Skegness Butlins Northern Soul Weekender 26-29 September 2014
Friday was a curate’s egg; Archie Bell insisted on playing with his own band, who stank, ignoring the ‘house’ band, Diane Shaw, which was fabulous – four-piece brass section and everything. “Soul City Walking” was OK but he only really got going on “Here I Go Again”. It ain’t good enough to wear a banana coloured suit and shuffle your way through some fairly nondescript funk bump and grind before checking your watch and going into the ‘killer tunes’ section whilst wheeling out your granddaughter, no matter how cute.
Judy Street was lovely. A white, bespectacled music teacher from Indiana, she recorded “What” whilst very young. She’s now blessed or cursed with a gorgeous Cougaresque (John Cougar, I suspect, not a sexually predatory woman of a certain age – Ed) growl. Looks like a folk singer. But cos she’s a music teacher, she knew what she got with that band behind her. And in musical terms you understand, she really got ’em out for the lads.
Eddie Holman was brilliant. Sincere, genuine soul singer. No sheeit. And what a voice. The fact that his version of “All In The Game” was a double A with “Lonely Girl” in the States, where it went to No. 4 on Billboard, means he shifted more units on this than anybody which includes Tommy Edwards, Cliff, Michael Jackson and the Four Tops. At that point I’d probably settle and tour, never mind “Lonely Girl”. And a nascent Northern smash, set to be part of a major film soundtrack in “I Surrender”. Not bad for a 68 year old vicar. And only one Mrs in all that time.
Afternoon we went to see Johnny Boy, some oik from Wigan wearing a hoodie who looks like he ought to be fishing the Macclesfield Canal. What’s this? He’s about to start singing to backing tapes – wohohochortlechortleholdonaminutehe’sfuckingbrilliant. What a voice. He’ll be making a living dragging his Lambretta, I kid you not, around the Northern clubs with a laptop in his panniers with his backing tapes. Remember the name. Stage presence of a sack of spuds. Voice which can do Bobby Hebb to Frank Wilson. Jeez. God works in mysterious ways.
Anyway, The Flirtations hadn’t rehearsed with each other or the band but because the band were brilliant and they were fabulously talented deep South floozies they just blew that room away. They were so under-rehearsed I kind of resented how much I enjoyed them.
I had no idea. For me, Tommy H was an American soul singer who in the late sixties covered “Get Out”, a Harold Melvin / Bluenotes early 60’s Northern gallop for Spark records (a subsidiary of PYE in the UK) which was backed with “Cracking Up Over You” a doomy, headaching Northern thumper which was in its doom – laden way a classic of the genre which got him booked to the second birthday of the casino. This actually got him on TOTP and a top 40 UK hit. This led to Russ Winstanley getting him booked to record “Loving on the Losing Side” for Spark. They sampled “The Love I Lost” intro backwards and off they went. Instant top 40 hit, 2 appearances on TOTP, wearing the classic Wigan baggies and beer towel and trained to do a couple of rather stage – managed backdrops. Then the follow up “One Fine Morning” just about made it to the edge of the 40 and it’s cabaret for you, me laddie.
Apart from one thing. By the time Tommy Hunt was doing TOTP, he was well into his 40’s and had been living in England for years. He’d bought his credibility off the back of “Human” a billboard R and B top 20 hit from the sixties. As far as the Northern Soul cognoscenti were concerned, he was the Real Deal. Which he was. But I missed something.
He’s the only artist to have his photo hanging twice in the foyer of the Harlem Apollo. Why? Because in 1959, he recorded “I Only Have Eyes for You” as one of the Flamingos. He was there. He sang on that. While Buddy and Eddie were still alive, he had a record which for weeks on end was at the sharp end of Billboard, on every radio, every drive-in, every High School Hop.
And at the age of 81, he is brought out before us at Skegvegas. I had one of my ‘Little Anthony’ moments.
He launches into the first song of the set. He’s vertical. He leans heavily on the band but the voice is still doing it and the phrasing is still there, and he’s got that twinkle in his eye. He’s loving this. He then slumps rather too heavily onto a stool put there to prop him up if he needs it. Goes into song two. Does a decent job of it. Can’t remember what it is, I’m in muso heaven by now, don’t expect to get any sense out of me. Then he starts “Tobacco Road”. Lovely, gritty version sung by a guy who knows what it’s like to have to leave ‘home’ to tour Amsterdam and Belgium to make a living. The intersong raps are good, witty, funny even, and underpinned by that love of what he’s doing and respect for his audience. But he’s going on a bit. He’s playing for time. Trying to get his breath back maybe. When I’m 81 I’ll be amazed if I can shit straight.
Band strikes up with his greatest hit, “Loving on the Losing Side”. Great song about the eternal underdog. But something’s wrong. The voice turns to a sort of croak. His right hand slumps across his chest. His eyes close. He’s doing the words but that’s all he’s doing. The band plays on. It gets to the bridge. The band plays on unassisted. Amazingly, people are still dancing. The band gets to the chorus. His eyes jerk awake, he manages to croak the verse. Then he closes his eyes. The band by now looks worried but plays on and brings in the cheesy end chords early. He moves and mumbles into the mic, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry. It’s finally caught up…with me…’ and Diane, the singer, goes to him and attends to him whilst various people rush on and he’s carted off.
The Day The Music Died. It felt very strange. The room was full of ghosts. Apollo ghosts, Jackie Wilson, Levi Stubbs, Bo Diddley, Frank Wilson. Insert Name Here.
Anyway, not to worry, so an hour later on came Dean Parrish, who’s an Italian New Yorker whose real name is Phil and had no idea that Dean Parrish had sold truck loads over here until 2001 or so. He’s 72 now and I want some of whatever he’s taking. He leapt out of the blocks and roared through “Tell Him” which he had a regional hit with. He then went on to do a stonking version of “Determination”. I have theory; I think the reason he suited British ears so well is that he sounds quite a lot like a lot of those blue-eyed soul brothers from both sides of the pond; Long John Baldry, Steve Marriott, The Brothers Righteous. Doesn’t really need it now since he landed the part in The Sopranos, but hey.
He told the story of ‘I’m On My Way’. One take, Mono, 4 track, no overdubs, one session and “You Did What You Were Told”. ‘I hope this means something to you’, said he. And then launched into what can only be described as An Anthem. We sang, we cried.
End game. On comes Tommy Hunt. On Comes Eddie Holman and Judy Street. They didn’t want to go home so they stayed the whole weekend. Tommy Hunt tells us some stories and then starts chasing after the backing singers. He’s feeling better then. On comes Johnny Boy. And Russ Winstanley then pulls his masterstroke – we’re going to do the last three songs we did every night at the casino. “Long After Tonight Is all Over”, “Time Will Pass You By” (give it up for Diane Shaw – that’s me blubbing again!) and “I’m On My Way (again, but you can’t blame them!) and then an ensemble gallop through “Do I Love You” – and then another blast of “I’m On My Way” and you, Mr Jenner, have seen and heard something very special.
And then we went back to the apartment for a pot noodle.