Colin Curtis is one of the greats of British DJing, having been involved in every phase of its development from northern soul right through to house. He was resident at Blackpool Mecca with Ian Levine in its halcyon period and then went on to run Rafters and Berlin in Manchester. In this 2003 interview, presented as part of RBMA’s partnership with DJ History, we spoke with Colin about his career in the UK club scene. – Bill Brewster
Where were you born and when?
I was born in 1952 in Madeley in Cheshire, near Crewe. And I was brought up in a working class family, council estate, but eventually went to grammar school. I found myself at grammar school being affected by pirate radio. Radio Caroline, etc. I used to have an old Bush radio with Copenhagen written on it, and I used to stick the pirate frequencies over them, so I knew where to tune to. Remember the old football league ladders you used to get? I used to reverse them over and put tunes on the back and run charts. So I became very interested in collecting and chasing these records down in the ’60s.
Which kinds of records would these have been?
Dave Baby Cortez did a radio show in Caroline, Mike Raven did a show, Soul Serenade… Cortez would open up with “Rinky Dink,” during the show he’d play Robert Parker, James Carr, these were like... Where did these sounds come from?!
Was it possible to find a record like James Carr then?
Well, you’d have to order it. At that time you were just chasing UK labels. Then you discovered there were places like FR Moore mail order. They would advertise in Blues & Soul. They used to list Billboard releases, which is where this northern soul mania came from, chasing them down. Then the impact of these American records with the big hole in the middle, which opened up a fantastic array of choice, which came between ’69 and the early ’70s when I started discovering clubs.
What was the first club you went to?
Probably the first with any influence on me was the Golden Torch. That had been run previously bringing over live acts, similar to the Wheel. They’d bring over Oscar Tony Jr., Junior Walker, people who weren’t really getting any coverage at all except through specialist magazines and a bit on the radio.
We lived in a pub at the time and I think I’d been grounded, but someone offered me the chance to go along to the Torch, a midweek night. I’d been collecting records and I’d already formed a mobile disco. I’d be 13 or 14. The ego side of my personality enjoyed entertaining people. I was very aware of ’60s chart music, very aware of black music and I was playing youth clubs and trying to drop as many soul records as you can.
So I was grounded and I escaped over the back wall, walked down the railway line all the way to Tunstall which was about three miles from where we lived in Kidsgrove and I just couldn’t believe this place. I walked in and they were playing records I didn’t know; records that were hitting me straight away, Bobby Wells’ “Let’s Copp a Groove,” Chubby Checker “At the Discotheque”… You know, just like a huge vortex had opened in just a few hours. I’d gone away from there with my head so full that I’d walked down exactly the same route the following night only to find the club was closed. It hadn’t occurred to me that it wouldn’t be open every night.
What was the club itself like?
It was magical. You turned into the street and you heard the bumping beat coming through the wall. How the neighbours coped with that, I really don’t know. And it’d got the fairly classic façade with the name over the top, four sets of double doors, so you went in and you got inside and everything was black and dark. There was a stage, there were some pictures of soul stars that had been drawn on the walls, and a balcony. It was probably 4 or 500 capacity.
Had it been converted from a cinema?
Yes, but there was no sign of that apart from the fact the toilets were either side… Eventually the club became the cult that it did with the all nighters.
So when did the Golden Torch open?
Originally it was open for groups in the early ’60s. The Wheel was probably the first club that was paying more attention to the black side of music, but the Torch didn’t follow too far behind. You’d get Chicken Shack, you’d get the Small Faces, but then you would get Oscar Tony Jr. But then the local kids in Stoke on Trent would go to these events and not know who they were gonna get, it was just fantastic to see their faces.
I was working at the local Mecca at the time, the local Crystal Ballroom. I’d been taken on there so I had to change my name to Colin Curtis, my real name’s Colin Dimond. People say it’s a great DJ name, and it probably was, but it stunk of pop and I didn’t want that image. But I needed some sort of anonymity, because I would’ve been expelled from school, it’s as simple as that. It was a way of getting out the mobile culture of weddings and, eventually I took over the soul nights, which were on Sundays and Thursdays. On a Sunday night we’d have nearly 1,000 people in there just playing soul. It was phenomenal. This was in Newcastle under-Lyme. We’d get two quid a week.
What year would this have been?
‘69 to ‘71. The Torch all nighters had started and they’d finished with the interest in drugs with the police and local papers. The problem, retrospectively, was only 20% compared with the actual drug problem that happened in dance clubs in the ’90s, but it was big news for the papers at the time. It was closed down fairly rapidly in 1973 and I’d gone back then to the local Mecca.
People with this amount of knowledge all congregating, the chemistry just happened.
When you’d played at the Mecca, did you go and play at the Torch after that?
No, no. Towards the end of the Torch, Tony Jebb, Ian Levine and people like that started the night at Blackpool Mecca. That was a regular Saturday night finishing at 2 o’clock. So at 2 o’clock they would come down to the Torch all nighter. They’d start arriving at 3 or 4, and, the one thing that made the all nighter so buzzy and so effective, almost every hour there was a different set of people arriving from somewhere else. All of a sudden, all these people who previously had been dotted about in small clubs, were all coming together on one occasion. It made an atmosphere that, at the time, was unparalleled. People with this amount of knowledge all congregating, the chemistry just happened.
Was it then that you thought: this is a scene?
Oh, it was a total scene. The Friday nights at the Torch had started to attract people from Wolverhampton, Manchester, around Cheshire, based around what was happening musically there, but the all nighters cemented it. People did not travel to clubs elsewhere, DJs were not booked for other clubs.
A scene was now developing which had its epicentre in the all nighters, but then clubs in Wolverhampton, the Catacombs, had come to the fore, the Wheel had obviously finished but its impact was felt and then the Blackpool Mecca thing was happening. Then over a period of 12 months, I’d been approached… Blackpool Mecca had been closed for whatever reasons at the time.
This is when Levine and Jebb moved to the Torch, right?
Yeah, but the irony there was that Keith Minshull – who was one of the most influential DJs in Stoke on Trent at that time. Not a classic DJ. Very rarely said anything at all, just bang the old dance tunes on and away he went – he and myself left the Torch because of the politics and the police and everything and we started playing at the Top Rank in Hanley. And also the local Mecca, which was called Tiffanys.
I think it was a wet Thursday night when this guy Tom West came to talk to us, who died in the last few years. “I’m down here as assistant manager from Blackpool.” We got to know him over the next few weeks and one day he said he was going back to Blackpool and he said, “How do you guys fancy opening up the soul night again?” And that’s what happened. We went up there, had a few words with Bill Pye, the area manager, and he was keen to get it going again. After six months, it ended up being me and Levine.
Ian Levine’s collection was unprecedented.
So when did it start again, and did you play right from it reopening?
Yeah. It started back up in ’74 and Levine came in late ’74 or ’75.
What was your impression of Tony Jebb and Ian Levine when you were going to the all nighters at the Torch?
I’d been to Blackpool Mecca as a punter on the old bus from Stoke every month. I’d seen Tony Jebb and experienced the Mecca from the first period, the ’71 and ’72 era and really enjoyed it. The personality who shone through on the decks was Tony Jebb. He was a good looking lad, his presentation was excellent, he looked the part and he played the right records. The one thing that made him different was that he did focus on the dancefloor and he did talk on the microphone, which wasn’t a huge thing on the soul scene, it’s what DJs did on mobiles. I clicked with this guy, his presentation.
Ian Levine was a lot more excitable on the microphone and trying to play as many tunes as he could. Also very good at breaking at records, though at the time it wasn’t appreciated when the dancefloor was full, then empty, then full. And they got good back-up, there was a resident downstairs, Billy The Kid; very much part of the balance that made it what it was.
So did you go to places like the Wheel?
I went to the Wheel a total of four times. I went to the first Wheel.
What was it like?
Fear is the best word I can use to describe it. All these guys who were dark, huge, leather coats... you can see it was that insular culture. Something was happening, something was definitely happening. They were playing your Roscoe Robinsons and all that early ’60s stuff, “Fife Piper” by the Dynatones. These records in this setting, the Wheel was one of these catacomb-y clubs, again, it just touched me. I only went once as a punter, but I went back a few times as DJ when it had changed hands a few times. I’d seen enough of these places... I’d been to the Catacombs in Wolverhampton...
Oh, really. What was it like?
Very dark. Small, compact, packed, lots of little alcoves, same sort of thing.
Where was it located, wasn’t it upstairs?
Exactly. We always used to say you could tell whether people had been or hadn’t been... [mock voice] “Well, we went down the stairs...” Well, you’d been in the fucking Co-op then, because the club was upstairs! You went upstairs and there were lots of people shuffling around, very tight atmosphere, low roof, the DJ you couldn’t find... All the DJs had their own identity. Years later this helped me because I took a piece of everything and used that, so I became able to play in all these different areas and be accepted. Whereas a lot of the DJs didn’t, they’d go and play their set no matter where they were. People didn’t take that on board.
So what kind of records were you playing at the Mecca? Because you must have been at the start of the “modern” period.
That’s right, but when it opened it was still on the back end of the Torch. Records were still Sequins’ “A Case of Love,” Dramatics’ “Inky Dinky,” Frankie Beverley’s “If That’s What You Wanted.” It was still very much a northern soul thing, it was still very much the ’60s records that dominated.
Ian Levine who was now at Blackpool, he had the most phenomenal record collection. There wasn’t anything like it in the UK. His father owned property and a casino in Blackpool, a Jewish family, his relationship with his father was poor. This guy had built up his record collection on the basis of holidays to Miami. Where a normal person would go and do a few record shops, this guy was going into warehouses. In the foyer of his parents’ home, there would be 20 to 30 piles of records – 7-inch singles – this high [motions to chest height] each time he came back. A couple of piles of albums this high, but back then albums were just not touched. Back in the day nobody even considered them.
So Levine was going over regularly then?
Three or four times a year. He’d come back and we’d spend up to a week going through these records. Playing them religiously. Making piles of records for different scenarios. And then when he started going over there, he started sending me tapes from radio shows. It was at this time, probably ’75, he’s sending me tapes back with the Carstairs, Universal Mind, The Tymes’ Trustmaker, and the whole thing was starting to change.
America and the Billboard chart had been dominated by soul ballads for so long; Millie Jackson was huge. All of a sudden late ’74, uptempo records became popular again, using these great sounds and vocals. The northern scene at that time, we’d gone through so many records and Levine’s collection was unprecedented, so we had the best choice, but it was getting more and more difficult. More people were going over to America to find records...
The quality of records we’d been playing was coming to an end. People will probably dispute that now, because people have gone back to re-address records missed at that time as 2nd, 3rd or 4th Division. To me, they’ll always be 2nd, 3rd or 4th Division. So to us, the new records that were coming out of the States at that time, it would have been criminal to ignore them.
As time went on, 12-inches started appearing, and so we’d got crossover-y records like Pat Lundi “Party Music,” we’d got the start of Crown Heights Affair when they signed to De-Lite. This was causing a furore on the scene. And this developed in Blackpool but we retained the crowd.
The furore must’ve been coming from elsewhere, surely?
Without a doubt. As time had gone on at Blackpool, the Wigan Casino had appeared and this was an all nighter. We were back to the situation between Blackpool and the Torch. And the all nighter offered the drug scene another option. This inevitable success story – and it was a success story – but the music was jukebox lowest common denominator bom-bom-bom records. There was no feel, there was no contrast, there was no black and white.
Again, that statement will be disputed, but from where I was sitting, the way Wigan Casino developed, I wasn’t interested in going... I think I played there once I think, but I didn’t pursue it further. For me, it was going backwards. When they introduced the oldie room, it was the beginning of the end. Nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong, it’s just the way things were.
So you were playing other clubs as well the Mecca? Were you playing these new records and, if so, what was the reaction?
The major venue that became a catalyst for this was the Manchester Ritz for the all-dayers, where you literally would have almost a shift change on the dancefloor as each DJ played. One DJ would play northern and you’d have a full floor for northern. Then either myself or Levine would come on and introduce these other records. We’d be playing a little bit of the back end of northern, but mainly driving forward with new stuff. Current new 7-inches and whatever 12-inches were around, Crown Heights Affair, Tavares…
Was it true that people chanting “get off” and walking round with “Levine Must Go” banners?
There was pockets of people who started a “Levine Must Go” campaign. T-shirts, etc. it was just part of it, it wasn’t venomous, it really wasn’t. Maybe they thought it was, but for us the publicity was fantastic. Levine was the type of personality they could attack. I wasn’t the type of person they could attack. Levine was the perfect target, a big balloon who you can fire arrows at. I love this guy to bits, but he’s a self-publicist and he puts himself up there and people will shoot. For me, it was great fun.
How long did the all-dayers go on for?
They dragged on in some form or other till ’77 or ’78. Even beyond that under a different guise, when I hooked up with John Grant, but then it was starting to turn to the black scene. Then that was knocked on the head because Anderton, the Chief of Police was not into blacks congregating...
How did that change musically?
The Mecca had run its course. It was the end of an era. Where do you go from here? So, I’d been to Birmingham and Wolverhampton looking at clubs and thinking, well, I dunno... Kev Edwards who worked behind counter at Spin Inn in Manchester, he phoned me and said, “I’m going to Angels in Burnley tonight, can I have a word with you?” Angels was more of a Mecca spin-off and Richard Searling used to play there on a Wednesday, so it was a good chill-out place. He said, “I want you want to meet this guy in Manchester, I want you to meet him and do something here.”
About a month later, in 1978, I drove into Manchester to meet this guy called John Grant in a pub. In walked this guy with what looked like a Brillo pad on his head – his hair – glasses, looked like me dad. He’s got speakers under each arm. Huge bloke. So he built this mobile disco while we drank our Cokes and then proceeded to play the night...
What happened to me in life has been self-inflicted, I’m afraid, and nothing to do with drugs.
He played similar to what we played at Blackpool, but with a black feel. He got a mixed crowd, but it was busy. I spoke to him and we agreed to go and have a look at a few venues. We looked at a club called Fagin’s on Oxford Road. Fagin’s had been a rock club, loads of bands had played there and it had mainly been frequented by rockers. It was an absolute dump. I took one look at it and said, “No way.” He said, “Look, we’ll chuck £5 or £600 at it. I know this guy who’s good with timber. I can put the sound in.”
Very reluctantly, I agreed to get involved. Four weeks after we opened there was 800 - 900 people there. We called it Rafters. John Grant turned out to be the image that I’d seen that first night. He was an organised bloke. He had no particular flair. He was well competent on the microphone. He was a nice bloke who people got to know and people liked. He used to organise coaches and everything. I was a twat. I used to turn up, I was the star, “Pay attention now I’m on.” And then I’d go to sleep under the decks and “Don’t bother me until I’m ready to play again.”
You used to sleep under the decks?!
Yeah, well, I’ve never been into drugs. You can see the state of me after 50 years without drugs?! My mind has never been able to accept the control. It’s just a psychological thing. What happened to me in life has been self-inflicted, I’m afraid, and nothing to do with drugs. Kev Edwards, coupled with John Grant and myself, these lists we did became potent weapons because when kids had been to the club they’d take one of these away and they’d be in Spin Inn on a Monday morning...
How long did it run for?
I eventually hooked up with John Grant and Mike Shaft, but Rafters itself ran till about 83. We did Rafters on Fridays and Saturdays. Fridays were more commercial, not pop, but more commercial. And on Sundays we used to do a club called Smarties, which was right next to Spin Inn. Small club, packed every Sunday, 250 people. Most of the records that became jazz funk were in there. The one thing that interested me was that we were already started to go into this more jazzy kind of stuff like Jeff Lorber.
So when that ended is that when you got involved with Berlin?
Yeah. The whole jazz funk thing almost disappeared off the face of the earth. John Grant and myself found ourselves going round clubs during the previously successful years and playing to no people.
What were the successful years then?
79-83 or 84. There’d been a constant all-dayers circuit then too.
And the weekenders?
No, weekenders didn’t exist then. We attempted a weekender at Primrose Valley on the Yorkshire coast, and we sold 30 tickets. That’s why the Ibiza thing happened, I remembered Primrose Valley and thought, “No, it’s not going to happen.”
What all-dayers were you doing?
Blackburn, Stafford, Birmingham, the Locarno. At Birmingham Locarno, the all-dayers were different again, because what had happened is when we’d gone into Manchester initially with the Ritz, then Rafters, very white still, people coming from Scotland, and even London, but there was a kind of fear of black people by some white guys and the people who’d remained faithful to northern were also dropping away, so what we were left with became the black scene in Manchester and Birmingham and Nottingham, where I played at Rock City with Jonathan Woodliffe. We’d had previous success in Nottingham at the Palais.
What other DJs were playing at the Birmingham Locarno?
Well the jazz room, I got crazily into jazz, got heavily into be bop, I went seriously down the jazz route… I was spending fortunes on records. We booked Paul Murphy, Baz Fe Jazz, one of my original punters. Dave Tilshaw and Williams from the Rum Runner club. In the main room, there’d be myself, Westwood, Paul Trouble Anderson, great guy...
I remember at the time I’d just started playing “Set It Off” by the Harlequin Four’s, records like that, which everyone said weren’t gonna work. Two months into the scene it really started changing. Then Paul’d come up and play the go-go stuff from Washington. So you’ve got Westwood, Paul, the beginning of scratching…
So Westwood was playing electro and hip hop at that time?
Yeah. Pete Tong came up because he’d heard about the gig and he said, “Oh, it’s too heavy for me!”
What year would this have been? ’85?
So what about Berlin?
Well, something was going wrong in my life, physically, but I didn’t know what it was. I was struggling to cope, having blackouts driving cars. It was a difficult time in my relationship personally. Getting to gigs was getting increasingly difficult. I wanted to do something that was just Colin Curtis, just me. So I had this night at Berlins with a local lad called Hewan Clark warming up for me. Nice guy, big lad, well over 6’.
First DJ at the Hacienda, wasn’t he?
Yeah. Hewan Clark warmed up for me at Berlin. He collected records and there was a fabulous place, Yanks Records, originally Global Records where Richard Searling started off, run by an American guy called Ed Balbier. It was just a huge warehouse and Hewan had built up his collection here by paying a quid each for these records. He had great feeling and great taste. I used to get there and play from around 10-ish to 3, just three or four crates of records and me. Although it was only a small club, 200 people would pack the place, it was fantastic because it allowed me to let this audience loose on this idea.
What did it look like?
It was on a corner, you went in on the top floor and there was a pay desk, then you went downstairs. The dancefloor was like something out of a Dennis Wheatley film. Basement, low roof. I used to play a track by the Valentine Brothers called “Let Me Be Close to You,” off the album that produced “Money’s Too Tight.” I remember Mick Hucknall used to ask for “Money’s Too Tight” and we’d picked up sealed copies of this album in Yanks, so I was ready for him. He asked and I gave him a copy of the album. If it had been in London, it would’ve been more talked about and probably got bigger.
Yeah, yeah. You had black guys, Rastas, famous people, such a mixture. Gilles’ friend Andrew was there religiously every week, Dean Johnson, Barry Malleedy and they’d bring their own mates. I got to meet this Brazilian guy who was at college in Manchester and sometimes these guys would just come in and jazz dance to me, or I’d play to them. Fantastic freestyle jazz dancing. That was about ’86 and it was about that time that I became seriously ill and I got taken out of the loop from about ’86 - ’89. I did come back at the Playpen in Manchester during that period, but I wasn’t functioning properly. I was playing all the early house stuff from Chicago.
When did you first come across that stuff?
I started pushing it heavily in ’86 and ’87. For me this was like being born again. Hearing all these records was just phenomenal. I’d buy a lot from Spin Inn, Selectadisc in Nottingham, wherever I could get my hands on them.
What sort of record were you picking up on then?
We were playing Chip E, Farley Jackmaster, all the Trax stuff, Robert Owens. I’d been playing in clubs like Legends, which had been used to hearing electro and dropping these real raw tracks and getting a reaction. Legends had been a real big club for Greg Wilson. He took the electro thing to a new level there. We were playing house before the Haçienda, a long time before the Haçienda.
What was the racial composition of the crowds? Berlin? Playpen? A lot of people I’ve spoken to all say it was black kids originally, who were into it.
It was. Originally. There was a set of girls, soon as I hit the decks, they’d come out, six or seven girls. The black guys were well into that Chicago sound.
Was there any negative vibes between races?
There was a perceived vibe, but there really wasn’t. Playpen was 50/50, mini skirted girls with big hair. But I was playing the house stuff at Birmingham and at Rock City we had a fabulous time with it. That was the period for Rock City. We’d come off the back off the jazz funk thing and we’d got 1,500 people in Rock City on a Friday.
Was that just you and Jonathan Woodliffe playing there?
Yeah. Then we did all-dayers off the back of that. Rock City. Early all-dayers with jazz funk and a touch of northern were done at the Palais. Later, it was Rock City. Good black crowds coming in from Bristol, Northampton, Birmingham. It was a different feeling from Manchester.
What were you playing when you were moving into the electronic sounds? Electro, house, etc.
It went nuts, that stuff, particularly in Birmingham. And “Beat Goes On” by Orbit, stuff like that. The whole dancefloor became like a sea. Sad cliché, but it was like one nation under a groove. In Birmingham and Nottingham they were well into that. It became an identity for black kids, across the midlands. A similar identity to what Greg Wilson produced when he introduced the electro stuff. Warp 9, Orbit, they became huge. Massive records: Hanson & Davis “Tonight,” Serious Intention.
Did it happen quite quickly or gradually?
It was a bit like the Ritz in Manchester. There was a small growth in the corner of black kids and it eventually took over. It was like that at Rafters, it eventually became a black club. Derby at the Blue Note on Sunday, and in Birmingham, it was mainly black from the start. The main difference between the black and white thing is the white guys liked to drink and the black guys weren’t particularly into that. The dancing became the predominant feature. You’d get these break dance groups. It was all happening across the midlands instead of Manchester.
How long did it last, because it got decimated by the outbreak of house didn’t it?
Yeah. ’88 or ’89. But the biggest thing was the reintroduction of the ’70s music, with the Leroy Hutsons, Vandrosses, Ronn Matlocks. The soul scene jumped on to that big style. The modern scene that had been hovering hooked on to that sound, the Curtom sound. The dance thing wasn’t that strong on the weekender scene.
Who were the big figures on the modern scene?
It kicked off through Richard Searling, myself. I knew the records from the first time, playing Arnold Blair “I’m Gonna Get Next to You,” I had two copies of that, Flowers “For Real,” forgotten album tracks, so you were revisiting a great period of music. It attracted the white soul fans.
What was the theme running through those tunes, was it tempo, feel, what?
It was that midtempo, song, semi-underground feel. And on the sidelines you had this collecting scene growing out of trying to find these records. Richard pioneered that sound on his radio show. He started at the Halfway House and then we got together at a club called the Trafalgar.
Where was the Trafalgar?
Just off the tickle tack turn-off, Jct. 30, for Preston. Richard eventually went back to Manchester and teamed up with Dean Johnson at Parkers and again that brought the ball back and that was much more a 50-50 thing.
What age were the black kids going to that?
Parker era was an older age group. They’d lost their identity prior to that. In fact, the whole black scene I’ve described to you that was one heaving unit, had disappeared like the dinosaurs. It just wasn’t happening anywhere. All the niche clubs like the Blue Note in Derby, it had just disappeared. 1,500 people, all gone. At Rock City we couldn’t get 200 people.
What year was this?
Towards the end of the ’80s, as the house scene had got an identity.
Where did those black kids go? Drum & bass?
I think they just went to normal clubs. If you think about Manchester when I first went in there in the late ’70s, there was the Reno, a huge black club on Moss Side. Black people didn’t integrate in normal Saturday night clubs.
Was that door policy, though?
What do you think about what happened with house? It was such a behemoth, it consumed everything to start with, didn’t it?
Yeah, it did. Soul music itself got completely lost again, with no identity. For me it was exciting. I’m very much a spectator at this stage. My games business had taken off in the early ’90s. It was a more vague period for me. I’d go to The Haçienda. I knew Graeme Park very well, we used to book him at Rock City and give him £30. One thing that sticks in my mind with Graeme is he’d come on with two boxes and there’d be no LPs in there. The culture of our DJing, there’d be albums, 12-inches, 7-inches, everything. That was it. That was the start of the mixing.
Why did it happen so slow in the UK? In NYC it was happening in the early ’70s.
The parallel between New York and the way they picked up that disco thing, whereas over here the individuality of different sounds and different records. You can’t mix Chick Corea and Jeff Lorber. Maybe it just didn’t need to be mixed. We’d been used to contrast, spaces, voices...
This interview was conducted in September 2003. © DJ History
For the sounds of Blackpool Mecca, check out the playlist below, exclusively compiled by Pete Haigh for DJ History.