British Soul Music

John Simkin (7th September, 2020)

In 1958, my mum's brother, gave us his old radiogram, as he had just purchased the latest model. I was thirteen at this time and as my brother was too young to be interested in music and my sister had left home, my mum gave me the money to buy three records. I chose the following: That'll Be The Day by Buddy Holly, Big Man by The Four Preps, and Donna by Ritchie Valens. The first two were hits in the UK but Richie Valens' record did not reach the charts in the USA. It was Donna's "B" side, La Bamba that eventually became my favourite.

These were the last records by white singers that I purchased for many years. I now became a regular listener to Radio Luxemburg. The reception was always very bad but you picked up enough to help you decide what music you liked. For people under the age of fifty, the idea of listening to music in this way must seem very strange. I soon discovered that the music I really loved was American soul music. It is a genre that originated in America in the late 1950s. The dictionary defines it as "combining elements of African-American gospel music, rhythm and blues and jazz".

However, it is much more than that. It is music that lasts. The music critic, John Mayer, has pointed out: "There's a constantly applicable nature to soul music, whereas sometimes pop music can be a periodical." Jill Scott, the poet and musician makes a similar point: "I've always been a firm believer that soul music never dies. The artists we still listen to today, years after their music was first heard are mostly soul artists; Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan. We still sing along to all of them with our hearts." This is definitely true of me.

My favourite DJs on Radio Luxemburg were Tony Hall and Alan Dell who played a lot of soul music. I also started reading the Record Mirror and the New Musical Express, where journalists such as Ian Dove (American journalist who wrote Rhythm & Blues Round Up), Dave Gell and Norman Jopling seemed to share my taste in music and were able to make good suggestions about what I should listen to.

I was an early fan of Tamla Motown, the record label that was established in Detroit in 1959. You could not even hear these records on Radio Luxemburg. The reason for this that they appeared on Oriole Records in the UK who did not sponsor any programs. Therefore the early records released by Stevie Wonder (Fingertips), who was only 13 years-old at the time, Mary Wells (Two Lovers and The One Who Really Loves You), Contours (Do You Love Me), Smokey Robinson (Shop Around and You've Really Got a Hold on Me), Barrett Strong (Money) and Marvin Gaye (Stubborn Kind of Fellow and Can I Get a Witness) were never hits and eventually Oriole went bust.

I started work in 1960 and I would usually buy a single most weeks. I developed a good relationship with a young woman in the local record shop. She would let me go in the booth to listen to the latest soul records that had been released. I still have these records in a box and although I have nothing to play them on I have resisted all attempts by Judith to get rid of them. I probably have not played them in the last sixty years. They mainly date between 1960 and 1964. After that I tended to buy albums.

I have records dated back to that period by Ray Charles, The Impressions, Gene McDaniels, Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler, Ketty Lester, Lou Johnson, Chuck Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Arthur Alexander, Ben E. King, Brooke Benton, Gary U.S. Bonds, Curtis Mayfield, Lou Rawls, Barbara George, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Mary Wells. Sometimes the records were unavailble in the UK and I purchased them from a company who used to advertise imports in the musical press. Sammy Turner was one of the artists I used to buy as an import (Bigtop Records). I was especially fond of Raincoat in the River (1961). It was one of the first records produced by Phil Spector but was not a hit in the US.

During this period I did not buy any soul records by British artists. Arguably, the first soul singer in this country was Dusty Springfield. She was originally a member of the Springfields but while in America in 1962 she heard Tell Him by the Exciters. The following year she left the Springfields with the intention to sing soul music. He first single, I Only Want to Be with You, did contain some features of soul music (horn sections, backing singers, and double-tracked vocals) in the style of African American girl groups at the time. However, to me it was not a soul record. Dusty also began doing covers of soul songs from America, such as Wishin' and Hopin' (1964).

The Important thing about Dusty Springfield was the way she promoted soul music. In August 1963, Springfield began presenting Ready, Steady, Go, and she did what she could to get American soul singers on the programme. In March, 1965, the Tamla-Motown Revue featuring The Supremes, The Temptations, The Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and the Funk Brothers began its tour. According to Mary Wilson, the start of the tour was a flop: "It's always ... disheartening when you go out there and you see the house is half-full". To help them reach a wider audience in April 1965, Springfield persuaded ITV to put on a Tamla-Motown Revue on television. This guaranteed the rest of the tour was a success. Springfield's best soul records were Son of a Preacher Man, Mama Said, Goin' Back and The Look of Love.

My second choice is Kiki Dee, a singer who never had the success she deserved. After singing with a local band in Bradford, Kiki Dee began her recording career as a session singer. This included singing backing vocals for Dusty Springfield. She issued her first singles in 1963 but she was given terrible material and none of them reached the top 100 and she spent her time on the Northern Soul circuit. Tamla Motown had recognised her talent and in 1969 she became the first female singer from the UK to sign with the label. Despite the release of some good singles, The Day Will Come Between Sunday and Monday, How Glad I Am, Got the Music in Me and Love Makes the World Go Round (87th in top 100) she never really achieved fame.

I am going to cheat a little bit with my next choice. Grace Jones was born in Jamaica but came to England in order to make it as a fashion model. In 1975 she signed for Island Records but it was not until two years later that she made her breakthrough when she joined up with record producer, Tom Moulton, that she made an impact with La Vie En Rose (1977), Do or Die (1978), Warm Leatherette (1978), Private Life (1980) and Demolition Man (1981). However it was Chris Blackwell and Trevor Horn who brought out the best in Jones: Pull Up the Bumper (1981) and Slave to the Rhythm (1985).

Like many soul singers Junior Giscombe had started his career as a backing singer. I had high hopes that he would become a major soul singer when he released his self-penned Mama Used to Say that reached No. 7 hit in the UK Singles Chart in 1982. It was also a Top 40 Pop hit and Top 5 R&B in the United States, earning him a "Best Newcomer" award from Billboard magazine. Unfortunately after a series of failed singles he concentrated on his writing, but without much success. He became involved with the formation of Red Wedge in 1986 with Billy Bragg, Jimmy Somerville and Paul Weller, and had been a part of The Council Collective with the Style Council, Jimmy Ruffin and others for the fundraising single, Soul Deep (1984).

Mick Hucknall, the lead singer of Simply Red is someone who has been having hit records for 25 years. Born in Manchester in 1960, his Irish mother abandoned him when he was only 3 years old. His first hit was Money's Too Tight (To Mention) (1985) was a cover version of the Valentine Brothers minor hit with the song in 1981. This was followed by Holding Back the Years (1986) that was written about his mother leaving him. Other good tracks include Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye (1987), It's Only Love Doing Its Thing (1989), You've Got It (1989), If You Don't Know Me by Now (1989), Something Got Me Started (1991), Stars (1991), For Your Babies (1992), Thrill Me (1992), Fairground (1995), Never Never Love (1996), You Make Me Feel Brand New (2003) and A Song for You (2006).

Another outstanding soul singer is Amy Whitehouse whose career was cut short by her early death. I particularly like the following tracks: Stronger Than Me (71 - 2003), Take the Box (57 - 2004), You Sent Me Flying (60 - 2004), Rehab (7 - 2006), You Know I'm No Good (18 - 2007), Back to Black (8 - 2007), Tears Dry on Their Own (16 - 2007), Love Is a Losing Game (33 - 2007), Body and Soul (40 - 2011) and Our Day Will Come (29 - 2011). At the time of her death on 23rd July 2011, Winehouse had sold over 1.75 million singles and over 3.98 million albums in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, she had sold about 3.4 million tracks and 2.7 million albums in the United States.

Other male soul singers that deserve a mention include Robert Palmer (Mercy Mercy Me/Want You, Every Kinda People, Some Guys Have All the Luck, I Didn't Mean to Turn You On, She Makes My Day, Addicted to Love and Simply Irresistible), Phil Linott, (Whiskey In The Jar and Boys are back in Town), Eddy Grant (Walking on Sunshine, Electric Avenue, Gimme Hope Jo'anna), Paul Young (Wherever I Lay My Hat and Everytime You Go Away), Mark Morrison, Return of the Mack) and Roachford (Cuddly Toy).

Dee C Lee was another one to have a disappointing career. In the early 1980s she was a backing vocalist for Central Line and Wham! Paul Weller heard her sing and he invited her to join the Style Council and she appeared on several of the tracks on their debut album Café Bleu. In 1985 she released her self-penned ballad See the Day. The single became a hit and peaked at No. 3 in the UK chart in December, selling a quarter of a million copies in the UK alone, and earning Lee a silver disc. Her follow-up singles, a cover of Judie Tzuke's Come Hell or Waters High and Hold On failed to make the UK Top 40.

Soul II Soul are a British musical collective formed in London in 1988. The group initially attracted attention as a sound system run by founder Jazzie B, playing at nights including their own at the Africa Centre, London. Caron Wheeler emerged as their main singer. They are best known for their 1989 UK chart-topper and US top five hit Back to Life (However Do You Want Me), and Keep on Movin which reached number five in the UK and number 11 in the US.

Massive Attack are an English musical group formed in 1988 in Bristol. There greatest success was Unfinished Sympathy that was written by the three band members Robert "3D" Del Naja, Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles and Grant "Daddy G" Marshall, the song's vocalist Shara Nelson and the group's co-producer Jonathan "Jonny Dollar" Sharp. and released in 1991. It reached 13th place in the UK but was a hit all over Europe.

Lisa Stansfield is one of our most successful soul singers and has enjoyed a long career with hits stretching over 14 years. People Hold On (1983 - 11), This is the Right Time (1983 - 13), All Around the World (1989 - 1), Live Together (1990 - 10), Change (1991 -10), Time to Make You Mine (1991 - 14), Someday I'm Coming Back (1992 - 10), In All the Right Places (1993 - 8) and The Real Thing (1997 - 9). Stansfield has won numerous awards, including Brit Awards, Ivor Novello Awards, Billboard Music Award, World Music Award, ASCAP Award, Women's World Award, Silver Clef Awards and DMC Awards. She has sold over twenty million albums worldwide.

Corinne Bailey Rae has a distinctive sound and is clearly not trying to imitating an American singer. Her first single, Like a Star (2005) only reached 35 in the Top 100. She released her debut album, Corinne Bailey Rae, in February 2006, and became the fourth female British act in history to have her first album debut at number one. In 2007, Bailey Rae was nominated for three Grammy Awards and three Brit Awards, and won two MOBO Awards. Put Your Records On was her only hit single (2nd in 2006).

Dina Carroll is a soul singer who had a series of hits during the 1990s, but eventually disappeared from the scene. Her hits included It's Too Late (1991), Don't Be A Stranger (1993), The Perfect Year (1993), This Time (1993), Escaping (1996), One, Two, Three (1998), Without Love (1999) and Someone Like You (2001). Her first two albums, So Close (1993), and Only Human (1996), both reached number two on the UK Albums Chart and went platinum. I suppose you could argue that her problem that she was allowed to drift away from soul and ended up in the mainstream.

Women soul singers who I liked but also had fairly short careers at the top include: Maxine Nightingale (Right Back Where We Started From), Princess (Say I'm your No.1), Jaki Graham (Round and Round, Set Me Free and Could it be I'm Falling in Love), Sade (Love is King). Mica Paris (I Wanna Hold on to You), Des'ree (Feel So High, Life and You Gotta Be)

Beverley Knight began writing and performing songs at the age of thirteen and although she had offers she decided to get an education first and and studied Religious Theology and Philosophy before signing her first record deal at 21. She has had six top 20 hits: Greatest Day (1999), Get Up! (2001), Shoulda Woulda Coulda (2002), Come As Your Are (2004), Keep This Fire Burning (2005) and Piece of My Heart (2006). She was involved in the writing of most of the records she released, but maybe that was a mistake. Awarded an MBE in 2006 she has recently concentrated on appearing in musicals. However, she did release a new album Soulsville in 2016 that included good versions of old soul classics such as Can't Stand the Rain and Don't Play That Song (You Lied).

I have never been a fan of television talent shows but today it seems to be the main way to become famous as a singer. I do not watch them and therefore I missed Rebecca Ferguson when she appeared on the X-Factor for the first time. However, when you watch her audition of this 23 year-old mother of two children singing a Change is Going to Come (2010) you can see why she needed this kind of programme to make it. Amazingly she only came second in the competition. Her debut single, Nothing's Real but Love (2011) charted at number 10 on the UK Singles Chart. Other hits followed, Backtrack (15 - 2012) and I Hope (15 - 2013). In recent years she has moved away soul and is more of a jazz singer as you can see with these tracks that were included on her albumLady Sings the Blues (2015): Summertime, God Bless the Child, Don't Explain, What Is This Thing Called Love, My Man, Willow Weep for Me and Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be),

Top 20

Dusty Springfield, The Look of Love (1967)

Kiki Dee, The Day Will Come Between Sunday and Monday (1970)

Junior Giscombe, Mama Used to Say (1982)

Paul Young, Wherever I Lay My Hat (1983)

Sade, Is It a Crime (1985)

Dee C Lee, See the Day (1985)

Princess, Say I'm your No.1 (1985)

Eddy Grant, Gimme Hope Jo'anna (1988)

Lisa Stansfield, All Around the World (1989)

Soul II Soul (featuring Caron Wheeler), Keep on Movin (1989)

Massive Attack, Unfinished Sympathy (1991)

Dina Carroll, It's Too Late (1991)

Robert Palmer, Mercy Mercy Me/Want You (1991)

Des'ree, You Gotta Be (1993)

Mark Morrison, Return of the Mack (1996)

Mick Hucknall, Never Never Love (1996)

Corinne Bailey Rae, Like a Star (2005)

Amy Whitehouse, Love Is a Losing Game (2007)

Rebecca Ferguson, Nothing's Real but Love (2011)

Beverley Knight, Can't Stand the Rain (2016)