The term “Northern Soul music” originated from Soul City, a record shop in London’s Covent Garden run by renowned soul music collector Dave Godin. The term was first used publicly in Godin’s weekly column in Blues & Soul magazine in June 1970. In an interview with Mojo magazine in 2002, Godin said he had coined the term in 1968 to help Soul City employees differentiate between the modern funkier sounds and the smoother ones. Godin referred to the latter as “Northern Soul” to cater to the northern football fans who were not interested in the latest developments in the black American chart but would come into the store to buy records. The music style most associated with Northern Soul is the heavy, syncopated beat and fast tempo of mid-1960s Motown Records, typically combined with soulful vocals. These records, suited to the athletic dancing prevalent on the scene, became known as “stompers.”

The earliest recording to possess this style, according to Northern Soul DJ Ady Croadsell, was the Four Tops’ 1965 single “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” although it was never popular in the Northern Soul scene because it was too mainstream. The Twisted Wheel in Manchester is the venue most commonly associated with the early development of the Northern Soul scene. Initially, the Twisted Wheel was a beatnik coffee bar called The Left Wing, but it was turned into a music venue in early 1963. The club mainly hosted live music on weekends and Disc Only nights during the week. DJ Roger Eagle, a collector of imported American soul, jazz, and rhythm and blues, was booked, and the club’s reputation as a place to hear and dance to the latest American R&B music began to grow. Young blue-eyed soul singers such as Steve Winwood, who released songs of similar style to the early U.S. soul music, frequented pubs such as the Eagle in Birmingham.

By 1968, the Twisted Wheel’s reputation and the type of music being played had grown nationwide, and soul fans were travelling from all over the UK to attend the Saturday all-nighters. Until his departure in 1968, resident “All Nighter” DJ Bob Dee compiled and supervised the playlist, using the newly developed slip-cueing technique to spin the vinyl. Newer, more up-tempo imported records were added to the playlist in 1969 by younger DJs like Brian “45” Phillips, up until the club’s eventual closure in 1971. The venue’s owners had successfully filled the vacancy left by Eagle with a growing roster of specialist soul DJs, including Brian Rae, Paul Davies, and Alan “Ollie” Ollerton.

In America, after the Doo Wop boom was over, Northern Soul started. Motown, Chess, and Vee-Jay records were famous Northern Soul labels. By the mid-1960s, Motown had good songwriters and producers such as Robinson, A&R chief William “Mickey” Stevenson, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Norman Whitfield. Motown had 110 top 10 hits from 1961 to 1971, with top artists on the label during that period including the Supremes featuring Diana Ross, the Four Tops, and the Jackson 5. Meanwhile, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, and the Miracles had hits on the Tamla label. The company had several labels in addition to Tamla and Motown, with a third label named after Gordy featuring the Temptations, the Contours, Edwin Starr, and Martha and the Vandellas. V.I.P., a fourth label, released recordings by the Spinners and the Monitors, while a fifth label, known as “Soul,” featured several legendary artists such as Jr. Walker & the All Stars, Jimmy Ruffin, Shorty Long, the Originals, and Gladys Knight & The Pips, leaving an indelible mark on the music scene.

One group that gained immense popularity during the early days at the Twisted Wheel Club, particularly in the Northern soul scene, were The Sapphires. Their hit songs like “Slow Fizz,” “Gotta Have Your Love,” (which reached number 33 on the R&B charts), “Evil One,” and “Gonna Be a Big Thing,” made them a favourite among music lovers.

Chicago-based label, Vee-Jay Records, became a prominent name in the soul music industry with a string of hit singles from artists like Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, Dee Clark, and Betty Everett, which climbed up both the pop and R&B charts. Additionally, Vee-Jay Records was also the first label to nationally release a record by Gladys Knight & the Pips.

Apart from soul music, Vee-Jay Records achieved significant success with pop/rock acts like the Four Seasons, becoming the first non-black act to be featured on their label.

Holland-Dozier-Holland, an American music production and songwriting team, found success in the 1970s on Invictus Records with artists such as Freda Payne and Chairmen of the Board. They were also responsible for the release of Parliament’s first album, Osmium. Capitol Records distributed the label from 1969 to 1972, and Columbia Records took over in 1973.

In September 1970, the British music magazine NME reported that Invictus had the UK’s top two singles. Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” was #1, while Chairmen of the Board’s “Give Me Just a Little More Time” was at #3 on the UK Singles Chart. While both of these records were million-sellers in the US, they failed to top the pop or R&B charts. Invictus had two other gold records, Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home” and 8th Day’s “She’s Not Just Another Woman,” both in 1971. The mid-to-late 1970s saw the peak of Northern Soul’s popularity, with soul clubs in almost every major town in the Midlands and the North of England. Some of the most important nightclubs of this decade were the Golden Torch and Wigan Casino (1973-1981).

Although Wigan Casino is now the most famous Northern Soul all-night venue, the best attended one at the beginning of the decade was actually the Golden Torch. Chris Burton, the owner, stated that by 1972, the club had a membership of 12,500 and had hosted 62,000 separate customer visits.

In 1972, the Four Seasons, a white soul group, released the song “The Night” from their May 1972 album Chameleon. It was a disco song that appealed to the Northern Soul scene and was successfully re-released in the UK in the spring of 1975.

Wigan Casino began its weekly soul all-nighters in September 1973, and had a much larger capacity than many of its competing venues, running events from 2:00 am until 8:00 am. The club had a regular roster of DJs, including Russ Winstanley, Kev Roberts, and Richard Searling. By 1976, the club had a membership of 100,000 people, and in 1978, it was voted the world’s number one discotheque by Billboard. This was all happening during the heyday of the Studio 54 nightclub in New York City. By the late 1970s, the club had its own spin-off record label, Casino Classics.

However, Wigan Casino faced criticism from many soul fans about selling out the format and playing “anything that came along.” Contemporary black American soul was changing with the advent of funk, disco, and jazz-funk, and the supply of recordings with the fast-paced Northern Soul sound began to dwindle rapidly. As a result, Wigan Casino DJs resorted to playing any kind of record that matched the correct tempo. Additionally, the club was subjected to intense media coverage and began to attract many otherwise uninterested people who did not approve of the soul purists.

The Northern Soul movement, with its fans at Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca’s wider approach, accepted the more contemporary sounds of Philly soul, early disco, and funk. Ian Levine broke from the Northern Soul mould by playing a new release by the Carstairs (“It Really Hurts Me Girl”) in the early 1970s.

During the 1970s, several prominent venues in the North of England played a crucial role in promoting the northern soul movement. One such venue was the Catacombs in Wolverhampton, which attracted a large number of soul enthusiasts with its lively music and energetic atmosphere. Similarly, Va Va’s in Bolton and the ‘Talk of the North’ all-nighters at the Pier and Winter Gardens in Cleethorpes were other popular destinations for those seeking the northern soul experience. Tiffany’s in Coalville, Samantha’s in Sheffield, Neil Rushton’s ‘Heart of England’ soul club all-dayers at the Ritz in Manchester, and the Nottingham Palais were other noteworthy venues that contributed to the growth of this subculture.

As the decade progressed, the northern soul scene became even more widespread across the country. The east of England, in particular, had a thriving scene with Shades Northampton leading the way until it closed in 1975. All-nighters at the St Ivo Centre in St Ives, the Phoenix Soul club at the Wirrina Stadium in Peterborough, and the Howard Mallett in Cambridge were later additions to the scene. Other towns, such as Kettering, Coventry, Bournemouth, Southampton, and Bristol, also had notable northern soul venues during this period.

In the book “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the DJ”, the authors describe Northern Soul as a genre that was born out of failure. The genre was created by hundreds of singers and bands who were emulating the Motown pop sound that originated from Detroit. However, most of their records failed to achieve success in their own time and place. Nevertheless, in Northern England from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, these records were rediscovered and elevated to cult status.

The Northern Soul scene not only embraced the up-tempo beat of stompers but also slower and less-danceable soul records. Examples include Barbara Mills’ “Queen of Fools,” which was popular in 1972 at the Golden Torch, and the Mob’s “I Dig Everything About You.” Every all-nighter at Wigan Casino ended with the playing of three well-known Northern Soul songs with a particular theme for going home. These were known as the “3 before 8” and included “Time Will Pass You By” by Tobi Legend, “Long After Tonight is Over” by Jimmy Radcliffe, and “I’m on My Way” by Dean Parrish.

In addition to soul records, some venues played commercial pop songs that matched the up-tempo beat of the stompers, such as the Ron Grainer Orchestra’s instrumental “Theme From Joe 90” at Wigan Casino and the Just Brothers’ surf-guitar song “Sliced Tomatoes” at Blackpool Mecca.

As the scene evolved in the mid and late 1970s, the more contemporary and rhythmically sophisticated sounds of disco and Philly Soul were introduced at certain venues following its adoption at Blackpool Mecca. One of the records that helped popularise this change was the Carstairs’ “It Really Hurts Me Girl” (Red Coach), which was initially released in late 1973 on promotional copies but quickly withdrawn due to lack of interest from American radio stations. The O’Jays’ “I Love Music” (UK No. 13, January 1976) is an example of this style, gaining popularity before its commercial release at Blackpool Mecca in late 1975. However, the hostility towards any contemporary music style from Northern Soul traditionalists at Wigan Casino led to the creation of the spin-off modern soul movement in the early 1980s.

During the late 1960s, venues like the Twisted Wheel transformed into northern soul clubs. The dancers, eager for new and undiscovered sounds, pushed DJs to acquire rare and out-of-print American releases that had not been released in the UK. Some DJs obtained these records through specialist importers, while others bought old warehouse stock during their trips to the US.

As the northern soul scene gained in popularity, a network of UK record dealers emerged who could supply rare vinyl copies to fans at prices that reflected their scarcity and desirability. Some UK record labels saw the growing popularity of northern soul as an opportunity and negotiated licenses with the copyright holders of certain popular records to reissue them as new 45s or compilation LPs. Among these labels were Casino Classics, PYE Disco Demand, Inferno, Kent Modern, and Goldmine.

The DJs’ notoriety in the northern soul scene was based on their possession of rare records, but exclusivity was not enough on its own. The records had to adhere to a certain musical style and gain acceptance on the dance floor. Northern soul collectors covet rare singles by artists such as Holly Maxwell, Gene Chandler, Barbara Acklin, the Casualeers, and Jimmy Burns. The rarest and most valuable northern soul single is Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do).” In December 2014, collectors were bidding more than £11,000 for a copy of the London Records version of Darrell Banks’ “Open the Door to Your Heart.” It was believed to be the only copy in circulation since all the original versions had been destroyed when rival label EMI won the rights to release the single.

The Northern Soul movement created a bustling market for reissuing older soul recordings in the UK, resulting in several of these recordings gaining popularity and making it to the UK charts several years after their original issue. Dave Godin is widely recognised as the first UK entrepreneur to initiate this trend by establishing the Soul City label in 1968, and he secured a license from EMI to reproduce Gene Chandler’s 1965 recording “Nothing Can Stop Me”, which had been a crowd favourite at the Twisted Wheel for several years. The song was released on Soul City as a 45 and peaked at UK No. 41 in August 1968, becoming the first Northern Soul-derived chart hit. Several months later in January 1969, Jamo Thomas’ 1966 single “I Spy (For the FBI)” was similarly licensed and re-released, reaching UK No. 44.

In the 1970s, the trend continued, and many songs from the 1960s that had been revived on the Northern Soul scene were reissued by their original labels and made it to the UK top 40 hits. These included the Tams’ 1964 recording “Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me” (UK No. 1, July 1971) – popularised by Midlands DJ Carl Dene, the Fascinations’ 1966 single “Girls Are Out to Get You” (UK No. 32, 1971), the Elgins’ “Heaven Must Have Sent You” (UK No. 3, July 1971), the Newbeats’ 1965 American hit “Run, Baby Run (Back Into My Arms)” (UK No. 10, October 1971), Bobby Hebb’s “Love Love Love” which was originally the B-side of “A Satisfied Mind” (UK No. 32, August 1972), Robert Knight’s “Love on a Mountain Top” recorded in 1968 (UK No. 10, November 1973), and R. Dean Taylor’s “There’s a Ghost in My House” from 1967 (UK No. 3, May 1974).

The Northern Soul scene also produced many minor chart hits, including Al Wilson’s 1968 cut “The Snake” (UK No. 41 in 1975), Dobie Gray’s “Out on the Floor” (UK No. 42, September 1975), and Little Anthony & the Imperials’ “Better Use Your Head” (UK No. 42, July 1976).

Numerous recordings were made in the late 1970s that targeted the Northern Soul scene and became UK top 40 hits. These included the Exciters’ “Reaching For the Best” (UK No. 31, October 1975), L. J. Johnson’s “Your Magic Put a Spell on Me” (UK No. 27, February 1976), and Tommy Hunt’s “Loving On the Losing Side” (UK No. 28, August 1976). “Goodbye Nothing To Say,” by the white British group the Javells, was recognised by Dave McAleer of Pye’s Disco Demand label as having an authentic Northern Soul feel. McAleer gave acetates to Wigan Casino DJ’s Russ Winstanley, Kev Roberts, Richard Searling (a Wigan Casino DJ and promoter), and the tune became popular among the dancers at the venue. The song was also the subject of potential legal action against the writers of Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From.” Disco Demand then released the song as a 45 rpm single, reaching UK No. 26 in November 1974.

In one particular instance, a previously unknown recording was specifically remastered to cater to the Northern Soul enthusiasts. The track “Footsee” was originally recorded by the Canadian group, The Chosen Few in 1968. However, it was manipulated by being sped up, overdubbed and remixed, ultimately becoming a UK top ten hit in 1975. The new version was then credited to Wigan’s Chosen Few. Similarly, the local band Wigan’s Ovation covered the Northern Soul classic “Skiing in the Snow” by The Invitations, which peaked at No. 12 on the UK Singles Chart. However, these renditions were not well-received by the Northern Soul community as their success led to a wider awareness of the subculture.

The very first mainstream disco hit, “Kung Fu Fighting,” which topped the UK charts in 1974, was produced by singer Carl Douglas and producer Biddu in Britain and drew inspiration from the Northern Soul scene.

In 2000, Kev Roberts, a Wigan Casino DJ, compiled The Northern Soul Top 500, based on a survey of Northern Soul fans. The top ten tracks included “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” by Frank Wilson, “Out on the Floor” by Dobie Gray, “You Didn’t Say a Word” by Yvonne Baker, “The Snake” by Al Wilson, “Long After Tonight is Over” by Jimmy Radcliffe, “Seven Day Lover” by James Fountain, “You Don’t Love Me” by Epitome of Sound, “Looking for You” by Garnet Mimms, “If That’s What You Wanted” by Frankie Beverly & the Butlers and “Seven Days Too Long” by Chuck Wood.