From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Northern Soul is a type of mid-tempo and uptempo heavy-beat soul music (of mainly African American origin) that was popularized in northern England in the mid 1960s but not coined until 1971. The term also refers to the associated dance styles and fashions that emanated from the Twisted Wheel club in Manchester and spread to other dancehalls and nightclubs; such as the Golden Torch (in Stoke-upon-Trent), the Blackpool Mecca, and (in 1973) the Wigan Casino. Northern soul dancing was usually athletic, resembling the later dance styles of disco and break dancing. Featuring spins, flips, and backdrops, the northern soul dancing style was inspired by the stage performances of visiting American soul acts such as Little Anthony & The Imperials and Jackie Wilson.
Northern soul music originally consisted of obscure American soul recordings, including songs from Motown Records, Stax Records and more obscure record labels such as Okeh Records. The phrase northern soul was coined by journalist Dave Godin and popularised in 1970 through his column in Blues and Soul magazine. In a 2002 interview with Chris Hunt of Mojo, he explained that he had first come up with the term in 1968 as a sales reference for use in his record shop in Covent Garden, to help staff differentiate the more modern funkier sounds from the smoother, Motown-influenced soul of a few years earlier:
I had started to notice that northern football fans who were in London to follow their team were coming into the store to buy records, but they weren’t interested in the latest developments in the black American chart. I devised the name as a shorthand sales term. It was just to say ‘if you’ve got customers from the north, don’t waste time playing them records currently in the US black chart, just play them what they like - ‘Northern Soul’.
A large proportion of northern soul's original audience came from the mod movement. Some mods started to embrace the freakbeat and psychedelic rock of the late 1960s, but other mods - especially those in northern England - stuck to the original mod soundtrack of soul and blue beat. Some mods transformed into what would eventually be the skinheads, and others formed the basis of the northern soul scene. Early northern soul fashion included bowling shirts, button-down Ben Sherman shirts, blazers with centre vents and unusual numbers of buttons, Trickers brogue shoes, baggy trousers or shrink-to-fit Levi's jeans. Many dancers wore badges representing membership to clubs organised by dance halls.
The first nightclub that effectively defined the northern soul sound was Manchester's Twisted Wheel Club. Other early clubs were the The Mojo in Sheffield, The Catacombs in Wolverhampton, Golden Torch in Stoke, Room at the Top in Wigan, the Wigan Casino, the Blackpool Mecca and Va Va's in Bolton. The music reached its peak of popularity in the mid to late 1970s, when Wigan Casino was voted the world's number one discotheque. Thousands of people visited every week, but the exclusive and underground appeal of the music was lost and many of the hardcore soul fans drifted away. When Wigan Casino shut down In 1981, many believed the northern soul scene was about to end. However, the 1970s mod revival and the later scooterboy subculture produced a new wave of fans.
The 1980s — often dismissed as a low period for the northern soul scene by those who had left in the 1970s — featured almost 100 new venues in places as diverse as Bradford, London, Peterborough, Leighton Buzzard, Whitchurch, Coventry and Leicester. Pre-eminent among the 1980s venues were Stafford's Top of the World and London's 100 Club. Previously, most of the songs played at northern soul clubs had been fast stompers by American blacks, but 1980s northern soul DJs began to add mid-tempo tunes, slower ballads and songs by non-African-American acts such as Gale Garnett.
Music, artists and records
In the book Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: the history of the DJ, the authors describe northern soul as "a genre built from failures", stating: "...Northern Soul was the music made by hundreds of singers and bands who were copying the Detroit sound of Motown pop. Most of the records were complete failures in their own time and place... but in northern England from the end of the 1960s through to its heyday in the middle 1970s, were exhumed and exalted."
The music style most associated with northern soul is the heavy, syncopated beat and fast tempo of mid-1960s Motown Records, which was usually combined with soulful vocals. These types of records, which suited the athletic dancing that was prevalent, became known on the scene as stompers. Notable examples include Tony Clarke’s "Landslide" (popularised by Ian Levine at Blackpool Mecca) and Gloria Jones’ "Tainted Love" (purchased by Richard Searling on a trip to the United States in 1973 and popularised at Va Va’s in Bolton, and later, Wigan Casino). According to northern soul DJ Ady Croadsell, viewed retrospectively, the earliest recording to possess this style was the 1965 single "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" by The Four Tops, although that record was never popular in the northern soul scene because it was too mainstream.
Other related music styles also gained acceptance in the northern soul scene. Slower, less-danceable soul records were often played, such as Barbara Mills' "Queen Of Fools" (popular in 1972 at the Golden Torch) and The Mob’s "I Dig Everything About You". Every all-nighter at Wigan Casino ended with the playing of three well-known northern soul songs with a particular going home theme. These came to be known as the "3 before 8" and were: "Time Will Pass You By" by Tobi Legend, "Long After Tonight Is Over" by Jimmy Radcliffe, and "I'm On My Way" by Dean Parrish. Commercial pop songs that matched the up-tempo beat of the stompers were also played at some venues, including The Ron Grainer Orchestra’s instrumental "Theme From Joe 90" at Wigan Casino and The Just Brothers’ surf-guitar song "Sliced Tomatoes" at Blackpool Mecca.
As the scene developed in the mid and late 1970s, the more contemporary and rhythmically sophisticated sounds of disco and Philly Soul became accepted at certain venues following its adoption at Blackpool Mecca. This style is typified musically by the O'Jays' "I Love Music" (UK #13, January 1976), which gained popularity prior to its commercial release at Blackpool Mecca in late 1975. The record that initially popularised this change is usually cited as The Carstair's "It Really Hurts Me Girl" (Red Coach), a record initially released late in 1973 on promotional copies - but quickly withdrawn due to lack of interest from American Radio stations. The hostility towards any contemporary music style from northern soul traditionalists at Wigan Casino led to the creation of the spin-off modern soul movement in the early 1980s.
As venues such as the Twisted Wheel evolved into northern soul clubs in the late 1960s and the dancers increasingly demanded newly discovered sounds, DJs began to acquire and play rare and often deleted US releases that had not gained even a release in the UK." These records were sometimes obtained through specialist importers or, in some cases, by DJs visiting the US and purchasing old warehouse stock. Some records were so rare that only a handful of copies were known to exist, so northern soul DJs and clubs became associated with particular records that were almost exclusively on their own playlists. Many of the original artists and musicians remained unaware of their new-found popularity for many years.
As the scene increased in popularity, a network of UK record dealers emerged who were able to acquire further copies of the original vinyl and supply them to fans at prices commensurate with their rarity and desirability. Later on, a number of UK record labels were able to capitalise on the booming popularity of northern soul and negotiate licenses for certain popular records from the copyright holders and reissue them as new 45s or compilation LPs. Amongst these labels were Casino Classics, PYE Disco Demand, Inferno, Kent Modern and Goldmine.
The notoriety of DJs on the northern soul scene was enhanced by the possession of rare records, but exclusivity was not enough on its own, and the records had to conform to a certain musical style and gain acceptance on the dance floor. Frank Wilson's "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)" has been rated the rarest and most valuable northern soul single.
Hits and other favourites
The Northern Soul movement spawned an active market in reissuing older soul recordings in the UK, several of which became popular enough to actually make the UK charts several years after their original issue. Dave Godin is generally credited with being the first UK entrepreneur to start this trend, setting up the Soul City label in 1968, and striking a deal with EMI to license Gene Chandler's 1965 recording "Nothing Can Stop Me", which had been popular for several years at the Twisted Wheel. Issued as a 45 on Soul City, the track peaked at UK #41 in August, 1968, becoming the first Northern Soul-derived chart hit. A few months later in January 1969, Jamo Thomas' 1966 single "I Spy (For The FBI)" was similarly licensed and reissued, hitting UK #44.
The trend continued into the 1970s, as many songs from the 1960s that were revived on the Northern Soul scene were reissued by their original labels and became UK top 40 hits. These include The Tams' 1964 recording "Hey Girl Don't Bother Me" (UK #1, July 1971) - which was popularized by Midlands DJ Carl Dene -The Fascinations' 1966 single "Girls Are Out To Get You" (UK #32, 1971), The Newbeats' 1965 American hit "Run Baby Run" (UK #10, Oct 1971), Bobby Hebb's "Love Love Love" which was originally the B-side of "A Satisfied Mind" (UK #32 August 1972), Robert Knight's "Love On A Mountain Top" of 1968 (UK #10, November 1973), and R. Dean Taylor’s "There’s A Ghost In My House" from 1967 (UK #3, May 1974).
The northern soul scene also spawned many lesser chart hits, including Al Wilson's 1968 cut "The Snake" (UK #41 in 1975), Dobie Gray's "Out On The Floor" (UK #42, September 1975) and Little Anthony & The Imperials' "Better Use Your Head" (UK #42 July 1976).
A variety of recordings were made later in the 1970s that were specifically aimed at the northern soul scene, which also went on to become UK top 40 hits. These included: The Exciters’ "Reaching For The Best" (UK #31, October 1975), L.J Johnson's "Your Magic Put A Spell On Me" (UK #27, February 1976), Tommy Hunt’s "Loving On The Losing Side" (UK #28, August 1976) and "Footsee" by Wigan’s Chosen Few (UK #9, January 1975).
"Goodbye Nothing To Say", by the white British group The Javells, was identified by Dave McAleer of Pye's Disco Demand label as having an authentic northern soul feel. McAleer gave a white label promotional copy to Russ Winstanley (a Wigan Casino DJ and promoter), and the tune became popular amongst the dancers at the venue. Disco Demand then released the song as a 45 RPM single, reaching UK #26 in November 1974. To promote the single on BBC's Top Of The Pops, the performer was accompanied by two Wigan Casino dancers.
In 2000, Wigan Casino DJ Kev Roberts compiled The Northern Soul Top 500, which was based on a survey of northern soul fans. The top ten songs were: "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)" by Frank Wilson, "Out on the Floor" by Dobie Gray, "You Didn't Say a Word" by Yvonne Baker, "The Snake" by Al Wilson, "Long After Tonight is Over" by Jimmy Radcliffe, "Seven Day Lover" by James Fountain, "You Don't Love Me" by Epitome of Sound, "Looking for You" by Garnet Mimms, "If That's What You Wanted" by Frankie Beverly & the Butlers, and "Seven Days Too Long" by Chuck Wood.