For its devotees, northern soul was, in its heyday, more than just a type of music: it was a lifestyle – one that involved amphetamine-fuelled all-night dances, badges and intense club rivalry. It is a peculiarly British phenomenon, although its sound was predominantly American. As time moved on, however, songs by British artists began to creep onto turntables and succeeded in filling the dance floors of clubs of northern England. Here, we play tribute to the northern soul scene with a short history and our pick of the 30 best northern soul sounds performed by British female singers.
People often ask what northern soul is. Perhaps the simplest definition is that of DJ-turned-pop-producer Ian Levine. “Northern soul is basically the Motown sound that other people tried to imitate,” he once said. Playlists became more varied over the years, but Motown certainly popularised the driving beat that came to characterise much of northern soul. When The Beatles covered three Motown hits on their second LP, Britain began a love affair with the Detroit label that endures today. (See our Motown girls and Motown males cover version specials for more information.)
As more British bands began to cover American R&B records, it became cool to know the originals. Mods were the first to catch on to this. But as Motown and American R&B began filling the UK charts, Mods felt their sound was losing its exclusivity and started searching for more obscure material.
Ironically, the term ‘northern soul’ was coined – where else? – in the south of England. Dave Godin of London’s Soul City record shop was looking for a shorthand way of describing the kind of, by then, dated soul that was being looked for by northern customers to the shop. Hence ‘northern soul’.
One of the first clubs to cater for this demand was the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. It opened its doors in 1963 and after switching venue in 1965, it became a magnet for soul fans from across the north west and beyond thanks to its all-night opening hours.
Other clubs sprang up too, including the Golden Torch in Stoke-on-Trent. But after the Twisted Wheel closed in 1971, two clubs in particular became the centre of the northern soul universe: the Blackpool Mecca and the Wigan Casino. The rivalry between the two was intense. And as time went on, the problem for both was that finding sufficient quantities of ‘new’ old, obscure records to ‘break’ became increasingly difficult.
Each club found a different way to tackle this – the Mecca began playing 1970s funk, while the Casino stuck with 1960s sounds but opted for more pop, as long as it had the same pounding beat.
It is thanks to this policy by Casino DJs that many of the Brit girl tracks featured here were rediscovered. Some purists maintain, however, that these records are not proper northern soul.
For its 100,000+ members, the Casino years of 1973 to 1981 remain the halcyon days of northern soul. In 1978, America’s Billboard magazine even crowned it the best disco in the world. After the club’s closure – to make way for a civic centre extension that never, in fact, materialised – other clubs continued to meet the demand for dance all-nighters. These included venues in Manchester, Rotherham, Stafford and Hinckley.
Here we salute the scene with a veritable northern soul jukebox: 30 of the best Brit girl dance tracks of the 1960s to grace the decks of northern England’s clubs in later decades. By their very definition, our choices are highly subjective, but they are presented strictly in alphabetical order.
1. Barry St John: Everything I touch turns to tears
‘Covering up’ records – literally, hiding a record’s label – was a popular practice among northern soul DJs as a way of preventing their rare finds being reissued and becoming less in demand. This track was covered up as being by Florence De Vore.
2. Beryl Marsden: Break-a-way
This song, a cover of an Irma Thomas track, was produced by no less than Ivor Raymonde, the man behind many of Dusty Springfield’s hits. Inexplicably, it was relegated to a B-side, but northern DJs were quick to spot its potential.
3. Billie Davis: I want you to be my baby
There are several tracks by Billie Davis we could have picked, but this was her biggest floor filler. A strike at the Pye record plant affected its availability when it was released, thereby making it rarer – and thus more desirable – in later years.
4. The Carrolls: Surrender your love
Lead vocalist Irene Carroll gave her all on this Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson composition. By the time it had cultivated a northern soul following, Irene was better known as impersonator/all-round funny woman Faith Brown.
5. The Chantelles: There’s something about you
There’s something about you, The Chantelles’ first release for the Polydor label, has become the female trio’s most in-demand release, thanks to its popularity on the dance floors of northern England.
6. Dany Chandelle: Lying awake
This is the kind of record that shows how varied northern soul can be. Issued in 1965, this massive production – featuring backing vocals from The Ladybirds – failed to sell. It took until the 1990s for it to find any following on the northern soul scene.
7. Dusty Springfield: What’s it gonna be
Almost unbelievably, even Dusty’s distinctive vocal was ‘covered up’, with the label claiming the song to be by Patti Austin. This flop, originally issued in 1967, later featured regularly on the playlist at the Torch in Stoke-on-Trent.
8. Elkie Brooks: He’s gotta love me
This track was released on the HMV label in 1965 and ‘discovered’ by northern soul DJs in the mid-1970s. Perhaps surprisingly, it is said to have been penned with the Eurovision song contest in mind. Elkie Brooks is dismissive of the songs she recorded at this time, but she is, without doubt, being too hard on herself.
9. Emma Rede: I gotta be with you
This terrific beat ballad took its time to find a northern soul following. Emma Rede was a short-lived pseudonym for British-based Irish singer Jackie Lee. Within a year of releasing this song, Jackie was enjoying UK chart success with White horses.
10. The Flirtations: Nothing but a heartache
US girl group The Flirtations moved to England in the mid-1960s. During their stay they cut this killer track. Some might argue it’s now become too mainstream – not least for having been included in a recent Kentucky Fried Chicken TV advert.
11. Helen Shapiro: Stop and you will become aware
When songwriter Earl Okin came to release this song, he cut it at a slightly slower tempo. Helen Shapiro’s version remained truer to his demo, a highly danceable number. For many fans, it is the ultimate Brit girl northern soul track. Interestingly, when it was discovered in 1977, it was initially covered up as Dana Valery.
12. Jackie Trent: You baby
This song – a Ronettes cover – found popularity on the northern soul scene in 1977 although it had bombed at the time of its release 11 years earlier. The B-side, Send her away, proved almost as popular with dancers.
13. Jane Hillery: You’ve got that hold on me
This one-off single by Birmingham’s Jane Hillery died upon release in 1966. The highly catchy song was penned by Peter Lee Sterling and Phillip Peters, who had enjoyed success a year earlier with I belong for Kathy Kirby.
14. Jenny Wren: Chasing my dream all over town
Jenny Wren was the stage name of Dudley schoolgirl Jenny Allen. This 1966 Fontana 45 passed unnoticed upon release but a mint copy now commands over £300 on the second-hand market, thanks to its popularity among northern soul devotees.
15. Karol Keyes: One in a million
This cover of Maxine Brown’s One in a million was produced by Kinks member Dave Davis. Karol Keyes became Luan Peters in the 1970s and enjoyed a successful career as an actress and vocalist with 5,000 Volts.
16. Kiki Dee: On a magic carpet ride
This Kiki Dee B-side from 1968 was also given the covering up treatment – and was passed off as Chris Clark singing Touch the sky. No matter. It remains one of the strongest northern soul tunes by a British singer, male or female.
17. Kim D: The real thing
This version of a Tina Britt original by Kim D – or Vivienne Davison, as she’d been known in her home town of Newcastle – prompted much sprinkling of talcum powder on the dance floors on northern England for a while. Kim was one of Britain’s few black female singers of the 1960s.
18. Lesley Dawson: Run for shelter
Having Paul Anka on hand to write your songs for you is something many artists would have given their right tonsil for. Perhaps surprisingly, though, it brought Lesley Dawson no success, even with this cracking track from 1967.
19. Linda Kaye: I can’t stop thinking about you
Big hair, big sound. Listening to this on a Dansette – or through a computer – doesn’t do it justice. Once you’ve heard it fill a club, you’ll know why this 1966 single from Geordie girl Linda Kaye features in our top 30.
20. Liz Christian: Suddenly you find love
Londoner Liz Christian went big in the north in 1978. This song had been issued as an A-side on CBS in 1967. It’s a great mid-tempo track with a charmingly breathy vocal. No wonder the Spark label snapped Liz up after she left CBS.
21. Lorraine Silver: Lost summer love
When Lorraine Silver learned that she had been discovered by the northern soul fraternity, it started a chain of events that led her to return to performing. She even went on to cut her first album, The northern soul sessions.
22. Madeline Bell: Picture me gone
Madeline Bell cut many great tracks, and Picture me gone is one of the honorary Brit girl’s personal favourites of her own recordings. It has also become one of the most popular British songs on the northern soul circuit.
23. Marian Angel: Tomorrow’s fool
Eighteen-year-old Marian Angel from Wembley recorded this track in 1965. It lay hidden on the flip of It’s gonna be alright until it was ‘discovered’. Though the single hadn’t been a hit in Britain, bosses at Jubilee records considered it strong enough for a US release, though, again, it failed to sell.
24. Nita Rossi: Something to give
Cut in 1966, this song by Nita Rossi found popularity in the late 1970s. Its release in the both the UK and US confused many collectors into thinking Nita Rossi was American. In fact, the teenage singer hailed from Bournemouth.
25. Paula Parfitt: Love is wonderful
Paula Parfitt issued this on the small Beacon label. It was first spun at Va-Vas in Bolton in 1973, four years after its release, and went on to garner a strong following at the Wigan Casino in 1976. It’s a bit pop for many purists, mind.
26. PP Arnold: Everything’s gonna be alright
PP Arnold quit The Ikettes after a UK tour supporting The Rolling Stones. This song was issued as her debut solo single in 1967. Written by Andrew Loog Oldham and David Skinner, its pounding beat has made it a favourite on the northern soul scene.
27. Samantha Jones: Surrounded by a ray of sunshine
This is perhaps the most commercial record among our picks, but it’s a corker all the same. Cut by Liverpudlian lovely Samantha Jones, the song was massive on the northern soul scene in the late 1970s but rarely gains a spin these days.
28. Stella Starr: Bring him back
Rarity was prized among northern soul DJs, which goes some way to explaining the popularity of this disc by London-based South African Stella Starr. Distribution problems helped kill the 45 upon release in 1967.
29. Tammy St John: Nobody knows what’s going on (in my mind but me)
Essex girl Tammy St John’s 1969 single Concerning love found a following on the northern soul scene for a while. Our favourite, though, has to be this earlier release, her speeded-up version of a Chiffons 45.
30. Tina Tott: Burning in the background of my mind
This track would have made an excellent A-side. Instead, it was consigned to the flip of Tina’s only 45 on the Pye label, 1969’s Take away the emptiness too. It remained an obscurity until the northern crowd took it to their collective bosom.
There are, of course, plenty more great Brit girl northern soul songs that there simply isn’t space for here. Among them are tracks you’ll find on this website by Adrienne Poster, Anita Harris, Flamma Sherman, Muriel Day, The Other Two, Petula Clark, The Satin Bells, Sue and Sunny, Sue Lynne, The Three Bells, Truly Smith and Val McKenna.
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