Many of you may be familiar with soul and R&B music on record labels like Motown and Stax; via those records and others on other labels, the genres crossed over into the mainstream, charted very high, and became an important part of ’60s and ’70s pop culture. People from all backgrounds in many different countries got into the genre. For example, the British TV show Ready Steady Go! had a Motown special, and many British Invasion musicians like the Kinks, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who covered soul and R&B songs. As you can tell from their records, soul music had and still does have a good following in England; DJs there still host Northern Soul nights.
Now I’m sure you’re wondering, “What is Northern Soul, Angie? Why are you using this term and why isn’t it just simply ‘soul’?” Northern Soul isn’t just about the hits and the major record labels — it’s a lifestyle, and it’s all about the artists who didn’t get famous, the rare singles, and what is underground. Northern Soul is distinct and very different from the soul and R&B following in the United States. The fashion is different. The dances were different. Nothing like Soul Train — more like the moves in Bruce Lee’s martial arts films. It’s a very fascinating British subculture, and in this new biweekly column, we’re going to explore it together.
In this first edition, let’s start with a simple primer of 10 of my favorite songs to give you an introduction to Northern Soul.
1) “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do),” Frank Wilson (1965)
Frank Wilson’s only single for Motown, the 45 of this song is extremely rare, and originally, only 250 demo singles were pressed. Frank Wilson and Berry Gordy had creative differences and disagreed about how the song turned out, so most of the copies were destroyed, and as many that you can count on one hand survived. Due to the rarity of this single, it’s one of the most coveted in all of Northern Soul. It was re-released in 1979 in the UK on the Tamla-Motown label due to high demand from the UK. Six years ago, one original demo copy was auctioned off and the highest bid was five figures, over £25,000. To put things in perspective, that’s the cost of a new car! This song is so good, it makes you wonder why it wasn’t a mainstream hit.
2) “There’s a Ghost in My House,” R. Dean Taylor (1967)
R. Dean Taylor was a Canadian musician who came to Motown in 1964 as a songwriter. For this song, he teamed up with the infamous Motown songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, who were responsible for songs like “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” and “Baby I Need Your Loving.” While they were very talented and successful, not all Holland-Dozier-Holland-penned songs made it into the Top 40. This was one of those songs that didn’t make it stateside, but somehow found commercial success in the UK, reaching #3 in the charts there — although seven years after the song was originally released. But again, Northern Soul is about discovering songs of the previous decade and bringing them back to life. Halloween is coming up next month, so in the Halloween spirit with this song!
3) “Out On the Floor,” Dobie Gray (1966)
While Dobie Gray had multiple hits like “Drift Away” — which also found new life when Uncle Kracker covered it in 2003 — and “The ‘In’ Crowd,” which was a Top 20 hit in the States and and a Top 30 hit in Britain. Though Gray wasn’t a Motown musician, his music emulates the style a bit, and the majority of his music was appreciated by the Northern Soul subculture rather than the mainstream. Wigan DJ Kev Roberts who made a list of the top 500 Northern Soul songs ranked “Out On the Floor” at #2 and for good reason! Some Northern Soul fans don’t like this song because of how mainstream it is within the scene, but I love it! It’s very upbeat and always cheers me up.
4) “Come On Train,” Don Thomas (1973)
Now, this one is a bit different from the ones I listed above it because it was released in the ’70s rather than the ’60s, but the Northern Soul scene played songs that were new alongside with older songs. This would be an example of Modern Soul, which is every bit as soulful as the older ’60s stuff but with better technology. The best thing about introducing new music in the ’70s Northern Soul scene was that there was something new, hot, and hip to look forward to. This song was one of the favorite Modern Soul singles among Northern Soul fans and makes me want to dance.
5) “Seven Days Too Long,” Chuck Wood (1967)
Another great upbeat Northern Soul song. I couldn’t find much information about who Chuck Wood is or was, which is really common with Northern Soul artists because many of these songs are very rare and done by musicians who didn’t record much else. Apparently, he recorded music while signed to Warner Brothers in the late ’50s and early ’60s and was an actor. Wood only released a handful of singles, and this is his best known and one of the most popular Northern Soul songs overall.
6) “Baby Hit & Run,” The Contours (1965)
The Contours were well-known for the hit “Do You Love Me?” released in 1962, which topped the US R&B charts and went to #3 on the pop charts. They had more great songs besides that one hit, and you’re truly missing out if you’re just listening to the hits. “Baby Hit & Run” was recorded in 1965, but released in 1974 on the Tamla Motown label in the UK.
7) “Right Track,” Billy Butler (1966)
Born in Chicago (Hey! I live there!) and the little brother of Jerry Butler, Billy Butler commonly worked with fellow Chicago native Curtis Mayfield and producer Carl Davis, but this tune was a solo effort and ranked #11 in the Northern Soul Top 500. He was signed to the record label Okeh, but unfortunately lived in the shadow of his older brother who had many chart hits and was a member of the Impressions. “Right Track” is an excellent song, and I highly recommend you listen to it. It’s another great song to dance to.
8) “Here I Go Again,” Archie Bell and the Drells (1969)
Houston’s Archie Bell and the Drells were best known for the song “Tighten Up,” but this single was their last release for Atlantic Records before going onto Philadelphia International Records owned by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. Yes, the one that was known as “the Sound of Philadelphia.” In 1972, three years after this song was released, it became a hit in the UK. If you’re new to the Drells, I highly recommend this song as a good starting point for digging deeper into their catalog.
9) “Under Your Powerful Love,” Joe Tex (1975)
Joe Tex was a Southern Soul musician and drew influences from genres as diverse as country, gospel, and of course, R&B. He started making music in the ’50s and was signed to the same record label as James Brown — King Records. Something you might not be aware of is that, along with being signed to the same label, Joe Tex and James Brown, had a rivalry that got pretty nasty. Needless to say, their music is similar, and if you like James Brown’s music, you’ll like Joe Tex. “Under Your Powerful Love” was recorded after his hiatus from music after becoming an Islamic minister. This song was not a big hit like “Skinny Legs and All” or “I Gotcha,” but I really like it, and it’s my favorite song of his and one of many examples of him rapping over music. This is a Northern Soul staple, and for good reason!
10) “Long After Tonight is All Over,” Jimmy Radcliffe (1965)
The perfect way to conclude this list, right? This song reached #40 in 1965 in the UK, after which Radcliffe toured the UK to support the single. Northern Soul is full of sad stories, and this case comes is no different. Unfortunately, Jimmy Radcliffe died in 1973, a few months before the favored Northern Soul hangout Wigan Casino opened its doors, and he never got to witness this song become the cult favorite of many Soulies and a staple of the venue’s All-Nighters.