To discuss the growth of soul music over here in the United Kingdom one has to look back to the very start of the UK R&B scene of the 1940’s and 50’s. UK pioneers such as Chris Barber, Alexis Korner, Cyril Davis and George Melly got attracted to and performed the sound of Jump Blues and the R&B exponents such as Louis Jordan, Fats Waller, Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris. Another UK pioneer from the roots is musician Ken Colyer who at the age of just 17 joined the Merchant Navy as a means to get to New Orleans to see and hear his jazz idols. He came back to England around 1948 and joined a string of jazz bands. Colyer then later rejoined the Merchant Navy, jumped ship in Mobile, Alabama, and travelled back to New Orleans, where he played with his idols. He was offered the job of lead trumpeter on a tour, but was arrested by the authorities, detained and deported back to the UK. Thats real dedication to the cause.
You will probably be thinking what has the early history of British jazz bands got to do with the love of Soul music? It is a demonstration of the level of fanaticism and adoration the British psyche has for American music, of jazz and what eventually became Soul, both for the rhythm of dancing feet and the emotion of deep soul, both aspects get equal importance amongst British enthusiasts. So now comes the link bringing it all into sharp focus. The Jazz clubs that started in Londons Soho district attracted a young crowd as well. A crowd that appreciated modern and traditional jazz forms and the symbiotic link to modern art and Italian coffee that got added to the movement. A group of young individuals loved the music they heard in the clubs and called themselves the modernists. Music, art, designer clothes and Italian scooters became their primary interests.
Post war 1950s Britain was all but bankrupt and a grey miserable atmosphere had descended on the country. So the modernists listened whenever they could to traditional and modern jazz and R&B from America to lift the doom and despondency of the post war depression.
So now we reach the 1960s the modernist movement name became shortened to The Mods with the love of the music such as Jimmy Smith, Jon Hendrix, the Atlantic records of The Drifters and Ruth Brown, Ray Charles and The Coasters.
So when in 1964 Motown decided to send a number of its stars over to tour the UK there was a growing audience in the South of England to welcome them. But the truth is it was too early, the love of Motown and Soul in general had not yet permeated all the way across the UK. The Motown review did reasonably well in London but played to very low audience numbers for the rest of the Tour. It was an excellent line up of Motown talent that came over, Mary Wells, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Miracles, Stevie Wonder and Martha And The Vandellas visiting the UK for the first time but playing to half empty (at best) concert halls and theatres. But by 1965 soul music had become firmly at home in Britain the music of James Brown, Motown, Stax and Goldwax were to be heard in discotheques and night clubs all across the UK. At this time all of this movement was in the most part limited to London but the 60’s growth of television and pirate radio changed everything. A television program called Ready Steady Go was one of the youth based programmes made in London that represented the music Britain’s youth were listening to together with dancers wearing clothes in the Mod style that would go on to spread the idiom of Mod all over the UK. Very similar to the way in which Don Cornelius and his Soul Train did in America in the 70’s.
We now move forward in this story to 1967. I was 17 years of age and had become a Mod in style and attitude having gained a love of soul music. This is the year that Stax (the little label in Memphis) shook the world. The Stax Volt Tour hit Britain and the rest of Europe. The line up is well known but its worth listing them again here as these days it seems almost impossible to believe it really happened as it was so fantastic. Booker T and The MGs, The Markeys (well not really if you know your Stax history) and it was the addition of Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson and Joe Arnold on brass together with Booker & The MGs thus forming a new version of the original ‘Last Night’ Markeys and that formed the house band for the entire tour. Singers Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas (not at all the shows) Arthur Conley (also not at all the shows) and of course the master, the great Otis Redding. I was lucky enough to see the tour just before they returned to the States. I was in the front row of the balcony at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on Saturday April 8th 1967. I have been a fan of Soul music in all its forms and more since that incredible show.
That in turn led me into the world of being a DJ working at events and in clubs until 2001 when I started my first regular Radio Show, playing the best in Soul music.
In the closing months of the Sixties in 68/69/and 1970 the influence of Soul music seemed to dimmish.
Well it was a no longer a regular fixture in the various pop charts in music magazines and papers.
In the south of the UK the musical taste started to turn to a rock style of music with the look and attitude that was taken from the hippie lifestyle. Bands like Free, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin became the music of choice for many record buyers and radio stations in the south of England.
This change of public taste differed in the northern counties of the country when compared to how it happened down in the south. The northerners wanted to continue to dance and to listen to soul tracks from the past decade that fitted a style of dancing that was both energetic and acrobatic that existed in the clubs of the north of England and across the border in parts of Scotland.
The late Dave Godin was a soul journalist and record shop owner with Soul City records in London. When he ,as a writer, visited the venues of the north of England and witnessed the dancers and DJs in action he came up with the term Northern Soul for the first time.
DJ’s across the north combed record stores and second hand stores in search of the elusive unknown soul records that had been ignored when first released but were now in high demand by the dancers. Some DJs even got their tickets and flew across to cities with a soul music past in America, searching for that rare record in record company vaults or people who sold the ‘never sold’ stock of old record stores across the States. DJ Ian Levine would regularly fly to America and return to the UK with boxes of rare soul records he had discovered, records to play in some cases with a white label stuck over the original label so other DJ’s could not see who the artist was and what the track the dancers appreciated was called.
That geographic division of North and South was of course not as clear cut as implied in the sentences written above, many in the south continued to follow soul music as a choice, often as collectors amassing huge collections of often rare 7-inch records. Likewise, some in the north discounted soul and converted to the hard rock and progressive rock persuasion.
The idiom of Northern Soul is still a very popular music choice across the country although the initial hot spots of Northern dancing are all now no more, often closed by the order of the authorities due to reported drugs being used. But the dancing still goes on at new clubs and dancehalls across the country, many of those dancers are of a more senior age group reviving their past glories but a new younger crowd are also now becoming dancers and fans of 60’s and 70’s Soul.
The expression ‘Keep the Faith’ is still very relevant with the Northern Soul style of music and it gets a regular on-line presence on sites like YouTube and with many books on the subject and compilation CDs being available.
The importance of music has now changed it seems. People now buy less music but download it for free, young people today listen to music in a different way, radio is not the required medium it used to be.
Music itself is not so categorised in the way it was in the past, it’s now harder to say if its pop, soul, folk or any of the many options of todays musical types or if it even still needs categorisation. I don’t know if this is an advancement or a destruction of the application and appreciation of music like soul or funk, but if you like me have been around for several decades you will know how important this music was to our lives back in the day. It’s a shame that the appreciation of music seems to of gone down in todays world.
I have been a club DJ and a radio presenter for many years and I still have a regular Soul Show on a station in Wiltshire in the West of England called 97FM Fantasy Radio and at fantasyradio.co.uk so if you want to hear some great soul music you can find me online and on the TuneIn, MediaPlayer and Radio Garden Apps. My show is on air from 8pm to 10pm GMT on a Saturday night. You will need to check the time difference with your own global location.
Broadcasting as Alan Dee