, streaming sites and 24-7 music channels. A wide variety of motown music in the early part of the 1960’s in England was not easy to access. It was something you had to seek out in records stores or tune in to pirate radio stations.

So when the pirate radio ships dropped anchor in the England, DJ’s like Tony Blackburn made sure he was going to champion and play motown music. Slowly this London mod culture was starting to crawl up north with people from Leicester and Birmingham going to London and bringing records back.

The Soul Plane Has Landed

There were a few clubs in northern England that embraced the soul bandwagon among them were the Mojo club in Sheffield were a young Peter Stringfellow earned his stripes.

the twisted wheel
But it was The Twisted Wheel in Manchester that sowed the seeds of what would become northern soul. Where they were belting out hits like “Baby Reconsider” By Leon Haywood. These tracks could not be heard anywhere else bar The Twisted Wheel. In many ways this made these records even more cherished, as it was their obscurity that fascinated those who listened to the music.

Most of the people who listened to these tracks, did not even know what they looked like. It was music made by unknown black singers in tiny studios, some tracks were only ever demos were a few 100 were ever pressed. The artists who made the records did not have the money to compete with the big hitters of the day, the likes of The Temptations. So the records are slightly out of tune, slightly rough round the edges.

Drugs and clubs go hand in hand. Always have done. The Twisted Wheel was no different and so the police was made aware of this fact. Whilst drug taken was occurring at The Twisted Wheel it was not the reason why people were going there in the first place. Nevertheless Manchester city council was putting pressure on the Twisted Wheel insisting that there would be no more all night dances within the city of Manchester. The Twisted Wheel closed for business in 1971.

Relighting The Flame Of Northern Soul

Northern Soul was escapism for many. Escapism from the drudgery of the life that was presented to youngsters in 1970’s North West England. In many ways, even though they did not know each other, there were more similarities than one would care to mention between white working class who listened and dance to northern soul and the black working class of America who produced it.

Nevertheless after 1971 and with The Twisted Wheel being shut down, there was no place for Northern soul listeners to dance the night away but the flame was relight on a quiet street in the town of Tunstall in Stoke On Trent. The underground spirit of Northern soul had its second coming.

The Golden Torch was the name of the club. In 1972 the club started its very first Northern soul all-nighter on a residential street called Hose Street. Playing songs like “Crying Over You” By Duke Browner and “Just Like The Weather” by Nolan Chance.

The Highpoint – The Wigan Casino


wigan casino
Not much to look at ? Looks a bit worn and could do with a makeover ? The fact is the Wigan casino was the place where Northern soul found it’s spiritual home. The exterior was far from palatial but what was going on in the interior took the Northern soul movement to a new height.

wigan casino
wigan casino
northern soul dancers wigan casino 1975
Wigan Casino door policy ? One bouncer and you were in. However the main thing that was different about the Wigan casino was the wide and spacious, massive spring dancefloor. Unlike the Twisted Wheel and the Golden Torch were dancing was largely restricted due to space. That inhibition gave way to freedom in the Wigan casino. So back flipping and spinning were all catered for with DJ Russ Winstanley playing the tunes.

Meanwhile a young unknown northern soul fan from Blackpool (Ian Levine) used to take family holidays to the USA. The trip he and his family took in 1973 changed the face of northern soul.

Ian Levine, pretty much spent the holiday scouring and searching and looking for as many old motown vinyl records he could lay his hands on. The more unknown the better. By the end of that trip he had bought four thousand old motown vinyl records. His haul was so heavy that the plane struggled to take off at which point his father insisted that he throw all his records out of the plane.

Now bear in mind this was a collection that was painstakingly gathered by searching every day in record shop after record shop on his two week trip. Thankfully Ian Levine’s father risked his and his families lives for his sons happiness and that four thousand collection of old vinyl soul and motown records was according to Levin “The single biggest find of the northern soul scene because every single record that came out in 73 and 74 came out of that find”

Thus when Ian Levine was back in the UK he was a much sought after. DJ. Colin Curtis who ran a soul night at the Blackpool mecca invited Levine to join him as resident DJ and a rivalry between the Blackpool Mecca and the Wigan casino was to occur. Not that the Wigan casino minded much. Every weekend they had their place packed with youngsters who were buying and selling rare vinyl’s, as well as, dancing to songs like the “Gotta Find Me Somebody” by the Velvets.

Speed and Amphetamine usually robbed from chemists and then distributed at an all nighter were a big part of the culture. Basically dancers were over dosing on slimming pills or anti-depressant. When the rave scene happened at the end of 1980’s it was almost the same as the northern soul scene, swap speed for ecstasy.

The Soul Taken Out Of Soul

Eventually the rise of northern soul was heard down south by PYE records who spotted an opportunity and promoted Wigan’s ovations cover version of the Invitations soul record “Skiing in the snow” which became a top ten chart hit in the UK in 1975.

Northern soul was no longer underground. Northern soul was now mainstream. Indeed in 1977 a Granada film about the Wigan casino and northern soul was seen by 20 million people. This attracted even more people to the casino but also turned people away who felt they have sold out.

However the northern soul scene had a bigger problem that is, it was finite. When you build a movement on finding rare unknown old motown records that is a problem. There were more and more frequent trips to the USA but eventually they will run out. At the Blackpool mecca DJ Ian Levine tried to play the popular music at the time, which was disco, but that didn’t sit well with some of the regulars from small north western towns. They still wanted the old black American music from the 1960’s.

Nevertheless Levine persisted in playing more disco. Whereas Wigan casino played more watered down soul. The hostility between these two reached a climax at the Ritz were DJs from the Blackpool mecca and the Wigan casino were both playing. Each faction had their supporters. Each clamouring for their own DJ. Indeed they went to the lengths of producing “Levine Must Go” flags, banners and badges.

ian levine
Furthermore as the drugs scene unravelled, they too took their toll. Deaths and overdosing and hospitalisation occurring. These were young men and women in their teens and early 20s. The downward spiral was inevitable and could only reach one conclusion. Ian Levine stop playing at the Blackpool Mecca in 1979. Two years later the Wigan casino closed its doors in 1981.

The Legacy Of Northern Soul

The law of sociology says that all youth cultures eventually come back. You can see the influence of northern soul in songs such as the smash hit “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. Indeed such was the power of the movement in northern soul that film director Elaine Constantine who was a northern soul fan as a teenager in Lancashire in the 1970s, turned her passion into the movie Northern Soul. This was a film about white working class youth discovering black American soul music.

Today the legacy of northern soul has gone global. There are northern soul nights in Japan, Sweden, Australia, America, France, Scotland, Switzerland. Not to mention that it has inspired a new younger crowd to continue the movement like Wigan Young Souls

It would go against everything northern soul stood for if the movement was being kept afloat only by men and women in their mid-sixties trying to relive their youth via twice yearly northern soul reunion nights. The flame of northern soul is still burning. It will never be the inferno that it once was, and quite rightly so. Modern culture has changed. Fashion has changed. Music has changed. Simply put, life moves on.

Northern soul; A music produced by unknown and most likely by now, mainly passed away black American singers. A music and a movement that paid homage to them and the people who listened and danced to it and were inspired by it.