Jonathan Woodliffe has seen plenty of genres come and go, but it was northern soul where he got his start. The Nottingham DJ watched Ian Levine, Colin Curtis and more from the front lines, eventually joining their ranks and going on to become a respected selector in his own right. In this interview from 1998, presented as part of RBMA’s partnership with DJ History, Bill Brewster talked with Woodliffe about northern soul and much more.
How did it all start for you?
A friend of mine at school took me out to a northern soul night at the Brit on Friday. I started going out to all these all-nighters, as soon as me mum let me stay out all night. The whole club thing was in its infancy, so it’s very hard to explain to your parents that you wanted to go hundreds of miles and...
Well, no, I wasn’t. I knew enough people who did. People who used to break into chemist’s on the way. The first all-nighter I ever went to was Samantha’s in Sheffield, with John Vincent, Ian Dewhirst, Paul Schofield. Then Cleethorpes, Blackpool Mecca, obviously, which is where I met Colin [Curtis] and a lot of other close friends of mine.
What year did you go to Mecca?
Levine and Curtis were DJing then?
Yeah, it was just before they started to have the changeover, playing new releases, so it was just northern soul at first.
What northern stuff were they playing at the time?
The two of them always managed to come up with really god quality records. They had unbelievably good ears for records at that time. There was no cheesy white records played. They had a little bit of an advantage at that time, because Ian Levine’s parents had got a hotel in Miami, so he would go over and stay there and he got to meet up with Henry Stone just before he started TK Records.
So he had an added advantage of going to the States at a very young age and Ian, if he found records on a label he didn’t know, he would go and buy every single record on that label. You went around to Ian’s house and he’d have everything on that label. Plus he had a little bit more money than everyone else.
Ian was going down to John Anderson at Soul Bowl in Kings Lynn. Colin said Ian would go down with £1,000, which in the mid-’70s was an immense amount of money, and he’d just buy a big box full of obscure sevens. Colin was in a less fortunate position, so he would pick and choose.
There were an immense amount of characters on the scene then, which I suppose there are now, but it’s the only scene I’ve come across in the 23 years DJing and clubbing where there was such a close-knit community. Everybody knew everybody. I suppose the nearest thing to it, looking back over the years, is the Balearic network.
Where were you buying records from?
Soul Bowl. From John’s list. I’d get the mail every Tuesday morning at eight and at half-past-eight he’d be open, so I’d be on the phone chasing records. Kev Roberts was going to the States, so every time he came back I’d go straight round and buy records from him. All the same faces would be there. I was also buying unknown northern records at that time. Kev was a very good source for these records.
When did you start playing?
My first gig was downstairs at the Palais. They used to do a kids night on a Monday night upstairs and downstairs was a northern soul night. Someone said “You’ve got lots of records, why don’t you do it?” I was about 16 or 17.
Did you end up playing at the all-dayers?
I did a few at Cleethorpes, but I never played Wigan. It’d be about 78 or 79 when I was also buying the new release 12-inches when they started coming through.
Early Salsoul things, the Roulette things. Touch And Go, Eddie Holman’s “Make This a Night to Remember.” I got disillusioned with the northern scene, because there was a lot of internal bickering amongst DJs about whether newer records should be played or whether it should just be ’60s records. Wigan Casino was about to close. I thought I’d seen the better days of that scene. I’d seen Cleethorpes go. I’d seen the Mecca finish. So I opted out of it.
What were the differences between Highland Room and Wigan?
Highland Room was on till 2 o’clock, so it was a club, whereas Wigan was an all-nighter. There was a big difference musically. Ian and Colin had records that were big at the Mecca for such a long time that nobody in the country had.
Such as what?
Coasters’ “Crazy Baby” was covered up as Freddie James’ “My Heart’s Wide Open.” That was covered up for about a year and nobody knew what that was. They had so many records that nobody else had. It was a different sound. It was a very soulful sound. If the quality was there on a mid-tempo record, they would happily play it.
Some of the DJs at Wigan I felt were slightly poppier. It was the tempo that dictated whether a record was going to be popular. And I think with an all-nighter there is a greater temptation for people to participate in taking drugs. I think that did make a little bit of difference, even if the drugs then are completely different to the drugs today. It was amphetamine based. I used to see people on the way back, especially in service stations, in a right mess. I thought, “I’m not going to take any of this!”
The smell from the Pukka pies in Wigan Casino was just horrendous.
So there was a difference musically. That and the decor. The Highland Room was all red and tartan, hence the name. Whereas I thought that Wigan could have done with a major refit. There was a horrible sticky carpet on the balcony. They used to have horrible Pukka pies. The smell from that was just horrendous. But both places had wicked atmospheres and they were both major players on the scene at that time. As was Samantha’s in Sheffield, Central in Leeds.
What about Cleethorpes?
At Wigan there was the ’60s sound, at Blackpool it was more ’70s, but at Cleethorpes there was a mixture of the two. I can remember going there in 76 or 77, and there was snow everywhere. We drove all the way over in this little mini-van, and I’ll always remember looking along the Pier and the snow was coming down almost horizontally. It was freezing.
All I can remember is this door opening in the distance, a mountain of steam coming out and the smell of Brut talcum powder, which everybody use to put on the floor to dance better, and the sound of World Column’s “So Is the Sun.” Whenever I hear that record it always takes me back to that smell. Babe Ruth’s “Stealin’ Home” was quite a big record up there. It was a nice mixture of sounds and styles which worked really well.
How long did Blackpool keep going and when did the split happen?
I guess it must have been about 77. At the time, them playing new records was a big thing. There was quite a bit of a backlash from people who thought they were selling out, but I think they did the right thing because there were some great records that got played at the time that I don’t think would have been played otherwise.
Diane Jenkins’ “I Need You.” I always remember going up to Colin and asking him if he wanted to sell Bernie Williams’ “Ever Again.” This gentleman with long hair almost down to his waist. Leaning over the decks, all you could see was this sheet of hair cueing up records and then he flicked his back and said: “No. It’s not for sale.” It was three or four years before I saw a copy for sale. I paid £40, but nowadays it fetches about £500. I thought that when I sold all my northern soul records in 1980, I couldn’t see the scene continuing as we knew it at that time, but if I’d known then what I know now, I might not have sold them. Because I hear prices now that are just phenomenal.
Tell me the Frank Wilson story.
The story I got told was that Simon Soussan went over to America and met someone who was in charge of the Motown vaults. They’d recently moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. So he went round to Motown and, so I’m led to believe, some records went missing. Simon fished this record out.
From what I recall at that time, Simon used to bootleg records anyway. As quite a few people did. He bootlegged some copies, and I think it was called Eddie Foster. The few DJs that bought them, caned this record. It became a big record, but nobody could work out, for years, who it was. Then information got back that it was an unreleased Motown single that had been stolen from the Motown vaults.
A friend of mine who worked with Kev Roberts, called Les McCutcheon, he went over and bought some records off Simon and came back with this record by Frank Wilson. He lent it to Russ Winstanley for about six months. I collared Les one day and said, “I really want to buy that record. Will you sell it?” The deal was done.
We sat down in the office one day and the figure of £500 came up which, at that time, I thought, “I must be off my trolley paying £500 for this record.” But I’d spoke to a few people and they’d all said surely this is going to be the only copy. So I decided to buy. Not £500 in one lump sum. It was paid over six months. £500 in those days, you couldn’t earn in a week! I guess this would be 78 or 79. I used to go to gigs and people used to ask me to get this record out of my box so they could take a photograph of it. Because at that time – I suppose it’s like the transfer market with footballers – £500 was the highest anyone had paid for a record. I had it for about two years.
Singles that I bought at the time for £60 or £80 which I though then was a lot of money, are fetching £1,000 a time now.
Did that help you get more gigs?
If you’d got the right records at that time, your DJ gigs would increase dramatically. Definitely. But not really for me, no. Because at that time it was already an old record. It was a soul demo. There was a coffee stain on the A-side and there’s something written, like “okay,” which I’m led to believe is Berry Gordy’s handwriting. But this could be another one of these stories. I swapped it for a load of albums with Kev Roberts.
The prices for northern soul singles now... [phew] I just can’t comprehend someone now going out and trying to assemble a collection. Now you’ve got to win the Lottery to do it. Singles that I bought at the time for £60 or £80 which I though then was a lot of money, are fetching £1,000 a time now. And the DJs still get the same amount as they did then. Most northern soul DJs get £100 to £200 a gig, and they’re buying records for £1,000. It’s frightening. But back then it was the music. It wasn’t a money thing, it was about love of the music; that’s the thing everybody had. We’d think nothing of spending money on records. We all had that collector in us.
What happened later with you? Did you ever play go-go?
Paul Anderson and I used to work together at the Electric Ballroom in London. Paul was a big pioneer of go-go in London. He championed that sound for quite a long time, but it never really cottoned on up here. We were all convinced that it was going to be the next big thing from America. But it wasn’t happening north of Watford. It never did. It was a bit too samey.
And it was too much a live experience, too...
Yeah. I couldn’t see people going to the Palais and Tiffanies going mad to those records. It was a million miles from the pop records being played. I was going and playing in the all-dayers, because we had a network of clubs around the midlands that put all-dayers on a Sunday: Leeds, Birmingham Locarno.
Did that grow out of the jazz funk thing?
All the way through from 1978 to... it was about a ten year run. What happened originally was the main room was northern soul and the back room was funk and soul new releases, but it was called a Mecca Room because of what Colin and Ian were doing at Blackpool Mecca. As the jazz funk scene developed, the rooms swapped around and the northern room was the smaller one. I can remember going up to an all-dayer at Blackball Mecca that Colin and Ian used to do and hearing Brass Construction’s “Movin’” for the first time; Saturday Night Band “Come On And Dance Dance.” And Ian was producing stuff, too.
The jazz funk thing swept the whole country really. You’d got Colin and Ian doing Blackpool Mecca; you’d also got the Mafia set of DJs: Chris Hill, Robbie Vincent. The reason the all-dayers grew was because we couldn’t get to use the big clubs on Friday or Saturday night, so we had a scene that developed that was on a Sunday from 2 PM till 11 PM. Not unlike Body & SOUL in New York now I suppose. There’d be a set of DJs that would work at these gigs in the north. Colin, John Grant from Manchester, Paul Schofield, Ian Dewhirst, myself, Trevor from Stoke. When we used to do the dayers at the Locarno, Paul Anderson was one of the few to come up from London.
What kind of stuff were you playing?
Locarno first, then it was called Powerhouse. It was 83 or 84. Big things at that time, there was a friendly competition between the DJs and there was no playing old records. It was all new records. So if you had something no other DJ had got and it went down a storm, it was a nightmare because you’d have all these other DJs chasing the record. It was the influence from the northern scene, I suppose.
I can remember when the first garage and house records were coming through. The early house things from Chicago that I’d got as new releases, and Colin and I were playing them out. The other DJs couldn’t understand why we were playing these records, with strange tempos and totally different to things that they were used to hearing us play. It was new, but we’d always played new records, it just had a slightly different sound.
Things like Harlequins Fours’ “Set It Off.” Colin and I got copies of that and we were caning that record. It was so hard to get hold of here. It was on a small independent, and there were such small quantities being imported then. They’d just disappear. I remember Young & Company’s “I Like (What You’re Doing To Me).” We must have played that a year before it got put out in this country. And a year-and-a-half after we started playing it, it crossed over and became a pop hit. Records had a lot longer shelf life then.
What was the reaction from crowds when you played early house?
Really, really good. I mean, through the jazz funk thing the crowd was predominantly a white crowd, and then with the advent of electro and the early garage and house records, the ratio between black and white changed. It was very much a black crowd that got on the garage and house scene early on. Very much so. It was very noticeable. Certainly for us up here in the midlands and north. It was nice to see so many people coming into the clubs that were so enthusiastic.
What about the Garage in Nottingham?
At that time, it was more of a student/indie thing.
Martin Nesbitt was there, wasn’t he?
Yeah, very good DJ. I can remember going up there one night on a Tuesday and Graeme [Park] was playing upstairs and he’d be playing the Smiths, and he got into that early garage and house stuff, so he was playing a mixture of the two. So I told him, “You need to get a couple of 1200 decks, and change the rubber mats for slip mats, because otherwise you won’t be able to scratch and mix.” Ask Graeme, I’m sure he’ll tell you.
Were you still going to America?
I remember going over in 1986 for the New Music Seminar and saw both sides of the whole dance thing over there, because at that time you’d got bands like the Cult and Sisters of Mercy playing over there, so I was hanging out with them at the Danceteria one night; then the next night I was going down to the Paradise Garage to see Larry Levan to DJ, so I had the best of both worlds.
I was amazed at how plain the clubs were over there. They weren’t plush, like we had here at the time. The emphasis was much more on light and sound, but I could see why it was like that. And what made it work... like Rock City was just painted black and had a good lighting rig and a good system, so I was a little relieved, and surprised, to find out that that’s what these clubs were about as well. Later on I got to hear some tapes and I was surprised at how similar the records we were playing – even though we’d never gone out of our way to hear these DJs, or find out what they were playing.
I was amazed at how plain the clubs were in New York City. The emphasis was much more on light and sound.
What was your impression of going to the Paradise Garage at the time?
I can remember walking up this ramp thinking, “So this is why it’s called the Paradise Garage.” Because it looked like the ramp going into a garage. And then just walking in and hearing this amazing sound system. It was just so loud. And clear. And it just had these great bassbins on the floor. It sounded so much better than the system I had at the club, and at that time I thought I had a good system. It’s only years later that I realise that what I went to see is of almost legendary status now.
Who was at Danceteria? Mark Kamins?
I think it was a guy called Tiny. Doug E Fresh was doing a show and it was just before “The Show” came out. I called everyone up and said, “Do you fancy going to this hip hop jam tonight?” I think Pete Tong was there, Adrian Sykes at Island and Julian Palmer, Jeff Young. They didn’t wanna go, and I went on my own and I was nearly the only white person in the club. It was all black and Hispanic, but it was wicked. There were people breakdancing all over the place. I met Kool Herc. Afrika Bambaataa was there.
Cover-ups. I wanted to ask you what you thought of them.
I think in the early days it was a case of DJs trying to ensure that they’d got records that nobody else had got. I suppose Colin’s going to be one of the best ones to ask about this, because the cover-ups thing started before I even was on the scene.
I think it was a case of DJs finding records they probably thought were pop records but had that Motown sound, so to safeguard getting egg on their faces, they’d cover it up and come up with a credible artist name and title. Hence the Coasters being covered up.
This interview was conducted in September 1998. © DJ History