The Significance of Geography: Unveiling the Origins of “Southern Soul”

The term “Northern Soul” may seem misleading, as it was actually coined by a London-based DJ and journalist, Dave Godin. While there are claims suggesting an affinity between the working class in smaller towns of Northern England and the black working class in major US cities like Detroit and Chicago, the exact connection remains uncertain. In an effort to differentiate it from Northern Soul, I will refer to the dance scene primarily confined to the southeast of England as “southern soul,” emphasising that it focuses on music produced within the region rather than the southern states of the USA. However, it is essential to note that the distinction between these two scenes goes beyond mere geography.

Emergence of the Southern Soul Scene

In the mid-1970s, as Northern Soul reached its peak, the southern soul scene began to take shape. This new scene catered to an audience that sought a different experience from the emerging punk movement and the declining popularity of progressive rock. While reggae also gained traction during this time, southern soul primarily focused on contemporary soul music with jazz and funk influences. The genre showcased dance-oriented tracks with slower tempos and less pronounced beats compared to the energetic “stompers” of Northern Soul. Some of this music eventually merged into what would be known as disco in the late 1970s, although the southern soul scene remained distinctively diverse and less commercially driven. However, similar to Northern Soul, the growth of the southern soul scene relied on the development of a robust infrastructure, including clubs, promoters, record shops, distributors, specialist media, and entrepreneurial figures like DJs and record industry executives.

Key Venues and Events

While pinpointing a single starting point is challenging, a network of soul music nights and clubs emerged in London and the southeast, particularly in Essex and Kent, during the mid-1970s. Notable venues such as Tiffany’s in Purley, Flick’s in Dartford, the Lacy Lady in Ilford, the Royalty in Southgate, and the Goldmine in Canvey Island played a pivotal role in shaping the southern soul scene. These venues, often luxurious and up-market, provided a stark contrast to the northern scene’s more cavernous and worn-out ballrooms. For instance, Flick’s boasted a high-tech motorised lighting rig that descended onto the dance floor at key moments. In 1977, the first all-day dance marathon took place in Reading, followed by another event hosted by Tiffany’s the following year. In 1979, the inaugural “National Soul Weekender” occurred at a holiday camp in the East Coast resort of Caister, which would go on to become a revered and enduring institution within the scene. Unlike the more exclusive music policy of the northern scene, these clubs and events showcased a wide range of soul music, including older and contemporary soul, jazz-funk, and even lovers’ rock, reggae, and mainstream disco hits.

The Role of DJs and Artists

As with Northern Soul, the southern soul scene thrived due to the contributions of influential DJs. Robbie Vincent, the host of a phone-in show on a BBC London local radio station, successfully advocated for a two-hour weekly specialist contemporary soul program in 1976. Vincent was among a group of DJs affectionately known as the “soul mafia,” which included Chris Hill, Jeff Young, Greg Edwards.