Colin Curtis


Colin Curtis at Berlin

A pioneering force that has consistently driven UK dance culture forward, Colin Curtis has covered a lot of ground in his prolific 50-year career as a DJ. With a connection to music that stretches far deeper than most, he’s the only person in the country with fingerprints in the evolution of three specific scenes; Northern Soul, Jazz-Funk and House. Moving mainly between the North and Midlands, he was a key figure on the All-Dayer scene and always looked to introduce new sounds in with the familiar, whilst standing firm against the inevitable backlash.

When Curtis just celebrated his 50th Anniversary at The Exchange in his hometown, Stoke-On-Trent on 13th May 2017. Josh Ray went down to the event and caught up with him afterwards to get some insight into the development of dance culture from a UK perspective:

Josh Ray: Do you remember the first time you heard the ‘Motown sound’?

Colin Curtis: Well I was probably ten years old. A friend of mine’s sister used to play Motown records while we were playing Subbuteo. That just led to the radio really, looking round for radio shows. There was obviously no Internet back in the ‘60s so I just couldn’t believe there was music that wasn’t in the charts, as well as what was in the charts – to hear the Four Tops, The Temptations and then find out all the derivatives of that.

Luckily back in those days, shops like Woolworths – because it was an American company – used to send excess imported black music over and stick them in the cheap rack so we used to buy a lot of stuff out of there.

JR: How important do you think pirate radio was in inspiring the emergence of a club scene in the UK? 

CC: I think two or three times over the decades. I mean, for me, back in the days of Radio Caroline, Radio Essex; because of the nature of pirate radio, they were able to play a lot more music that wasn’t in the charts, a lot more American music. DJs like Dave “Baby” Cortez and even people like Emperor Rosko took the opportunity: he signed a deal with Atlantic / Stax, he did compilations for Atlantic Records.

Radio Caroline

It was a powerful force back then and obviously spawned a lot of DJs that went to Radio 1. A lot of DJs also would stick their neck out and play American black music that wouldn’t get played in the mainstream.

Then it had another surface in London / Birmingham in the ‘80s and ‘90s with Kiss FM and all those kind of stations, some of which went legal. They were just spreading black music 24/7 in the UK.

JR: So it’s there at the roots of about three different scenes? 

CC: Yeah definitely, I think all club culture is affected by the radio and I think once shows started to become specialist shows, breakaway music would then get into the clubs as well. So the clubs would feed off the radio and the radio would feed off the clubs. I think it was the illicitness of it, the underground side of it that was the attraction. It wasn’t your local club where you’d just get drunk and smash someone’s head in…

JR: The focus had turned to music? 

CC: Yeah, people were making a choice to come for the music first and that was exciting.

JR: When you started out DJing in clubs in ’67 you were really quick to catch up with the other DJs because of your fanatic record collecting. Do you think it’s fair to say your appetite for new music goes a lot deeper than most of your contemporaries? 

CC: I think the fact that I’m still here after 50 years proves that. People who know me, they know I go so far. If you listen to my current Podcast; House music, Jazz, Soul – I’m going through 2-300 tracks a week looking for stuff to play. That takes hours of searching on the Internet. Back in the day, of course, it was record shops and now it’s the Internet: going through different sites and I’m obviously getting a lot of promotional stuff sent to me.

JR: It’s great that you’ve been able to evolve over the years because a lot of DJs seem to fall into a kind of nostalgic trap.

CC: Well I think there are two sides to that. One is the DJs who fell in love with the ‘60’s Soul and stayed with the Northern scene and still play Northern today. I think Northern is going through a bit of a good period at the moment – a lot of collectors have become DJs, a lot of heavyweight collectors and a lot of tunes that weren’t played in my era – I kind of came away from Northern in about ’77. Since then it’s had its moments but right now I think there is a big drive and obviously worldwide interest in ’60’s Soul. If you’d have invested in ’60’s Soul back then, you’d have made a fortune!

JR: Do you think there’s something in the British mentality that drives this kind of musical obsession? 

CC: I think it’s unique to Britain but I don’t know why that would be. Like me, why is a working class lad from Stoke-On-Trent so obsessed with black music, to the nth level? I mean, I really do go to great lengths to hear music in all genres; Afro-House, Soul music, Jazz – why is that? I don’t know…

I grew up in a place where you were working in a factory all week, so you lived for the weekends, but I also got that thing of wanting to share that music with people so I signed for Mecca when I was 14, which would have been about ‘67.

JR: The places in the North and Midlands where this music resonated were predominantly working class. Do you think it’s the sense of struggle in the music that people identified with? 

CC: I think it was the social camaraderie you got from being in a place where you belong – everybody likes to belong to something – and that was a big aspect of ‘60’s Soul. Great Britain in the early ‘70s was depressed; not easy to get jobs, the wages weren’t great and the stuff that we take for granted now – no Internet, no mobile phone – no shit like that. So to be able to go to a place where everybody was loving the same music, the camaraderie that came with that has kept Northern Soul going for 50 years, absolutely.

The Golden Torch - Blackpool Mecca

JR: You’ve moved with new music as it evolved over time but it’s not always been easy, you kind of got some stick for it.

CC: I think anybody who gets at the front-end of something is going to be challenged sometimes in your own belief. I mean the fact that you’ve been “successful” with ‘60’s Soul and then you hear ‘70’s Soul and you think blimey! I need to share this! Then ‘80’s Soul and House music and the whole Electro thing with Bambaataa – I find there’s something good in everything, which then adds to the next genre.

House music is what, 30 years old now and still going strong: some great stuff, some great new stuff. With a lot of the House music, the artists have got a lot of the same social attitudes that were there in the ‘60s. It is a struggle; it’s a struggle for the artists so there’s passion in the music, passion in the lyrics and people want to dance.

I think again, House music has created a camaraderie and I think that’s something that’s a bit British – I don’t think you see that in America. You do see big events in America but if you look at all the top House DJs like Vega, Dope, all those guys, you know they’re working all around the world, not so much in America.

There’s a connection here. I think Japan’s a bit like this country and I think Europe is a bit like this country – yeah it sticks. I mean the biggest Soul/House weekender is still Southport – some dodgy town in the North-West!

The Bottle-It Really Hurts Me Girl-Planet Rock-Set It Off

JR: If I were to name four game-changing records, could you tell me which caused the most controversy when you first started playing them out; Gil Scott-Heron ‘The Bottle’, The Carstairs ‘It Really Hurts Me Girl’, ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa and Harlequin Fours ‘Set It Off’? 

CC: It was probably The Carstairs because of the tempo, it was a different approach – there was another record like that on the same label [Red Coach Records] by Universal Mind called ‘Something Fishy Going On’ and then there was a lot of music Ian Levine, who I was working with, he’d been on a couple of good trips to Miami – a lot of new releases, which unearthed a lot of ‘70’s Soul.

Colin Curtis & Ian Levine

Colin Curtis & Ian Levine

Again, if you want to get anywhere with it, sometimes you’ve just got to stand up and we were in a position to stand up; we were in a position to stand up and get knocked down. People say it split the scene but I think people just made their own choices. I think time has told that the music we were playing has proved hugely popular since, everybody relates to that particular period. House music on the Soul scene, that was a tough gig, “what’s all this? It sounds like a train coming down the track – every record sounds the same!” No it doesn’t – it’s getting that point over.

Bambaataa, yeah the whole sort of ‘Planet Rock’ thing, for me that was very much a part of the young kids, the urban black kids in the cities – Greg Wilson a big part of that in Manchester. I took that to Nottingham, to Birmingham, you know with bands like Warp 9. All that sort of Electro thing really opened up the Electro House thing with Nitro Deluxe and there were some unbelievable records, ‘No Way Back’. It was exciting music; it was driving music – if you go back to the Golden Torch all-nighters that was a period when the music was fast, rapid and in your face. I think that House music and Electro music had that extra excitement that younger people cottoned on to. Gil Scott-Heron was and still is one of the most astute social commentary pieces of music just as relevant today as it was in the ’70s.

JR: In terms of your career, was the most exciting time when you were first getting the Jazz dancers in your clubs, whilst all these amazing new records were coming over from America? 

CC: When we got numbers of 1,000+ coming into clubs and All-Dayers were attracting anything up to 2,000, we realised we’d got different levels of potential by opening up different rooms in the venue. The Jazz-Funk thing had started but we realised that some of the serious dancers could take it further by digging deeper on the Jazz; playing Bebop, playing Vocal Jazz, a lot of heavy Brazilian and percussion music – again it’s the excitement in that.

There was the Manchester Jazz-dance style, which was more foot shuffling style used by guys wearing spatz, there was a huge Jazz-dance scene that came out of it that we used to bring up to Birmingham – the whole thing was very exciting. That was just one aspect of a major All-Dayer; you’d have soul in one room, maybe the big Jazz-Funk or the big-hitters; Salsoul or the early House or Electro in the main room and another sideshow was the Jazz.

Jazz is very voyeuristic, people would stand and watch, and when it happened in a big room, you’d maybe do what we used to call ‘the Jazz break’ for 20 minutes and you’d have two or three massive circles in amongst over a 1,000 people with battles going on, with people getting involved from a voyeuristic point of view.

JR: Do you think the All-Dayer scene was instrumental in pushing new sounds forward? 

CC: Yeah, I think because all the people were under one roof, the social drive of it, the social climate, was bringing those people together and different sections of them were experimenting in different genres. So yeah, very much so – it was tough to do a stand-alone Jazz night. We did some in Manchester, it happened in Birmingham, it happened in London but I think the essence of it came from the huge All-Dayer scene, which of course now doesn’t exist.

JR: In terms of sheer devotion, I see quite a lot of comparisons between the Jazz and Electro dancers and the Northern Soul record collectors. Do you think there’s anything comparable these days? 

CC: I think the devotion to Jazz, like with ‘60’s Soul, is because it’s a hugely collectable commodity. As people have stuck with it themselves, even when Jazz clubs may have gone away and even when Northern soul in the early ‘80s went away, collectors were still collecting music. Lovers of those styles were still collecting and I think that comes through. I do an appearance in London at Shiftless Shuffle Jazz session every year and there are guys there who’ve been dancing for 40-45 years and still dance in those styles and it’s just fantastic.

For me it’s just a great place to be, and to play for two hours there is magic for me – I just switch off from everything. I predetermine the set but I just play exactly what I want to and get a fantastic response. That whole Jazz thing is kept alive by people like Perry Louis, who live it still, day-to-day and I think Northern Soul has been passed down to younger people in the same way. Unfortunately with Northern Soul, and with Jazz, it’s an expensive hobby. Northern Soul is very expensive, to buy originals these days…

JR: I’ve actually heard Northern Soul record dealers compared to drug dealers before. Do you think that’s a fair analogy?

CC: Haha! I think when people see the prices, it’s difficult to believe – I’m not sure. It is an addiction though so I suppose there is some connection.

 Colin Curtis

JR: You were lucky enough to have one foot in the Midlands and one foot in the North throughout your career. Do you think that gifted you the space to develop over the years? 

CC: I was one of the luckiest DJs because a lot of the people I worked with were in Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham – which were the three main cities, I spun off to Leeds and Huddersfield as well as a little bit in Bradford and I got a great following back then in Scotland.

If I were to put my finger on it I would probably say I just had the edge when it came to adapting and I used to put the time in to go to these different areas and listen to what the clubs were playing. I’d go to Chaplains in Birmingham, I’d go to the Rum Runner in Birmingham, I’d go to the Palais All-Dayers in Nottingham, I’d go to any of the major cities where there’s something worth listening to and almost do a little bespoke version of me, so each gig would be different in some way, unique, which allowed me to make that connection. As you’ve seen tonight [at the Exchange in Stoke] I was playing to an audience from 18 to bloody 60-odd so with the tunes I thought I’d try and envelop everybody and I think that worked reasonably well.

JR: Over your career do you think you begin to get restless as soon as you start to become pigeonholed in a certain area?

CC: I think that was my problem years ago, you see Northern Soul, the term Jazz-Funk, the term House music, which was garage or whatever – nobody knew what to call it – the labels sort of came after. I was enjoying the music and trying to spread it so I don’t think I got pigeonholed too badly. I’ve always moved on but I will do retro gigs, if somebody wants a specific period of time I’ll do that but I don’t feel I’ve ever been held back by that.

Blackpool Mecca Flyer

JR: As well as DJing, you’ve also brought acts over to the UK like Roy Ayers, Junior Walker, Al Hudson and Sylvester. Do you have any stories from those days?

CC: I worked a lot with Junior Walker; he was like a back-end of the Northern Soul act. He was into cars, he didn’t want to talk about music but he’d tell us about 20 or 30 wrecked cars that he was working on back at home.

Roy Ayers – I took about 15 of his albums to be signed by him and he went through them and said, “Colin, if you didn’t buy so many records, you could buy a yacht.” And I was thinking, “I live in Stoke-On-Trent, I don’t want a fucking yacht!” Roy Ayers, I had a lot in common with the guy, in the sense that he was a guy we’d put on the stage and he wouldn’t get off, we’d have to put a hook round his neck and drag him off.

His passion for it is still there today, he’s 70-odd and he’s still out there doing it. I still work with him whenever I get the opportunity. His music was a huge turning point because he’d done so many albums with so many people and then he hooked up with people like Fela Kuti, you know he just brings something amazing.

Blackpool Mecca All-Dayers

Sylvester and Two Tons of Fun – that was a good All-Dayer. Two Tons Of Fun of course became The Weather Girls and we had some good fun with them. They were big girls, I went and fetched three chairs for two of them to sit on, and we had a real good laugh about that backstage.

I mean, you can’t imagine what it was like to be able to introduce acts like Brass Construction, when their album was probably the biggest album in the black music world and they were onstage with us in Blackpool – super times. Without record companies with bands that big and investment that big, it just doesn’t happen any more. All the big bands in the ‘80s, Mandrill, top bands: you don’t get them like that anymore. War were a huge band – you don’t see that anymore. Independent music tends to be two or three people or one person and not so many of the big groups get the opportunity because record company money is simply unavailable.

JR: Did you ever get a sense that the acts felt they were more appreciated over here than they were back home?

CC: I think a lot of the time. I think some are just genuinely surprised how much interest there is in them. Particularly in the Rare Soul scene when someone gets told a record they made 40 years ago is a hugely popular record, and you see them with tears in their eyes. You know, Jesse James, Moses Smith – all these people that have been brought over at different times. It’s fantastic to see, Ronnie Walker, the late-great Edwin Starr. He couldn’t believe that a lot of his lesser-known records were just as popular as things like ‘War’ and now of course ‘Time’ is a huge record. That was a huge pop record when it came out, it wasn’t an underground Soul record but now it’s all part of its fantastic legacy.

JR: Your nights at Rafters, Smarties, Berlin and The Playpen were a significant part of Manchester’s nightlife at a very formative time. 

CC: When the Mecca was coming to an end and musically we were changing, I made a b-line for Manchester. I was buying a lot of records in Manchester at Spin Inn records and I got a lot of contacts there. I was put in touch with John Grant and we formed a partnership and opened a club that was a rock club: I think it was called Fagins Jillys. I hated it when I first went there but within six weeks we were on lockout, we got 500 people in there every week and it was a lockout. New releases; new albums, new 12”s were coming out prolifically – it was a fantastic time for music and it just exploded.

The Playpen was significant because that’s where I started playing House music; Trax, DJ International, Precision – all that early stuff that was spawned by records like Strafe and Harlequin Fours. When that was happening, of course you got bemusement from Soul fans who didn’t quite get what was going on. There was a group of dancers in Manchester, a group of girls who loved the House music, they used to put on some real spectacular dancing – that was a spin-off from the Jazz. Initially it was very voyeuristic as well but it was just electric because it was dance music with fantastic vocals. Unlike the Americans who were playing a lot of dubs, we played a lot of the vocal stuff. It was a very exciting time for music.

Berlin Flyer

Berlin, probably the first time was ‘84 / ’85 and we got punters like Mick Hucknall and The Thompson Twins and when they had bands live at The Apollo they would come back there after. That was a mix of Soul, Jazz, Brazilian, Afrika Bambaataa – everything was thrown into the mix and I would play for maybe 5 / 6 hours: it was just incredible. You could go right down to slow beat ballads and people were still with you. It’s about trust, it’s about trusting the DJ.

I think nowadays things are split into single genres and I grew up in a world where you could play anything. At that time in Berlin, the intelligence was high. Guys who were into Reggae were coming and asking me for Jazz tapes, there was a social change and people were more open to what was going on.

JR: Having experienced the evolution of dance culture in Manchester first-hand, how did you feel when the Ibiza narrative rose to prominence and obscured the true lineage?

CC: It all began at a significant weekend – Bognor Regis in ’86. In the bars were the beginnings of the trips to Ibiza, which were thrown at me but I’d poo-pooed them because we’d failed to pull off a weekender up here at all. So the thought of people travelling from the North and going abroad just wasn’t on the agenda. People took that chance though, they took that risk.

I was working in ’86, the only time I worked with Showstopper organisation, clear with a live band on, I worked with Gilles Peterson on the radio that weekend and I did a couple of Jazz sets in the bars in Bognor Regis that weekend. I was playing the beginning of House with Chris Hill stood at the side of the stage watching my whole set. “What’s going on here?” He knew something was going on…

Also at that weekend, Alex Lowe said he’d start doing his own weekender. All of those things happened at the same time, the evolution of Southport, the evolution of Ibiza all happened at that weekend, which was ’86 in Bognor Regis.

Spinn Inn

JR: You’ve said that you still get as excited when new music comes through. It’s a lot easier to get it with the Internet but what we seem to be lacking now is a central focus point, like what Spin Inn was to Manchester. What are the advantages and disadvantages of how it is today?

CC: Again the benefits would be that everyone would hone in on that one shop. Everyone had a shop, Jumbo in Leeds, Graham Warr in Birmingham: so that would create interest, amongst DJs, amongst dancers – you don’t get that with the Internet. A lot of people say to me, “where do you find these tunes?” Well they’re all there but you’ve got to work harder to find them.

JR: It’s a bit of a needle in a haystack kind of situation.

CC: Yeah people think it’s going to be easy but it’s not easy if you want to find a niche for yourself.

JR: What about people who think music has already seen its heyday, what would you say to them?

CC: Bollocks! That’s what I’d say. Music is part of life, end of. Music is life, to me.

JR: How much has the role of the DJ changed over the past 50 years? Is it the same in essence or are we in a different place now?

CC: I think the role of the DJ when I was coming up was that you were a resident DJ, you were in one club and people came to that club. You’ve got a framework of music that you built on and built on, like with Body and SOUL in New York, with The Paradise Garage: it was a body of music, so there’d be a set of records that applied to each club and then you’d build on that.

It’s much more difficult to do that now, most of my sets are guest DJ sets and also there isn’t the week-to-week continuity for me. I might be playing House music today, Northern Soul next week. I need that continuity so I do it through the Podcasts, which go out to over 100 countries – I couldn’t get to those people without the Internet.

Colin Curtis Podcast

JR: Now you’ve just celebrated 50 years in the game, what’s your next steps as a DJ?

Probably death! Haha… I think death is next, yeah definitely. I’ll die playing records; it’s what I do. I’m not going to go into retirement. Will there be another 50 years? I doubt it very much but I’ll try!

Colin Curtis 50th Anniversary

Listen to Colin Curtis’ Podcast here:

Read Greg Wilson’s piece on Colin Curtis here:

Watch Curtis’ 2008 Electrospective interview here:

Interview 13/05/17

© Greg Wilson, 2017

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