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by Barry Walters

October 28, 2013

101 | Soul

Northern Soul 101

by Barry Walters  |  October 28, 2013

At any given moment, thousands of records are being offered on eBay as "northern soul." Now a catch-all for old R&B that didn't make the U.S. charts, northern soul now ranks with "indie" as music's most overused and abused category. Simply put, northern soul is R&B from the '60s and in some cases '70s that was popular in specialist nightclubs of northern England. Although much of it was recorded in Detroit and Chicago, northern soul can come from anywhere. Much of it resembles Motown's mid-'60s output -- hard-driving but melodic and almost always uptempo R&B that typically avoids funk's heavy syncopation and disco's lushness. The most crucial requirement is that it was actually played in '70s nightclubs like Tunstall's Golden Torch, the Blackpool Mecca, the Wigan Casino or contemporary equivalents.

Although a handful of northern soul classics hit the U.S. soul and pop charts, most were commercial failures discovered and/or revived years after the fact. The Four Tops' 1965 chart-topper "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" is a model for most northern soul records -- often known as "stompers" after the well-miked footsteps used as percussion on many mid-'60s Motown hits -- but that record's success predated the genre's popularity on the scene. Instead, northern soul DJs prefer less popular Motown sides by The Contours, Barbara McNair, The Spinners, and their many, far more obscure peers. It's estimated that there are only five original copies of northern soul's most celebrated record, "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)" by Motown staff producer Frank Wilson.

This playlist features nearly all of the available titles ranked in the top half of Wigan Casino DJ Kev Roberts' book The Northern Soul Top 500. There's a little funk and some pop, but it's all bona fide.

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