Who are the Great Soul Deejays?
No doubt been done a zillion times before but it's probably worth doing periodically as people come and go and perspectives change.
When I did my defence of Colin Curtis, I had him among the top 5 Northern Soul C NS ) DJs of all times. I thought I should elaborate and then go beyond just NS. I originally intended to say he was in the top 3 but thought I should acknowledge Soul Sam, who has always had a devoted following and a massive impact albeit, in my view, a negative one. Then I thought I should include Russ Winstanley, probably the most powerful man in NS during its most iconic period, though also in a negative way in my opinion.
I suspect that if we were to line up the ultimate list of NS classics, Ian Levine will have uncovered more than anybody else. Reading the In Crowd, the point where it became something that I would recognise as NS was Circa 71 and Levine and Dave Godin were probably the key figures in turning it into a coherent scene. I have never thought of the Wheel as NS proper but that is a discussion for people much older than me. Levine is often written off for his tailor made NS records and for what he became, but his creations proved very popular with many, including a 12/13/14 year old me. Many of us followed him and Curtis into ( what we used to call New York ) Disco, Funk and Jazz Funk and, despite what the history books say, the In Crowd tag stayed with us, while NS went into its dark ages. Levine discovered Eurodisco, had a hand in Take That but seems to have forgiven NS more recently.
In Kev Roberts's top 500, he has Levine and Curtis as 1 and 2 respectively in the 70s, NSs only significant decade, but the casino as the number 1 club, which just goes to show how politics and religion can become more important than music, and not just ( original ) vinyl, but bricks and mortar, the idea of the allnighter and tactics to stay awake all night.
I would probably switch 2 and 3 and have Searling second. I may be doing CC an injustice but my rationale is that he was second to Levine while Searling was the credible end of Wigan, probably the top club in 73/4 though none of my crowd, Alex included, were going yet. Returning to my list, I imagine Richard uncovered more classics than anybody else besides Levine.
I rang Russ Winstanley a few years ago and found him an extremely friendly and decent bloke and he is probably more responsible than anyone else for the increasing popularity of NS during the seventies. However, as the mid- seventies turned into the late seventies, a new generation arrived, with Wigan Casino as it's temple, and many seemed to like plastic more than music, rareity more than quality, and northern more than Soul. In fairness, I think NS had already died of natural causes and, although it became an ever so slightly cool cult in the eighties and has suffered a massive revival since, it's nice to drop in on but no longer my idea of a lifestyle choice.
Briefly returning to the issue of ( original ) vinyl, the old argument against pressings was that the artist didn't gain; like Frank Wilson did well out of the 15k. I recently heard the singer out of Epitome of Sound on the radio during his recent visit and it's hard to imagine this could happen if You don't love me hadn't been extensively available at an affordable price. On the issue of CDs, the next time you are talking to a Soul Artist, ask them what they think of CDs and watch their reaction when you tell them that some people don't think it's OK to play Soul on CD. Or are they wrong too?
In another article, I claimed too much NS is obscurity for the sake of it and/ or a celebration of the ordinary and I think the key figure here is Soul Sam. I first came across him at an all dayer in 75. Searling had played an excellent set in the afternoon but as the grownups ( the 16/17 year olds ) arrived in the evening, people told me to listen out for Soul Sam. I was really excited and really disappointed when he was terrible. In hindsight I should commend him for at least playing different records to everybody else, but none of them were any good. I have heard him many times since at Durham, Aycliffe, Glasgow, Thorne, Bradford, Cleethorpes, Lowton etc but have never heard him play more than one great record per set: Run for Cover, Carl Hall, Helping Hand, Just ask me, original version of Now that I have you. Once at Parkers I asked him about a Prince Philip Mitchel record on Hi, I don't remember which one, but he didn't know it and became indignant.
At this point I should probably mention Arthur Fenn. I have heard him play great Modern sets, and not just the usual suspects, but also heard him terrible, which is incomprehensible. Once in the Modern Room at Bradford, he was playing sub Luther Vandross newies so I asked him if he had Lucky Fellow by Leroy Hutson, one of my favourites at the time. He quite rudely replied yes, turned his back on me and didn't play it. Presumably he thought he was being dead clever, but it would have been far cleverer to play a great record amongst the dross.
By now, Aycliffes frontline have no doubt had their suspicions confirmed that I'm too choosy by half but, with so much wonderful music to choose from, there's no excuse for playing rubbish.
The only other NS DJ I'd like to single out is John Vincent. I don't really remember why I had him second only to Searling but he once did an alldayer at Aycliffe and it was the first time I heard Adams Apple, briefly a favourite. However, in those days your favourite records changed every other week, so the real reason may be lost in the mists of time.
My return to the Soul Scene proper, after the wilderness years of night clubs and NS greatest hits nights, was consolidated at the Trafalgar near Preston and, particularly, Searling playing Love Love Love by Donny Hathaway, a record I'd championed for years. In the ensuing years at Bognor, Caister, Prestatyn, London, Ayre, Berwick, Fleetwood, Thorne, Morecambe, Southport, Manchester etc . etc., I would generally describe him as the best of a not terribly good bunch, though I was stuck in my serious ( Deep ) Soul phase with my head stuck even further up my own a$$ than usual.
Recently, at his 2 room bash in Blackburn, my missus asked why he is such a local celeb. I replied that, apart from the Soul tourists come to see the famous Wigan Casino DJ, he has probably been the best Soul DJ in the world. Once at Parkers he dropped in Don't come up here no more by Epicenter featuring Sandra Feva, one of those moments in life you'll never forget, and it's hard to imagine anyone else, apart from me, doing that.
Curtis also survived the seventies but mainly by adding Real Jazz to his arsenal. Forgive my cynicism, but I have always been sceptical about Soul DJs playing Real Jazz on the Soul Scene THOUGH I THINK Curtis generally faired better than Chris Hill, Bob Jones, Giles Peterson, Baz fe Jazz, Sylvester or any of the others. None seem to go back to Jazz, but interpret it from a Soul Music perspective, often resulting in second and third rate stuff, easy listening, novelty records and Latin pop.
At its best, Soul is an Art form, but Jazz is Post Russian Modernist ( who stole heavily from Jazz ) C20th Classical Music and, as such, must constantly progress, while Soul ( sans Funk ) is predominantly about the grain of the voice. Jazz emerged at a different time in Americas history to Soul and was therefore at a different position in its trajectory in relation to the escalation of capitalism, the Civil Rights Movement and the emergence of the mass media as the dominant cultural force. Unlike Soul, the great Jazz was created mainly by the giants of the genre:
Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Bird and Diz, Monk, Mingus, Miles and Trane. Incidentally, there is a similar problem with Keb Darges Deep Funk whereby the great Funk was made almost exclusively by the major bands: James Brown, JBs, P. Funk, Isleys, Ohio Players, War, Kool and his Gang, Earth Wind Fire, Sly Stone, Graham Central Station, Con Funk Shun, Cameo, Commodores, Fatback Band, Maze, Slave, BT Express, Brass Construction, Brothers Johnson, Rufus, Average White Band and one or two others.
Curtis could still pull out the odd gem though, like ( 3:36 ) Randy Brown on Parachute on his radio show with Giles Peterson at the Bognor Weekender. Incidentally, where Alex first got the idea for a Jazz Funk Weekender in the North, and I first got the idea to steer him towards a Soul Weekender with its heart in a dedicated Soul Room. Curtis played I'm Here off Intimately while everyone else was pushing I was Blessed. Also his Modern Soul Greatest Hits and radio shows at the early weekenders were terrific.
Talking Bognor leads nicely on to London and the South. Make no mistake, there are many fine DJs down there, though it is not a way of life for so many and to the same extent, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Bob Jones is the nearest thing I have ever heard to a Deep Soul DJ. He names himself Dr. Bob Jones and claims to play the Real Jazz and Soul, though his choice of John Coltrane track is a good illustration of what I described above. I met him at Caister and shook his hand but I don't think I was important enough for him. By Southport, perhaps intimidated by the likes of Searling on their home turf, he started playing ( what we used to call ) Street Soul, which is perhaps what he deserved after the handshake.
Mark Webster also impressed me playing Real Soul and Albert King - yes Albert King - at a club at London Bridge. He was a Blues and Soul journalist but is now anchor for Channel 5s American Football coverage. He recently guested on the BBCs virtual jukebox where people nominate records and went for Lou Reed ahead of Curtis Move on Up, which is unforgiveable.
Speaking of unforgiveable, Nicky Holloway was the Souths answer to Alex; prepared to play whatever he thought might make him rich and famous. Cain Gang manager Phil Mitchell was DJing at Walkers in Newcastle and playing their version of Respect Yourself. Alex thought this shocking so I asked Nicky Holloway, who routinely played equally terrible records, if he would play it. When he said no I asked him if I could redeem myself by requesting some Geater Davis, naively expecting such an important person to know of the great man. He later told Alex I had asked for Tina Turner, at which point Alex, always keen to impress anyone from the south, typically threatened me with violence. Holloway discovered the Balearic Beat, made a heap of money and even Alex eventually admitted he was an irrelevance. Incidentally, Paul Cook was the other Walkers DJ so I gave him a spare copy of the Staple Singers but he continued playing the Cain Gang, which WAS shocking.
Terry Jones and Ian Clarke also deserve mention and enjoy popularity among Soul Folk throughout the country, though they lack the gravitas of Bob Jones, Searling et all. Caught Terry Jones at the last Blackburn and he was OK but he was OK, at his best playing Just Soul like Brothers gonna work it out. There were people enthusing about stuff I didn't know and I cringed a little as I wondered whether that was me 20 years ago. However, chatting with Queen Ethna recently, an old flame and one of the countries' most illustrious active Soul Fans, I told her that I haven't heard anything of any significance recently that I didn't know 20 years ago, and she agreed that I have been extraordinarily lucky in Music; and not just catching the best era of Modern Soul, but Rock, Prog Rock, Just Soul, Funk, Northern Soul, Disco and Jazz Funk. Even my Deep Soul years coincided with the revitalised Malaco label before it got safe, as well as Beverly Glenn and Soundtown. The pop/ Rock media even reckon my teenybop years in the sixties was the golden age of pop, though I find the Beatles and their spawn no less lightweight, twee, superficial and passÃÆ’© than any other pop music.
Probably the most important Black Music DJ in the country is Chris Hill. I have mentioned elsewhere his appearance in Durham in 78, but would also like to mention an appearance at Prestatyn. Acid House was just becoming massive in the big room and he arrived in the alternative room, erected a banner saying Acid Free Zone, to the cheers of the crowd, and played one of finest sets of Soul Music, not particularly what he's known for, I've ever heard. As he left he looked genuinely brassed off. Were I to invite a guest DJ to play a Soul Night and ask them to play slightly off kilter Soul, I would anticipate he would do a better job than anyone else, expecting Levine, Curtis, Searling or Bob Jones to be either too clever or too complacent. He has been a genuine giant in Black Music in this country for almost 50 years.
But the first MBE went to Norman Jay, presumably because he's black and associated with the Notting Hill Carnival which gets extensive media coverage. He's also one of the pioneers of Rare Groove and a big Philly Man. I used to look after his girlfriend while he was off being a superstar. Once in the radio room at Southport, he handed over to Bob Jeffries but forgot his name. Bob thanked him for the last hour and, off the top of his head, outlined his full and extensive itinerary for the week. Somebody had been passing sweets around and Bob had the packet at the time but, when Norman asked for one, he told him he'd had enough.
Best of the Scottish jocks, Bob Jeffries played all 3 rooms which just goes to show that broadening your horizons actually improves the Soul Music you listen to. In his top 5, he included the sublime Whats's happening baby by the Soul Children from the seminal album Friction, and Margie Joseph Ridin High, perhaps having heard Paul Cook play my copy on Berwick Radio.
Another Scot, Tom Jackson was a genuinely nice bloke who all the girls fancied and whose wife, all the blokes fancied. Because Alex and I weren't getting along and he couldn't bear that my old mate Colin Johnson, famous for nicknaming me Silk, wasn't really contributing for his free weekend, Alex brought him in to help with the DJ timetables. The only consequence was that Tom got better spots than he probably should have which Alex and I allowed for the reasons stated above. He broke Curtis Anderson and JP Bingham at consecutive weekenders but is now mostly blamed for the really naff records which snuck through, which may or not be fair.
I'm pleased to say that, unlike others, I was never enamoured with Billy Davison, the third Scott. I recently read an article by him in Blues and Soul where he rubbished the DJs, himself included, for playing so many seventies records. Nowadays it's more or less accepted that, for the last 20 years, after my involvement ended I might add, the Soul Room limped through R n B and Soulful House, but it now seems to be acknowledged that the sixties and seventies, was, is, and almost certainly always will be the Golden Age of Soul.
I'd like to conclude my survey in the North East. With the exception of me at the Manor House, Frankie has been the best Soul DJ in the North East, and a cornerstone of the North East Soul Scene for almost 40 years. The Red Lion in Chester le Street was a much loved party night in the eighties featuring Frankie, Alex and Paul Cook. On the bus through we would line up the records we knew for certain we would hear: Joy and Pain, Movin, Aint no stopping us now, Runaway Love, I love music; mostly good stuff but done to death. Frankie would go on first and play Mecca Northern, Modern and, what would now be called crossover, while Alex and Paul cowered at the back, terrified of his Karate black belt and inhuman strength and fitness, moaning that he wasn't playing what they considered classics. For a handful of us, ready to embark on our Weekender Odyssey, this was why we came.
Bit of an afterthought. I recently saw Craig Charles and he seemed more interested in dramatically removing his jacket and flinging his arms about like a Superstar than playing anything decent - or perhaps he didn't think anybody could see him behind the decks without a box or his platforms. Checked out some of his radio playlists though and he always plays something good and I'm talking JR Bailey good.
However, best show on the radio is Fun Lovin Criminal Hughie who plays a mix of Soul, Funk, Jazz, Blues, Reggae, World Music, hip hop, SinAtra and genuinely alternative Rock - including Zappa - on Radio 2 from midnight on Friday. If I'm honest, he plays more misses than hits, but you never quite know what he's going to play and it's never less than interesting. I only know of one other person who can do what he does , so if you live in the North East, listen to this space.