Ian Levine: The Northern Soul Men.

Ian Levine has extensive music credentials. His D.J. residency at the Blackpool Mecca, a Northern Soul temple in the Seventies, involved musical archeology & devotion to excavate the rare, forgotten grooves which became dancers’ favourites a decade after they were recorded. His Eighties productions, pioneering Euro Hi-NRG, was, in my opinion, dance music which was a little short on the funk but he had hit records. He seems to be obsessive about most things. He contacted 600 of his mother’s relatives for the biggest family reunion ever before re-assembling  an entire 1960s class from his school. A double nightmare…really ! His fascination with the music though has been of benefit to us all. Well, to me anyway.

So, this is what Billy Butler looks like. I included a track of his in the Okeh records post. In the 1960s a soul artist  had to crossover to the pop charts before any TV station would point a camera at them. The collection of video clips in my computer is an enchanting & addictive thing but the odds on finding those R&B legends-to-be are pretty long. And here is Billy flipping Butler singing the dancetastic “The Right Track”, July 1966, Okeh 7245, #24 on the R&B charts. I know this stuff & I don’t consider myself a Northern Soul geek though I know some men (it is a guy thing) who are. Billy kept on keeping on recording until 1983. There is a solo LP from 1976 on Curtis’s Curtom label which must be worth a listen but his day job was playing in big brother Jerry’s band.

In 1987 Levine began a small collection of former Motown  artists, recording new sessions with these seasoned performers. By the mid-80s this Motorcity project (folly…in the best, most respectful sense) had 108 acts, over 850 songs ! He then moved on to producing & directing “The Strange World of Northern Soul”, a documentary, an anthology, which, once he got started was difficult to stop & became 12 hours of footage with 131 performances. Ian Levine’s You Tube channel is a treasure trove of some familiar, mostly not, faces performing their re-recordings of soul songs which you may have heard but there is a great deal of “where did all this great stuff come from ?” going on.

“If You Ask Me (Because I Love You)” by Jerry Williams, the Swamp Dogg. 1966 again, the first 45 after Jerry dropped the “Little” in the front of his name. Now the Doggfather is a soul legend. He quit his job as the first African-American producer at Atlantic Records just as the Acid kicked in. The psychedelic tinged soul of “Total Destruction To Your Mind”, his solo LP, was matched by the inventiveness of recordings he made with Irma Thomas & Z.Z. Hill among others. Mr Dogg’s brand of Southern Soul was not a grand commercial success but now, at 40 years’ distance, it retains a distinct individuality which makes you go Hmmm. His (deliberately ?) absurd LP covers are classics too. “Rat On !” wins awards but “Surfin’ In Harlem” is a cool one.

Mr Swamp kept hold of his publishing & his masters & he now directs his own small music empire If anybody wants to sample his music (& that would be nothing but a smart move) then they have to show him the money. If labels show interest licensing his tracks he can do a quick deal to re-release a couple of albums. It’s all worth checking out, music like this does not get made anymore. Jerry Williams has more stories than the Burj Khalifa, hilarious & salacious. It is the music that he is about & this 1998 re-recording of a Northern Soul classic is a joy.

Here’s a tune that became more than a floor-filler at the Blackpool Mecca where a teenage Ian Levine was the only DJ to champion “Love On A Mountain Top” by Robert Knight. Robert’s first record, the dramatic “Everlasting Love”, was a Top 20 US hit. In the UK he was gazumped by Love Affair, a teen band later nicked for not playing on their records, who had the #1 smash with an inferior blue-eyed copy. Soul, Northern or otherwise, never went away in Britain. Artists considered one-hit wonders in the US like Edwin Starr & Jimmy Ruffin, moved here because we knew ALL their songs. You did not have to be pilled-up all night at the Casino, the Mecca or the Twisted Wheel to be on this music. Dancers were swinging their Oxford Bags to Motown & Philly in youth clubs & pubs all over. So, around Xmas 40 years ago “Love..” was a big UK hit. This lovely clip of Robert is a fine tribute to a man with a very sweet voice. Here is a grainy version from 1973 with an impressive afro & a suit that is louder than the music.

I cannot give enough props to Ian Levine for his labour of love. Really, I have been spoiled for choice in finding just 3 clips for this. There are Motown memories, Stax stalwarts, Chicago choristers…just get to his Y-tube channel or buy the DVDs for some serious, properly curated, soul history. next time around & soon it’s the distaff side of soul. I can’t wait.