It’s Tony’s turn to Keep the Faith

As soon as the programme for the Ceroc Southport Weekender comes out, I look for one thing – the Motown & Northern Soul Hour.  Once I see that this Speciality Hour is there in the programme my excitement starts to build as this is, without doubt, my favourite slot of the weekend.  I should say my second favourite part is Vince Silva’s S’Funk Hour but let’s get back to my first love, Motown.  This February it was DJ Tony Riccardi who had the honour of rocking the Boudoir floor with retro sounds that have a massive following all over the country.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I learned to dance at the Ceroc Class at The Rolls Royce Pavilion in Derby.  This fabulous venue hosts a retro Motown & Soul night every first Friday of the month.  It’s a ‘dance around your handbag’ night and I got to visit two weeks ago and it was packed.  There was the usual Soul Boy fraternity who remember dancing to these iconic tracks the first time around but there were people who weren’t even born when Motown dominated the dance floors of the late ’60s and early ’70s.  Such is the universal appeal of this dance music.

It’s the same at the Motown Hour at Southport.  The three dance floors that make up the Boudoir were packed with people of all ages and all were lovin’ the playlist that Tony served up.  In this article, I’ll feature some of Tony’s great picks and also try to explain the appeal of Motown and Northern Soul with a little bit of the history that runs through the veins of dancers like myself.

I always look to see who is doing The Motown & Soul Hour

Why is Motown dance music still so popular?

So why are retro ‘dance around your handbags’ Motown nights so popular?  Listen to The Isley Brothers singing This old heart of mine, considered by many to be one of the greatest of the Motown dance anthems, and you’ll understand why.  It has a perfect four-four dance beat and wonderful boy pines for girl lyrics.  But listen carefully to the instrumental backing and you begin to understand the magic of the Motown Sound.

The backing track was laid down by a group of legendary musicians, The Funk Brothers.  While they got little recognition at the time, Motown Junkies like myself have learned to appreciate just what a part they played in creating the Motown Sound.  From the off, you are hooked on the drumbeat but try to pick out James Jameson’s bass line.  Considered one of the greatest bass players of all time, Jameson’s playing adds danceability into every bar.  But there’s so much more.  The soaring string section, one of so many arranged by Paul Riser, and the iconic baritone sax solo by Mike Terry.

Little wonder then that DJ Tony Riccardi picked This old heart of mine for his third track and the Boudoir dance floor never stopped rocking from that moment on.  Hot on its heels came Motown floor fillers, the Temptations Get ready, and a real favourite from my Nottingham Palais days, Junior Walker’s Road Runner.

A ’70s smash with a Motown feel

Motown’s pinnacle year is considered to be 1966.  It’s the year of This old heart of mine, the aforementioned Get ready and so many more classic Motown hits.  Of course, music has to keep changing and the Motown Sound, and indeed all other dance music, had to keep evolving.  By the early ’70s, there was a new kid on the block – The Funk music of James Brown but the dancers of the North wanted to hold on to their favourite sound.

Tony played a track from 1972 that recaptured the fast vanishing sound of Motown.  I was at university in Brighton at the time and I remember dancing to it in the clubs of Brighton.  Little did I know that fifty years later Tony would bring it out and set the floor in the Boudoir on fire with it.  The track is Millie Jackson’s My man a sweet man.  Again you can’t help but feel the sheer dance energy in this track.  It’s this energy that was missing in the funk sounds emerging in the early ’70s.  No wonder the Soul boys didn’t want to move with the times, but more of that later.

Before my Southport visit, I had spent some time thinking about which tracks Tony would pull out for his set.  I must admit I missed My man is a sweet man and when I heard the opening drum beat I knew I was in for a treat.  I can’t remember who I danced with, but whoever you were, that was one of the best dances of the weekend.  The thing is Tony gave me so many great dances that afternoon and my next pick is the one I consider my all-time Motown favourite, but first here is Millie Jackson.

My favourite retro Motown dance track

Before I move on to explain a bit more about the emergence of Northern Soul, I want to mention two of my favourite Motown tracks that Tony played.  The first is Edwin Starr’s Stop her on sight (SOS).  Interestingly this track was recorded when Starr recorded for Motown rival Ric-Tic records.  Motown owner Berry Gordy would buy out his smaller rival and Starr would go on to be a Motown legend.

My other favourite is I got a feeling by Barbara Randolph. While This old heart of mine gets lots of plays on the Ceroc and Modern Jive circuit I got a feeling is only brought out occasionally.  It’s a shame really because it’s just a perfect Ceroc track.  The song was originally recorded by the Four Tops in 1966 (what a year that was) but is in my opinion a little too fast.  When Barbara Randolph recorded her version the tempo was slowed down slightly and it made it just perfect to dance to.

I got a feeling has all the same magical musical ingredients as This old heart of mine and while it doesn’t have a sax solo it has something else I pick up on.  Listen for the horn riff in the intro.  It’s something I connect with whenever the horns punctuate the track.  Also, listen out for the female backing singers.  These were the Andantes.  Like the funk Brothers, they received no credit at the time but their voices back up so many Motown hits.

Northern Soul dancing evolves

In the Soul clubs of the North, even before the so-called Northern Soul took hold, there were other Motown-sounding tracks that filled the dance floors and Tony played one of the best, The right track by Billy Butler (another one from that great year of 1966).  When I recognised the iconic guitar riff that introduces this masterpiece, I knew I had to find a partner who would share my love of the track and connect with the driving beat and great instrumentation.

Finding such a partner was easy.  Let me explain why.  I think we all know what I mean about the ‘dance around your handbag style of dancing.’  In the Northern Soul clubs of the early seventies, this style of dancing developed into something more dynamic.  The dancers would move around the floor a lot more and would incorporate spins into their moves.  One other thing happened.  Men started to dance on their own and their desire to impress drove them to even more elaborate and showy moves.  Girls too felt liberated and there was no more just dancing around their handbags.

People dance individually in front of the DJ desk.  Picture courtesy of Tony Riccardi

A dance with a true Soul Gal

As Tony revved up the atmosphere out on the floor, I noticed a whole group of dancers doing what we now know as Northern Soul dancing (see image above).  These Soul Boys and Soul Gals were lovin’ every one of Tony’s tracks and it was one of these dancers I knew I had to ask to dance to the Billy Butler track.  She happily accepted my offer to dance.  I don’t doubt she had danced to The right track many times before and it showed in the joy she expressed throughout our dance.  I’ll mention this dancer again when I talk about the most famous Northern Soul track of all time.

I remember when Tim Sant did the first-ever Motown & Soul Hour at Southport, he too played this track, and just as happened when Tony gave it a spin the floor lit up with the joy that comes when you know you are dancing to something very special.  As you play the track listen out for the iconic chant at 1 minute 10 seconds.  That’s the moment all the lights flashed up in my dance brain.  As a dancer you live for those moments, thank you, Tony.

The creation of a Northern Soul legend

As Motown artists like Stevie Wonder followed the lead of James Brown to a funkier version of dance music and the simple Four-Four beat that underpinned the classic Motown tracks fell out of fashion, the Soul Boys of the North took things into their own hands.  DJs from the northern Soul clubs went across to America looking and finding deleted old tracks that had the original Motown dance beat.  They found hundreds of them and brought them back to their UK clubs and built reputations for themselves and their clubs.

I’ve always appreciated dancing to new music and these finds over in the USA kept the Northern Soul scene alive with fresh new sounds every weekend.  On one such journey, a DJ was given permission to rummage through the vaults of the Motown record collection.  Here he found one of just two copies of Frank Wilson’s Do I love you (Indeed I do).   The story goes that Berry Gordy, the owner of Motown, didn’t want to lose Frank Wilson who was one of his main writers and producers so not wanting Wilson to become a successful solo artist destroyed all the copies of the track leaving just two in the vaults.

When one of the copies was brought back to the UK, bootleg copies were made and the song took the Northern Soul scene by storm.  It’s as if every Soul Boy and Gal knows that they are very lucky to be able to dance to this track – it could have stayed buried forever – and so there is an amazing emotional connection to this legendary track whenever it gets played.  Take a listen to it and I’ll tell you what happened when Tony played it in his Southport set.

A Stomper from Frankie Valli

Just as with the Billy Butler track above, I knew I had to dance with a Soul Gal as soon as I heard the distinctive opening to Do I love you.  I asked one to dance, who had been displaying some great Northern Soul dancing.  Sadly, she politely turned me down.  In an instant, I knew why.  This is one track that every Soul Gal knows they have to pay homage to by dancing in the style that people did back in the ’70s when this iconic track first emerged.  Thankfully she would later give me a fabulous dance to another of Tony’s great Northern Soul picks.

This desire to dance to rare tracks from the USA became a hallmark of Northern Soul clubs and one track from Tony’s playlist illustrates this.  It was released in the UK in 1972 but failed to make the charts.  It was picked up by the Northern Soul DJs because it had not succeeded commercially.  Its success in these clubs led to it being re-issued in 1975 when it reached No 7 in the charts.

The track, The night by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, became popular for another reason.  It was considered a ‘Stomper’.  These were slightly faster tracks that became very popular in the Northern Soul clubs.  I find it a little too fast to Ceroc to myself, so I hope Tony will excuse me for taking a well-deserved break while it was played, but it didn’t stop everyone else and the floor rocked once again.

Tony finds his own rare Northern Soul track

During Lockdown, with plenty of time on his hands, Tony found himself trawling through the dance music archives and came across a track that I had never heard before and one that had Northern Soul stamped all the way through it.  The track is the original version of The only way is up, the song made popular by Yazz and The Plastic Population in 1988.  Like many people, I thought that Yazz’s version was the original but it isn’t.

The original version was recorded by Otis Clay and when released in 1980 it made little impact except in the Northern Soul clubs.  Yass frequently visited one of these clubs, heard it, and decided to make a modern remake of it.  This original version is so danceable that Tony included it in his Thunderball Room set at the first post-Lockdown Southport back in September last year, and it went down a storm.  Little wonder he gave it another well-received spin.

The magic that was Holland-Dozier-Holland

I’ll finish my review by featuring two more wonderful Motown songs.  The first is I hear a symphony by The Supremes.  This is a slightly slower track than the ones we associate with Motown but it gave everyone a bit of a breather after the faster Motown dance standards.  I always appreciate when DJs slow the tempo down and I enjoyed a wonderful slower dance to it.

I’ve picked this track out because it helps explain the success of Motown – the songwriters.  Berry Gordy was blessed to have worked for him some of the best songwriting talents ever to write a dance track.  The most successful of these was the trio of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland, lovingly known as Holland-Dozier-Holland.  They wrote and produced twenty-five number one hits for Motown, including This old heart of mine, and are also the writers behind Freda Payna’s Band of Gold, which was a No 1 hit on their own Invicta record label.

As you listen to this track try to pick out the different instrumentation that makes this track so danceable.  There’s the instant drum beat, another of James Jameson’s great bass lines, and a brief sax solo from Mike Terry.  It’s another example of how a band of uncredited musicians created one of the greatest dance sounds of our time.

Tony plays Steve’s favourite Motown track

I’m a self-confessed Motown Junkie and every so often I get to spend time sharing my love of this music with another Motown devotee.  Back in the autumn, I attended a Ceroc Devon Weekender in Torquay.  There I met and got to talk with Steve Watling a DJ from Cornwall about his own love of Motown.  We shared each other’s favourite Motown tracks and in the course of our conversation, Steve mentioned his love for The Temptations Ain’t too proud to beg.  It’s another track recorded in the iconic year that is 1966.

It was co-written and produced by another great Motown name, Norman Whitfield.  It was he who produced Marvin Gaye’s I heard it through the grapevine and The Temptations Papa was a rollin’ stone.  Later he would leave Motown and create a series of hits for Rose Royce including one of my favourite funked-up tracks Car washAin’t too proud to beg is a wonderful piece of Motown dance music and it’s great that Tony used it as his last Motown track in what was a Saturday afternoon of sheer dancing joy.

Tony gets a vinyl copy of Do I love you

While I was working on this article, Tony got in touch to tell me that he managed to get a vinyl copy of Frank Wilson’s Do I love you (Indeed I do) and used it during his vinyl set as part of MIST 2, the virtual Ceroc weekender during Lockdown.  The original version was scheduled for release on the Soul label, one of Motown’s sister labels.  Once Motown realised how popular it had become in the UK it was re-released on the Tamla Motown record label.

Tony also reminded me that the original record was sold at auction for £25K, making it the most expensive vinyl disc of all time.  I found this photo showing the man who paid out that sum.  I understand that he recently sold it on to an unknown collector for a similar amount.  Such is the passion for this record.

Lee Jeffries with the disc he paid £25, 742 for.  Photo courtesy of The Leicester Mercury

Ceroc Groove go Motown & Soul

Seeing the love that people have for Motown and early soul records at Southport, I do wonder whether there is room for a Motown & Soul Hour in the middle of a freestyle.  I know that several organisations run themed Motown class nights but it would be so good to get a chance to dance to these fabulous tracks in a main room freestyle with a packed dance floor.  See my article below with a suggested playlist for a Motown & Soul set.

Just as I was putting the final touches to this article I see that Debbie Attwood’s Ceroc Groove are putting on a Saturday night Motown & Soul freestyle at their Aldridge Community Centre venue on 2 April.  Here’s what it says in the advert on Facebook:

You love it, so we’re hosting it.  Amir and Debbie will take to the decks and bring you all your Motown and Northern Soul favourites as well as a few Ceroc favourites too.

We do love it, Debbie and thank you for putting this on.  I’ve just looked at my diary and I’m free.  Put me down for a ticket.  Oh, and can I ask for a request please – Marvin Gaye’s Little darlin’ (I need you).   My third favourite Motown track after I‘ve got a feeling and Stop her on sight (SOS).

Enjoy another dance fix with my novel

If you enjoy reading my dance blogs, I’m sure you’ll love reading my novel, Would you like to dance?.  It tells the story of how Ellie and her friends discover the joy that is partner dancing and finds the confidence to enter an amateur dance competition.  The story is full of the excitement and passion that I feel dancing and I’m sure many people will recognise themselves in the ten characters that make up Ellie’s Newbie Dance Gang.

Why not visit the website I’ve designed to support the novel.  It is packed with background information on how I came to write Ellie’s story and reviews from the people who have already enjoyed it.  You’ll also find whole sections dedicated to the joy that is Modern Jive dancing including photo galleries and videos showing the fun we all have on the dance floor.  Simply click on the image below and you’ll be taken straight there or click this link and go straight to the Amazon book store where you can download it.

Related Articles

If you love learning about the background to the Motown and Soul tracks I love dancing to, then please check out the two articles below.  They are packed with lots of background info that I think you’ll find interesting.

Tim Sant’s Motown and Soul Southport set

My Motown Guest DJ Playlist