The name Colin Curtis undoubtedly means many different things to many different people, so far has his reputation taken him and over so many, many years. For many young people at Southport Weekender, it may mean nothing. So let’s get it straight. Colin Curtis, alongside Roger Eagle and Jimmy Saville, is one of the most important DJs the north of England has ever, and is ever likely to see.
In his landmark residencies at legendary clubs like The Torch, Blackpool Mecca, Rafters, Smarties, Rock City, Berlins and Cassaneli’s he has pioneered the full spectrum of black based dance music from 60s R n’ B, Northern soul, disco, funk, house, jazz funk, Modern soul and jazz dance, constantly striving to progress his sound and satisfy his unquenchable thirst for new music. He is namechecked by the likes of Norman Jay, Gilles Peterson and Ashley Beedle as a defining influence on their careers over the five decades of music he has DJed.
At over 60 years of age and as a father of four he remains unashamedly passionate, frighteningly enthusiastic, wholly uncompromising and without a doubt, one of the most important figures the cult of DJing is ever likely to witness worldwide.
“If” seems to be the only word capable of explaining why Colin Curtis is not a household name in this country. “If” he was black, gay, American and dead he would be the most revered DJ (not) around with umpteen volumes of “The Colin Curtis Story” box set taking pride of place in many homes. “If” he’d moved to London he could have easily had the record industry position or national radio show his experience and knowledge warranted. “If” his career had not been halted by illness, well, who knows what could have been.
This interview was conducted by Marc Rowlands and was first published in 2002. Since that time Colin has appeared as a special guest at several more weekenders and continues to DJ sporadically all over the country, appearing semi-regularly at Manchester’s Band On The Wall venue.
How did you catch the soul bug in the first place?
I got into pirate radio in the sixties, I was fascinated with the fact they were playing R n’ B. I’d listen to Radio Caroline, Radio England, Radio Wessex where people like Mike Raven were playing a few American imports at that stage, but mostly a lot of British soul releases that most people weren’t aware of. There wasn’t any developed soul scene at the time, so I suppose they were the early pioneers.
Where was your first club gig?
The first one was the local Tiffany’s in Newcastle Under Lyme which was called The Crystal Ballroom at the time. We used to do soul nights on Thursdays and Sundays.
The residency you held that brought your name to a wide audience was at The Torch. How did that come about?
I was a regular at The Torch on a Wednesday and a Friday, and this was before the allnighters, about 1969 I suppose. These were big nights and what had happened was people had begun to travel to go to the club, which was completely unheard of in those days. By that time I’d got myself a bit of a name on the local mobile circuit, and so the owner Chris Burton asked if I’d be interested in doing an allnighter there. We never believed he got the license for it, but we did it anyway. Me and my partner played for 12 hours, more or less 6 hours a piece and we got a tenner each for doing it. That was the start of what became I suppose a bit of a legend, The Torch allnighters.
What was so special about the Torch and soul nights of that era?
It was the first time people had made the decision not to go to the pub, disco, get drunk, have a fight or shag somebody else’s girlfriend. People were actually coming because of the music, there was no other reason to be there really, there was never any trouble with alcohol or fights.
You had a very successful run there. Why did it come to an end?
The Torch finished towards the end of 73, by that time the drugs thing had become a major thing in the local papers. It’s a joke to say it was a problem compared to what goes on nowadays really, but back then it was enough to scare the local press. After myself and Keith left, it was inevitable that it would close soon thereafter under pressure from the police.
You almost went straight from one legendary residency at The Torch to another at the Blackpool Mecca. How was it that they’d heard of you?
Tom from Blackpool’s Mecca came down and took up the position of manager in the local Mecca. He’d only been with us for about five weeks before he announced that he was off back to Blackpool, but he asked us if we’d be interested in reviving the soul night up there. We just thought he was having a laugh, Blackpool Mecca had become this legendary soul night but the DJs had had to pack it in because the allnighters like ours had become so popular, they’d taken over really.
Whilst there are many fondly remembered Northern soul clubs like Wigan Casino, The Twisted Wheel and The Torch, Blackpool’s Mecca will always be the one remembered as having the most progressive music policy. How was it you were able to do that?
When Keith Minshull left and Ian Levine came in the music was moving along, I mean Ian was probably the strongest collector in the country at the time. His trips to Miami were infamous. He came from a reasonably well off Jewish family, they owned the Lemon Tree Casino and other property in Blackpool, so going to America was no big deal for these people. To Ian it was a fantastic opportunity to get into warehouses and bring back thousands of singles which we then used to plough through.
Were you still hunting down Northern tracks whilst looking out for the more diverse stuff?
Yes, I mean the Northern thing was still very, very strong. We were still getting records from the likes of the legendary John Anderson’s soul vault, only he wasn’t a legend at that time. When I met him he used to ring me from Scotland from a pay phone and play me records down the phone off a Discotron. Anybody walking past must have thought he was a fucking alien.
Was the change in music something that was very obvious to people?
Of course. Early records that started causing trouble were records like The Commodores “The Human Zoo” and The Carstairs “It really hurts me girl”. We’d listen to stuff like that before the Mecca and think “Wow” this IS different. Then once you’d got on that rung and got similar reactions from other people, we’d think “great, we can push it a bit further next time”. Of course what then started happening was that the records we were getting excited about were radically different from traditional Northern. It wasn’t that we deliberately set out to turn our back on Northern, it was just that genuinely class new Northern records were becoming more difficult to find.
How did you feel about the rest of the Northern scene at that time?
I remember going down to Wigan Casino one night on my way home after the Mecca and this was the opening night of Mr M’s, the Wigan room where they were going to start playing oldies. A lot of people who went there were complaining that, with the progressive music in the main room, a lot of great older records were being forgotten about that people still wanted to hear. So they started this room and I remember sitting there on it’s opening night and saying “This is the beginning of the end of Northern soul”. I felt that reguritating all this stuff again for people who didn’t want to move on was such a retro move. That made me even more determined with the choice of music in Blackpool and then in 74/75, the music that was coming out of the U.S. stopped being ballads and became dance music again, essentially towards 76 it was New York disco.
What did you make of those new records that were emerging at that time?
Oh, the records were amazing. Sometimes I would chase down to London, on to Birmingham and back to Blackpool via Manchester all in one day, hunting for records I could play at the Mecca that night. For me it was just a total labour of love and affection for the music.
Did you ever get a bad reaction for playing such non traditional sounds?
Oh massively. There was an adverse reaction, particularly to Ian initially as I’d started playing more funk, early jazz funk records like George Benson and Cameo and Ian was more taken with the disco. Records like Dr Buzzards “Cherche La Femme” certainly didn’t go down well in some quarters. But the dancefloor was still always rammed.
If people were still dancing, you must have felt that all your efforts had in some way been justifed?
That era was just massively exciting for me. You’d have punters the standard of Pete Haigh (Blues and Soul) and Brian Wakelyn and these were very pushy guys, mad collectors who if you played something a bit different, would go and and try and find other different stuff, and that sort of reaction was amazing. I loved playing stuff that was going to get a reaction, I still do. When you play a record that you think is amazing and suddenly a few hundred more people think it’s amazing, there’s no bigger buzz than that.
As well as your residencies, you’ve always done a lot of guest DJing. How did you find people outside of The Mecca reacted to the music you’d begun playing?
There was nobody else doing this at the time. We’d take it out on the road and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t work, maybe we went a bit too far. At Wigan Casino they’d even started to ‘ban’ certain records that we were playing, “Ladies Choice” by Boby Franklin, “Shake n Bump”. Ironically all these new releases that they poo poo’ed as five minute wonders eventually became huge. All that stuff that was coming out in the seventies, Crystal Motion, The Invitations, Bert De Cotaeux, George Kerr, Leon Pendarvis all these producers were fantastic arrangers of black music, it was light years ahead of Northern soul, there was no way I was going to ignore it. I couldn’t have put those records in a wardrobe and thought “Right, I’ll come back to these in five years time”. No way.
You went from Blackpool to Manchester next, when was that?
I ended my Mecca residency in 1978 and I started at Rafters in Manchester in 79.
How did you become involved in the Manchester scene and Rafters in particular?
Spin Inn Records on Cross St. (Manchester) was an essential place to be on a saturday, not just to buy records, but to meet anybody who was anybody. The local bars and pubs were full of people who were on that scene, it was a marvellous vibe and a great place to be. Well, Kev Edwards who worked there convinced me to come down and listen to this guy John Grant play, so I came down, met him and I liked the guy. He was keen to go with this club Rafters and asked me to come down and take a look. I arrived in Manchester, it was pissing down with rain, they took me to this club and I was absolutely horrified. The place looked like a fucking bombsight, you have to remember that I’d grown up in Mecca’s. But John convinced me it would work and after he’d put a lot of hard work in, we opened and suddenly there were 500 people in there.
Having covered Northern, funk, jazz funk and disco already, you’re music continued to evolve when you came to Manchester. You’re credited as being one of the first DJs from the north to be involved in the jazz dance scene, how did that happen?
We used to do this club Smarties on a sunday night and it was only a small club, but the atmosphere was electric. You could touch the people, you really could. I tell you who used to come, the footballer Frank Worthington. And he was totally into jazz, I used to sit there with him having conversations about people like Art Pepper. He was light years ahead of the jazz thing. He was the one who sent me off delving deeper into the older jazz stuff which I went ballistic on for years. I’d been doing alldayers and going to clubs in Birmingham like Chaplins, where on one occassion the DJ, Graham Warr, one of my all time favourites, played this record by Voyage which had a really long percussion break in it. Everybody dropped off the floor except these five guys who started dancing individually, like freestyle jazz dancing, but it had never been seen before. I asked these guys if they would come up to Manchester and one night they turned up at Smarties in a mini bus and they were all wearing tights and black balaclavas. They totally blew everybody’s fucking mind. Just that one incident was enough to change the way people looked at everything.
Pete Haigh tells me that your other Manchester residency, Rafters was one of the most important and oft neglected residencies you had, particularly as being instrumental in uniting the black and white crowds in the city.
Well Norman Jay and Steve Caeser were two of the token black faces at the Mecca, there were some more guys from Preston, but there’d only ever be about 20 in there. A lot of people from the Mecca days followed me to Manchester. Yeah, initially Rafters was mainly white, there still was this fear, from some, of black people in clubs. Whether they thought “I might lose my girlfriend” or “they might eat us” I don’t know (laughs). It ended up, because we were getting in the people we wanted and we had the door staff we wanted, being a 75% black audience. It happened at The Ritz and Cassinelli’s and went on to influence the whole scene everywhere. The alldayers were busier than ever.
Did the introduction of this newer, more diverse crowd have any impact on the kind of music you were playing?
With the developments in Manchester, we were able to push things on the jazz and soul tip further still. I started a residency with Hewan Clarke at a club called Berlin. It’s became quite influential due to the vast spectrum of music that we’d play from jazz be bop through to the most recent soul releases. The club was frequented by Mick Hucknall, Dean Johnson, Barry Maleady, there was a guy called Andy who was at Uni there who was best mates with Gilles Peterson and he brought Gilles down a few times. I remember Maze coming down one night after one of their gigs, and of course Berlin became the new home for the Jazz Defectors, the famous Manchester dance group.
When do you think the next evolution happened in the music you were playing?
There’s always been these moments when I’ve realised something has changed. I was playing in Birmingham, Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson was on the bill playing the Washington sound, Go Go. Tim Westwood was on the bill. I got this record by the Harlequin 4’s (Set It Off) really, really early. Nobody had heard it or heard about it and I just thought I’d chance it. I stuck it on and the response was unreal. Everybody just went mental. That was it for me, I just knew. The very next week we had Pete Tong come up to the club, just as a punter and he said “It’s too heavy this, too black, way too heavy, it wouldn’t work in London”.
That’s just about the first ‘house’ track that could’ve been played anywhere in the UK, yet it was still some time before it’s acknowledged that house music appeared in Manchester. Did you feel you couldn’t play that sound at your Manchester residencies?
We did. The Playpen was where we me and Mike Shaft started playing all the Trax and DJ International stuff, and that was before they’d cottoned on to it at the Hacienda. That wasn’t a bad club for a while. We used to have these black girls that would come down every week and thrash themselves off to stuff like Chip E.
What does it feel like to receive so much love and recognition for what you’ve acheived from figures like Ashley Beedle, Norman Jay, Richard Searling and the Southport crew, who whilst being small in number, are nonetheless musically very discerning?
Well, Jonathan, who’s one of my best friends, was asked in an interview “Who are the most influential DJs in your life” and he said “Colin Curtis” and in the same breath “Louie Vega”. That brought a tear to my eye, I was thinking “Please…”. I’m from a different era to Vega, he’s in the next league, but I’ve talked to both Louie and Kenny and you know, they’re not that different from us. It’s all about a passion and I’m very grateful to all those people and people like Pete Haigh who can’t stop wittering on about me
Why did you stop DJing?
I’ve never been into drugs. (I’m not anti drugs, people can take them if they want to. I’ve only just recently started to regard them as a problem because I’ve got four kids now. I just hope that I can give them enough credence to cope with whatever they face in the future.)
I’ve watched friends do them, sometimes with disasterous results, but I’ve never needed them, I’ve always been high on life, music, talking and enthusiasm. But life paid me back in a different way. Because of the life I’ve led, not eating properly, if at all, tearing up and down the motorway every night to gigs, I started having these blackouts. There’d been no structure to my life, it was just full accelerator all the way. I kept having to stop, I was going into cold sweats and I was told that they were anxiety attacks. They got worse and worse and to this day I still can’t drive a car. It got so bad, I ended up in hospital for 9 months.
That must have been a very frustrating time for you.
Yes, there were all these things I wanted to achieve but couldn’t. I couldn’t promise people I would be at gigs when they booked me, I spent nine years battling that. It was so much lost time, the only thing I learned in that time was about real life, about people and about friendships.
You still put in an appearance at some weekenders during the time you were ill. What memories do you have of those appearances?
I remember doing one in Bognor in 89 that I was terribly ill at. Paul Oakenfold was there, first time I’d met the bloke and he came into our challet and was crawling around on the floor, as me and Jonathan were trying to get to sleep, looking through our record boxes asking “Where the hell do you get these from ?”. In the bar these crazy people like Nicky Holloway were saying “Yeah, what we’re going to do Col is take everybody to Ibiza” and we were all falling about laughing at them going “What the fuck are you talking about. Don’t be fucking stupid.” We’d failed to get people from Manchester and Sheffield to a weekender in Primrose Valley. We just thought they were nuts. How wrong we were.
You were invited to appear at the first weekender the Southport team put on. How did that come about?
I’ve known Alex Lowes since the Blackpool Mecca days. I’d done gigs for him up north and he’d always had the greatest respect for me, far more than I ever deserved. He asked me to do the first weekender, but I was so ill I had to miss it, albeit reluctantly. I rejoined the team on the second weekender at the Fleetwood site and did every one until 1996.
What is it about Southport Weekender that makes it such a special event?
I think the camaraderie, the genuine people who go and want to share that experience, whatever their musical slant, with everyone else. I think it’s become the ultimate cosmopolitan weekender, every other only tends to have two or three musical themes, whereas this one’s managed to encompass everything. In one night you could listen to your favourite soul hero, Little Louie Vega, Miguel Migs, Gilles Peterson, Snowboy, I mean, what the hell? I don’t think there’s anything else like that in the world is there?
Why then did you stop playing here?
1996 was my last one, I’d become almost a jukebox for the modern soul anthems, the 7″s and although people enjoyed it, it was a job I’d got bored of doing. I didn’t feel like I had anything to contribute.
You’ve still come down as a punter though, what are your feelings on the more recent events?
For me going up to the last two were fantastic. All the people who are part of it whether it be DJ mainstays like Bob Jeffries and Bob Jones or punters who come for the first time, all have such an important part to play in making it what it is. At Southport, everybody is important. It’s such a good mixture of people, young and older, from all over the country. Because I’ve been witness to such a musical menagerie throughout my life, I think it’s amazing that you can go to an event like that and hear so much excellent, varied music.
Having covered so much new ground with your music in the past, are you still managing to progress yourself as much these days and what can we expect from you at Southport?
I’m always looking forward. I’ve an interest in a lot of the newer, CD based soul and at the moment I’m very heavily on the (US style) garage tip. I’m very much up for pushing that forward, I don’t think that people on the soul scene are aware of what they’re missing. Some great soul songs have been made under the banner of garage, but they’re just frightened of it. But selling it to people who are already set in their ways is probably not the way to go. I’ll certainly be playing some garage at Southport mixed in with some soul and a few oldies.
Why have you decided that this Southport should be the one that sees your return?
Jonathan had been pestering me and he’s such a good friend. Alex had also asked me on my last but one visit if I’d come and play the birthday. I have so many friends there I really felt like I had to come and say thank you to all those who’d supported me, either musically or personally.
You’ve DJ’d at or attended the majority of the weekenders that are now called Southport Weekender. What have you enjoyed the most about them and do you have any memorable moments you’d like to share with us?
Ooh, there are so many. Seeing Leroy Hutson and Regina Belle were special moments for me. Seeing Steve Davis the snooker player looking through records there, I now know he’s got a massive black music collection. Seeing Gilles Peterson, a young man who used to meet me off the train when I’d go down, and go record shopping with me, seeing him breaking through was a nice thing to see. Last time I was almost asleep standing up when Miguel Migs came on and blew me and everyone else away. Magic moments like seeing Alex Lowes’ tears at the finale as people paid their respects to him for putting it on. I’ve enjoyed all the weekenders. People still talk to me about the radio shows I used to do at them, they’ve still got the tapes. It was a great way of breaking records in and everybody tuned in. I think good radio is something that’s lacking from all the weekenders nowadays, even Southport. I remember at the Morecambe site there were all these crazy ducks walking around. I’d mentioned it on the radio show and I then kept it going on the next show. Then at my gig on saturday night I must have been given 30 or 40 plastic ducks. People had been out into town and bought them, we had them all lined up on the DJ stand. We ran so late that night, Alex came up and said “Look, just keep playing” so I turned to some more of the DJs and said “Go and get your records”. We ended up with about half the DJs on stage playing a couple of records each, Graham Ellis, Richard Searling, Bob Jeffries. You just can’t buy memories like that.