A new film called Northern Soul (dir. Elaine Constantine) shines a spotlight on one of the most vital musical scenes in 20th Century Britain. Set in the industrial North in 1974, it portrays all the the adrenaline, fashion, sweat, speed and adolescent joy of the youth that adopted soul for their own nightclubs and lifestyles. Musicians Jonathan Scott Watson (known as Smoove) and John Turrell – together they are the band Smoove & Turrell – know their Northern Soul. Here, Smoove, will a little help from Turrell, picks out 10 of their favourite, lesser-known tracks that tell part of the story.
Timebox – ‘Beggin”
Obviously the big version of this is by Frankie Valli. But trust me, this is the version you need. It came out a year after the Franki Valli original and was the only hit by the UK outfit Timebox. It has all the parts that make that swinging London sound so addictive, from over-the-top horns to a string arrangement straight out of the Royal Albert Hall.
Pointer Sisters – ‘Send Him Back’
A great thing about Northern Soul is that you if delve far enough back, you can find out what some bands were doing earlier in their careers. Sister Sledge, Three Degrees… they both have great northern tunes to their name. Even Meatloaf’s first album was a soul album of sorts and was released on a Motown label! But Pointer Sisters were always in a league of their own, and early on they were under the eagle eye of a certain Wardell Quezergue, a man who also brought us Jean Knight’s Mr Big Stuff, and produced in 1972 this belter which could easily have come straight out the mid-60s.
Fred Hughes – ‘Baby Boy’
A great northern record doesn’t have to come from Detroit but it does help. And this is as Detroit as it comes. I am not entirely sure how much of a “boy” he was when he recorded this as he had been round the recording block a couple of times by the time he came out with this. But it has long been a northern anthem and lyrically, it perfectly represents a scene that was happening thousands of miles away. As for Fred himself this was one of his final outings as his recordings dried up a couple of years later.
Edward Hamilton & The Arabians – ‘Baby, Don’t You Weep’
In so many ways this says everything about Northern Soul. Edward Hamilton was a member of the iconic outfit The Falcons for a short time but also tried to make it on his own. I think he recorded 10 singles from 1960 onwards and I doubt if any of them were particularly successful as he left the music scene to work in car plants. But several years after this wonderful slice of 60s Detroit soul was released it got a new lease of life in the UK via the Northern scene and reached a status it never had when it was released.
Tyrone Davis – ‘Can I Change My Mind?’
Head honcho for Acid Jazz Records Eddie Piller was responsible for turning me on to The King of Romantic Detroit Soul. Tyrone’s story was a real rags to riches one. As was more common that you may think, many budding artists in the 60s sought to get a foot in the door of the record industry by working as chauffeurs to stars and this is exactly what Tyrone did; in the early days he was the chauffeur to blues singer Freddie King. There were some stumbles on the way to fame but it all changed when the genius that was Carl Davis began producing him and brought out the softer side of his singing. He would go on to sell records by the millions.
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Johnnie Taylor – ‘Friday Night’
Quite some time ago I released ‘Coming Back’ featuring the wonderful Jess Roberts on vocals and it was all inspired by this tune. It is one of his less well-known records but I have so much affection for it. Jonnie Taylor’s hits in the late 60s saved Stax Records from going under when they were stung by one astonishingly unfair contract they had with Atlantic records. In true Northern style this is the B-side, the A-side, ‘Steal Away’ was very different.
Jackie Wilson – ‘Whispers Getting Louder’
I have still to come across a soul fan who did not love Jackie Wilson. In many ways he was one of the biggest Motown acts that never was. Berry Gordy who ran Motown wrote some of his early hits such as ‘Reet Petite’ and was desperate to sign him, and in addition the Motown house band often moonlighted to be his backing band. But it was the sheer drama and vocal range that this man had that was simply amazing. Criminally he was not well advised in his choice of material, but when he got it right, such as on this one, no-one could touch him.
Eddie Spencer – ‘If This Is Love’
Geno Washington and The Ram Jam band also recorded this. But with due respect to the big man, this is the version to go for. I think partly because some of it was recorded in Detroit that it has the real urgency pulsing through it essential to any great northern record. But Eddie himself was no native of Detroit; he was of Jamaican origin living in Canada, which just goes to show that Northern soul can come from the most unlikely of sources. In fact Canada was home to some big players on the 60s soul scene, but that is another story.
United Sounds – ‘It’s All Over’
I have never found out who the vocalist is, but he has one of best sets of Northern Soul tonsils that I have come across. In so many ways this is the perfect Northern record: wonderful horn arrangements, sublime harmonies and so danceable. Which is possibly why this year a vinyl recording of it went for over £2,000!