Back in the mid-nineties when I began browsing the Internet, I came across a site called “Soul of the Net” run by an Israeli named Yoni. On this site, I found a sizeable collection of sound files of sixties soul music singles, mostly obscure regional hits from non-Motown Detroit recording artists such as Nathaniel Mayer, Tyrone Davis, Emanuel Lasky, and Gino Washington. On this site, Yoni kept referring to this type of music as “Northern Soul.”
I sent Yoni an email, and asked what the term “Northern Soul” means. He answered that it was a music style first popularized in the English mod scene during the sixties.
But, to me, this was the music I grew up with; the music that played from the cigarette-pack-sized transistor radio that I hid under my pillow as I listened to the great Detroit soul stations, WCHB and WJLB, late at night. Detroit soul music and the great DJs like Frantic Ernie Durham, Martha Jean the Queen and Rockin’ Robbie D gave me comfort in the crazy dysfunctional house I grew up in. I couldn’t believe that decades later I could hear this music again on the Web.
What is “Northern Soul”?
First off, the “Northern” in Northern Soul refers to the northern part of England, specifically Manchester where the American soul music craze began in the UK in the late-sixties and lives on today. David Godin, owner of Manchester’s Soul City record store, is credited with coining the phrase after noticing that certain parts of England preferred particular music genres. He classified Manchester’s preferred genre as “Northern Soul.”
The Beginnings of Northern Soul
The first Northern Soul dance club was Manchester’s Twisted Wheel. It opened in 1963, and DJ Roger Eagle’s playlist contained nothing but R&B and soul music with an emphasis on obscure non-Motown singles. Kids flocked to this club, including local musicians John Mayall, Spencer Davis, and Long John Baldry.
In 1971, the Manchester city council closed down the Twisted Wheel.
In 1973, the Wigan Casino opened, rapidly filling the void left by the Twisted Wheel’s demise. While the main room was a disco, the Wigan Casino’s second smaller room, “Mr. M’s”, played nothing but Northern Soul. The club’s popularity spawned more Northern Soul clubs throughout England. In 1981, the Wigan Casino burned down.
Northern Soul Today
In 2002, as strange as it seems, Manchester’s Twisted Wheel club reopened and once again it’s playing Northern Soul to a new generation of fans.
Several stars of the Northern Soul genre, mostly forgotten in America, moved to northern England. These stars included Edwin (“Double-O Soul”) Starr and Nathaniel (“Village of Love”) Mayer.