Golden Years: Colin Curtis celebrates 50 years as a DJ
Prior to an event at The Exchange, Stoke-on-Trent on 13th May which celebrates Colin Curtis's 50 years spinning, Marko Kutlesa caught up with him for a chat about his career in music.
Last updated: 5th May 2017. Originally published: 4th May 2017
Colin Curtis is arguably the single most important club DJ to have ever played in the north of England, if not the UK. He's also one of clubland's longest-serving with 2017 seeing him celebrate 50 years as a DJ.
Fascinated by watching his grandfather playing 78 records, Colin's first signs of music fanaticism came in his early teens. It was at this time he was also first exposed to soul music, via the hits of Motown. He began collecting records and was particularly inspired by the playlist at The Golden Torch soul night in Stoke, one of the north's most celebrated soul dens.
At The Torch he helped shape the scene that became known as Northern Soul. By 1967 he had started DJing and before too long had built up a collection that could stand up against those owned by the DJs at The Torch and he became a resident there alongside Tony Jebb, Ian Levine and Keith Minshull.
Further residencies followed at Blackpool's huge Mecca venue, across Manchester and the rest of the North, and throughout the late 70s and early to mid 80s he was a hugely popular guest DJ all over the UK. His presence was instrumental in setting up a dance music scene which paved the way for clubland in the UK as we know it.
Taking some time off from DJing in 1986/1987 due to ill health and scaling back some of his travelling thereafter, Colin nevertheless remained passionate about music and continued to DJ, reappearing with a new found vigour and enthusiasm in the 90s as a guest at soul nights, weekenders and even house music nights playing music, as requested, from every era of the time he's spent as a DJ.
He continues to be a fanatical music collector and issues several hours worth of new music on podcasts from his website each week, and will be celebrating his half century of DJing at a very special party at The Exchange in Stoke on Saturday 13th May. Ahead of that we caught up with him to discuss some of that legendary career.
One of your first encounters with soul music came through hearing Motown records. Was there a particular group on the label who really grabbed your attention?
The Temptations. They opened the door to that Detroit sound, the Motown sound. It was particularly the groups, The Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the group sound grabbed me. At first it wasn't particularly about them being dancefloor records, although they did have them. It was the lyrics.
Lyrics to songs like 'Ain't Too Proud To Beg' have just stood the test of time. 'Reach Out, I'll Be There', I remember jumping out of the bread van I was working on to buy it with money I grabbed out of the bread van. I'm not sure I ever gave it back.
When you started DJing the northern scene and allnighters were already a big thing. How difficult was it to catch up with the existing DJs in terms of building a collection that could put you on an equal footing as them at, say, an allnighter?
It would difficult to compare myself with any of the DJs at the Twisted Wheel because I never actually went there. I tried a few times but got knocked back because I looked too young. Obviously I still look young today.
I was getting feedback about what they were playing there from friends who went, people like Keith Minshull. When I first went to The Torch, which was before allnighters, probably 68 or 69, I heard what the DJs were playing and it was like travelling inside my own head. I couldn't believe they were playing music I was already collecting. To be going out and listening to it in a club situation was unique.
One of the early DJs at The Torch was Peter Stringfellow's brother, Doug. Peter worked there himself, but it was Doug's music that fascinated me. That gave me a target, try to find out some of the records he was playing, things like 'Billy's Bag' by Billy Preston, Wynder K Frog's 'Green Door', instrumentals like that. I was just feeling my way round.
I think I was surprised by how quickly I caught up, but I have a fanatical brain. I was always looking for sources of inspiration. I think I've proved this tenacity over the 50 years I've been doing this. I put a podcasts up every week with new music on them, three or four hours of new soul, house music. There's a computer in there and an insatiable desire to keep on learning new music. That's been there since the start, so it didn't take me long to realise I could go past these people.
What were the soundsystems like at places like that in comparison to what you hear in clubs today?
There is no comparison, the soundsystems were poor, but the venues were sometimes excellent. There was something very special about The Golden Torch. It was built essentially for ballroom dancing and live music so the acoustics were very good. Records could sound different, better there than they would in other venues.
A lot of northern soul records share a similar rhythm, speed and sense of urgency as Motown records. With Motown, Berry Gordy knew what he wanted, and what he wanted was radio play, so a huge part of their catalogue, particularly the earlier stuff, is mixed with a lot of concentration on the high end, where it would have most impact when heard over a transistor radio. Were all the other records that were made in the Motown template, the northern soul records, similarly tinny sounding?
Well, I think that was also to do with the equipment that they were recorded on at the time. I'm not sure it was as intentional as you're suggesting. Maybe it was. I'm not as sure as you there that there was a concentration on the top end for audiences listening on transistor radios, but if there was that's really bloody clever. Some of those 7”s are still played on dancefloors today, 50 years later.
You started your Mecca residency in 1973 and that residency is remembered by many for you and Ian playing radically different kinds of soul based music to the faster stuff with the Motown-esque rhythms that were popular on the northern soul scene. But in 1973 things like disco and Philly soul hadn't yet started, so what were you playing?
If you go back and research the music coming out between 1969 and 1973, just as Berry Gordy was targetting an audience, the American radio of the day was playing a lot of James Brown and also a lot of ballads. There wasn't this plethora of dance music that we'd seen in the 60s. 73/74 there were labels like Spring, Event and then major labels like RCA and Epic caught on and the dance group was back in vogue.
That was pre disco. From 74 to 76 we were playing things like Voices Of East Harlem, some of the Curtom stuff because of the changes in production that Curtis Mayfield was introducing, some of the Norman Whitfield Motown stuff like Undisputed Truth, but there were also masses of exciting releases on independent labels. That was one of my favourite times. I don't think any clubs went through the amount of music that we went through in those few years.
I know it's a frustration of some DJs today that sometimes drug use, in particular the widespread use of amphetamines in some places, pushes DJs into playing a certain sound and tempo. Do you think drug use played any part in some people's resistance to the newer musics you and Ian were bringing in at The Mecca?
It may have played a part. Blackpool Mecca was a 7.30pm to 2am club. People who wanted to stay up all night used drugs. The coaches that the Mecca brought in to fill the main room downstairs was what made The Highland Rooms a success because the soul boys and girls obviously cottoned on to these free coaches to get you to Blackpool.
Those coaches would leave again at 1am, so if you were going to go to the all-nighter at Wigan Casino you would leave at that time. That helped me develop the infamous last hour where I was able to change tempos dramatically and play right down below 100 bpm, stuff like Ann Sexton album tracks, Donald Byrd 'Think Twice', developing what would become the jazz funk soundtrack.
We were the first people in the country to play Gil Scott Heron. The Carstairs' 'It Really Hurts Me Girl' was the record that really changed northern soul, a Bovril record, still is. The records that went with that, 'Shake and Bump' by Snoopy Dean, Bobby Franklin's 'The Ladies Choice', 'Come On Train' by Don Thomas. They were heavily criticised at the time and, for a while, banned at Wigan Casino. For the people who took drugs, that change in tempo probably affected them more than it did others.
If drug use played a part though I would only say that about 30% at most would have been using them, not like the 80% and upwards of what happened at house clubs from the late 80s. For me drugs have never played a part because I've never taken them. I just look this ill naturally!
In hindsight, it's kinda funny for us to view people trying to campaign for Ian Levine to leave the residency, but how did you both view that as individuals at the time?
Well Ian took that very personally. At the time this was taking place we were both phasing what you'd call traditional northern soul out of it. One of the last northern soul records that I continued to champion was Herbert Hunter. My view on it was that any publicity was good publicity. People would come just to find out what was going on. The notoriety, I felt, worked in our favour. Some of the attack was personal. Why didn't they attack me in the same way?
The difference was that as Ian was going more towards disco, I was going more towards jazz funk and jazz. I was playing stuff like Lee Ritenour, Parliament/Funkadelic. Ian was probably easier to attack than me. I was surrounded by a set of people who probably would have dealt with this situation very differently had I been the one who was being attacked.
Which records in particular got up the nose of the more traditionally minded northern fan?
I don't think I could name any in particular. I presume things like Alec Costandinos. I think a lot of it was personal. I think a lot of people saw, and still see, Ian Levine as an easy target.
For what reason?
Well, there's his belligerent school kid personality, people perceive that he's from this hugely wealthy background and that he comes in and throws his toys out of the cot if things don't go his way. I suppose that childlike exterior draws criticism.
So, there wasn't a homophobic element to it?
No, that wasn't part of the reason at all. There was an underground gay thing going on at Blackpool. Some of those people went on to become huge characters on that side of things as that scene developed. But it was very much underground back then and, no, I don't think it played a part.
Can you tell me a bit about the early mixing techniques you were trying out there? Were you cutting records on the beat or were you doing what Americans call blending?
We were using Garrard SP25 Mk 2 record players, so we weren't really cutting anything apart from our fingers! It was just a blend with the basic equipment that we'd got. Playing two copies, going a beat behind with one, those ideas only came as the equipment got more sophisticated, so by the time records like “Dancing In Outer Space” came out, yes, you'd be buying two copies.
For me it's always been about blending, but I also like the tragic drop-off-the-end-of-a-cliff mixes, so cutting was also huge for me. Just short of 20 years ago when the jazz funk revival was in full swing, when I used to play at Blackburn, I had this following of house kids who thought I was the Antichrist. They'd all learned beatmatching in their bedrooms and then here was this old bloke that was just cutting from one record to another, but cutting in a way, because I knew the records so well, that it just worked. They loved it.
Where did the idea come from to develop these early blends? I don't think there would have been anyone in the UK at the time that you would have been hearing do this.
It just came from the kinds of records that were coming out. Records started to come out on 12”. I can't say the inspiration was New York or America, because it wasn't. What was going on in American clubs was still very poorly reported. We'd see charts, so we could see what they were playing, but you wouldn't get any information from that about the way they were playing the records.
We might have heard about people like Levan or Jim Burgess, about people playing two copies and maybe also a reel to reel, but there wasn't a club in the UK that had that kind of equipment. Nobody could've emulated it. If there was one person who influenced me in the UK to blend things that would probably have been Graham Warr from Birmingham.
Why did you quit the Mecca?
It had run its course. The rift in the soul scene between northern and the emerging jazz funk and disco sounds had affected attendance levels. I just felt it was time to move on and try something else. At that point you're like jumping off the edge of a cliff. I'd built up my reputation through The Torch and The Mecca, there was no guarantee anybody was coming with me.
Ian went to London and ended up DJing at Heaven, which was very much a gay club. I went to Manchester and started doing Rafters, playing jazz funk. It was a dump when I first saw it, but we did some work to it and we were on lock out after 4 weeks. The jazz funk scene lasted probably until about 84. From 83 you started seeing the beginnings of electro, then from 85 house.
Can you tell me about any differences in the audiences you were playing to when you started at Rafters compared to the audience you'd been laying to at the Mecca?
The Mecca I was playing to an audience of white people still connected to the northern soul scene. When I first went to Manchester it was probably 70% white and 30% black, but as it progressed it ended up being 70% black and 30% white. At that point the traditional soul scene was on its knees. Top DJs were selling their entire collections. Musically, culturally and socially things were changing. At the alldayer parties that were still thriving, the jazz funk rooms were more popular than the northern rooms.
Blackpool Mecca alldayers went from having soul stars like Junior Walker and The Allstars, JJ Barnes and Edwin Starr as guests to having Crown Heights Affair, The Miracles, Brass Construction, Players Association, Sylvester and The Two Tons Of Fun and Roy Ayers. Of a 2000 to 3000 alldayer event, the jazz funk room would hold 80% of the crowd.
And the records coming out in that period were absolutely fantastic. From 1978 to about 1985 it was incredible. Major record companies were really investing in groups at that point, so you had the emergence of groups that had been around for a while, people like Brass Construction, Breakwater, Lonnie Liston Smith. On the same night you'd be playing Jean Carne, Dexter Wansel, Keni Burke, the array was amazing.
You took some time away from DJing in the late 80s/early 90s. What records released in the time you were away do you wish you'd been around to help break to UK audiences?
I didn't miss anything really Marko. I was in hospital for 7 or 8 months in 86/87, but I was still buying records over the phone. It took me a while to re-emerge as a DJ but I never really lost touch with it. There are no records that stick in my mind that I didn't get the opportunity to play.
Since the time you started DJing you've seen musical styles change, people have changed what they wear and how they dance. What's the most stylish period you witnessed in club culture and which do you think was the most impassioned?
If you look at the early styles that were at The Twisted Wheel and The Torch, it was a very smart look, the back end of the Mod thing really. Brogues, braided blazers, people having suits made with huge pockets on them. That period in particular brought out the fashion.
At The Ritz alldayers, which really became the battleground between the northern scene and the emerging jazz funk scene, you could see it clearly because of what each scene was wearing. The traditional soul fans had the wide trousers, bowling shirts and tank tops, the others would be in plastic sandals, chinos, Hawaiian shirts and accessories. It changed again when hip hop came in. I remember a big influence on fashion was Malcolm McLaren's 'Buffalo Girls' video. Things seemed to change overnight.
The most passionate? Probably the huge all dayer scene that developed. People were building pyramids with bodies on the dancefloor. There were whole different cultures of dancing happening. Dancing had become very important to people. Those individual styles, people battling in circles, the jazz dance scene, next to something you might see now, people just bouncing up and down or just nodding their heads, taking videos on their phones, it's incomparable.
Northern soul has retained its individuality in dancing. I play a lot these days on the more soulful side of house music and with the audiences I get there are people who dance individually, for who dancing with style is still important. They're not stood there taking pictures of me. Which would probably be rather distressing for them if they did, ha!