Extracts from Interview 2004
David Hughes, Stevie Wonder & Les Spaine at Abbey Road Studio for the Motown Records Hotter Than July Album Party 1980
Les Spaine was one of the most important British club DJ’s of the 70’s, yet his considerable contribution to the black music scene in this country has been all but forgotten – until now. A myth has grown that everyone in the North was into Northern Soul during the 70’s, but there’s another other side of the story, which has yet to be told in any real depth. On Merseyside, because of the influence of DJ’s like Les and Terry Lennaine, Northern Soul was never really a factor – Funk held sway. Furthermore, black kids in general, throughout the region, weren’t interested in the retrospective Northern Soul scene, which attracted a predominantly white audience. Instead they were experiencing an era that brought fourth some of the greatest black music ever committed to vinyl, with truly legendary artists, like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes releasing their most acclaimed work during this decade. Now classic Funk acts like Parliament, Ohio Players, Earth Wind & Fire, Kool & The Gang, Brass Construction and B.T Express, with the Godfather, James Brown, were at the vanguard of a movement that would be fundamental to the evolution of black music and dance culture.
Here are some extracts from an interview I did with Les in 2004.
MUSICAL INFLUENCES / EARLY MEMORIES
My father had this wonderful old gramophone, which I wish I had now. One of those that was made out of real nice teak wood and you lifted the top off and I always remember the dials with long wave and all that, Moscow and all these things written on it. And then there’d be the record changer and he’d stack his 78s up and he’d put them on and he could hear his music going through the house because he’d bake bread! He used to like to bake bread!
My earliest recollection of music would be Five Blind Boys, the Platters, the Ink Spots, those sorts of people. They were the sorts of things my dad played, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, I mean my dad was born in 1907 so he was well in his forties by the time I came along. It was what I would call standard black music, along with what we’d call Highlife, which is African music. And some Calypsonian stuff as well, so I remember Lord Kitchener in the early days, I would say earliest recollection would be the Platters, Billie Holiday, the Five Blind Boys Of Alabama. It was like, deep stuff man! Howlin’ Wolf, all that sort of people.
I remember the things that used to annoy my dad was… he’d watch… I remember Billy Eckstein and Sarah Vaughn coming to Liverpool and they wouldn’t let them stay at the Adelphi (Hotel). So when I started making some money my dad used to say to me, “if you ever stay in that hotel…’ (laughs). I’m sure it was most probably a common practice in a lot of hotels, but they wouldn’t let them stay there.
I always remember there was a program called Emergency Ward Ten. One black guy in it and, according to my dad, he came from Sierra Leone so we used to sit and watch it religiously, which I was bored shitless doing, but that was the way it was. I remember the Temptations one time being on, I think it was Sunday Night At The London Palladium, and you could have gone out on Granby Street, Parliament Street, Princes Avenue – none of the boys were out. Everyone was in the house because it was an event!
We had a piano in our house and people would go to one another’s houses. You know, your dad and that would go and visit an uncle or a friend when they had a party. That’s where you heard the music and, as kids, we just…in my day kids were seen and not heard, but, you know, you were allowed to go along to the parties and you picked up on your music. So music was the thing I was into from an early, early age. But, some of the problems that we had in Liverpool, I just knew that there were only certain places where you could do certain things and for what we achieved at the Timepiece, we were quite lucky really.
You’d go and you’d order your records and you’d keep going down and going down and then they’d finally arrive – your imports – or you’d get them off somebody who was a seaman. And that’s why I think you find that places like Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol, obviously London, places like Tilbury and that, they had some quite amazing tunes. Especially because the seamen were bringing them in from New York and that. That’s where The Beatles’ influences came from.
They say Cunard Yanks but, you know, there was a lot going on from the war days. My old man worked for Elder-Dempster Line, Palm Line and all those, and they went to New York and other places and brought back records as well. It wasn’t just the Yanks, even though the Yanks were it. Those guys brought it over.
In all fairness to The Beatles, at least they had the decency to stand up and say “we’d like to do a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song”. You know, it wasn’t “this is our latest release”. They did a hell of a lot to promote black music and they always stood up and said, you know, “we’re going to do the Isleys”. They were the ones who did. The people who didn’t do it, it was like every Dionne Warwick record was copied by Cilla, you know, and Billy J Kramer used to copy the Contours.
I thought the Beatles were pretty cool actually. I think the thing about The Beatles, it wasn’t just with black acts, it was the Beatles that got the Stones their deal. They were so secure in their abilities that they didn’t mind helping other people. Even now I go back to my home town and I think, arguably, the greatest band ever came from this town.
One thing Yanks know how to do is promote. You know that when you go to Detroit that Motown came from there. You know it! People are proud of The Beatles, but I don’t think they give them the due they deserve. I mean, their early stuff was on a more rhythm and blues tip. I must admit I prefer the Stones more because they were more into blues in the beginning, that was more my scene.
EARLY RECORDS BOUGHT
I remember buying things like ‘Walk Away Renee’ by the Four Tops, but I couldn’t remember the first record I bought. Certain things stuck in my mind, when I started questioning boundaries, because in my day everybody was in a peg hole. You know, because if you were a Soulboy, you didn’t listen to white music, and so on and so on. And along comes this guy called Joe Cocker and screws up my head! And, you know, like the Stones, The Animals and so on. Some of my mates used to look at me as if, “you ain’t well!”, you know, but it was good music!
To admit that you liked early Stones, you know, “but ‘Little Red Rooster”, you had to keep pointing out, “was a blues song, which they’d copied”. Bobby Womack wrote ‘It’s All Over Now’, which quite a lot of us knew, but that was a classic scenario where the Stones where jumping up and down to that tune and everyone’s going “wonderful Stones song,” and I’m thinking, “heard this shit in the house for a while!”. Even now sometimes, you’ll play it some people will go, “oh, who’s that doing that Stones song?”, and you have to tell them, well, actually it’s the Valentinos, and give them the whole scenario of the Womacks.
The Temptations were God. You waited religiously for any new Temptations record and I think we grew with them, you know. Afros were growing, political awareness was growing. Norman Whitfield, for me, timed it so well because I was reading Eldridge Cleaver, Huey P. Newton, Angela Davies, all those people. I wasn’t a militant, it was just, you know, people were frightened of certain things in America, but what they didn’t realise is that all of a sudden you got an understanding and, hang on, there’s some brothers and sisters here that can do a bit more than running and singing and boxing, which is not degrading. Not putting down any of those three things – that’s what we’re supposed to be good at. All of a sudden, here’s some academics here and the music evolved from just ‘scooby-dooby-do-wah-wah’ to like some of the stuff the Temps were singing. Whitfield got a bit long-winded with seventeen-and-a-half minute tracks with two minutes of vocals but, as a young man, I was really into all that underground…
To the majority of the black race, the Temptations were our Beatles. A new Temptations album came out, you bought it and then you listened to it. You didn’t go and sit in the box, because you used to have listening booths then, you just bought it. I always remember, it was really funny, I remember buying ‘Ball Of Confusion’ and I put it on and I left the arm off the machine so that it would go back to it and go back to it, and my dad, who was really one of the most laid back blokes I know, after about two-and-a-half hours of this, must have got fed up of hearing ‘and the band played on’ and just walked into my room, took it off, snapped it and walked off!
It’s down to opinions, but I know a lot of people looking back nowadays and they’re all romantic about the Temps and about David Ruffin, but, for me, I like Ruffin but when Dennis Edwards came in, I thought ‘wow, this guy is amazing!’.
Going even forward, you know, I remember when I bought ‘Black Moses’ and I pinned it to the back of my door because it basically just opened up. I couldn’t even call it gatefold it was bigger than that. And it was just Isaac Hayes with this, like, robe on, in almost a crucifix position. And I pinned it to the back of the door. You can’t do that with a CD. It’s got its good points but, you know…
We weren’t depressed, because people say, “oh God, you had no money,” but nobody else had any so you didn’t know you were broke. I mean, sometimes I’ll be talking to my kids, who are all grown up now, and they say “what did you get for such-and- such?”, and I say, “well mostly, we got clothes”. Punk came along later and my generation couldn’t understand punk, because our generation was all about dressing smartly, you know, even if it was the only pair of trousers and shoes you had, they were clean. That was also part of the scene, so that’s why, obviously, we related a lot to mods. I think the mods were one of the first times when people used to, you know, spend time together, blacks and whites, because of the music.
STARTING OUT AS A DJ
There was a guy that I knew at the Masonic pub and he said “it’s a bit quiet in there during the week”, and I said “what you need is a disco” and he said “but I don’t know any DJs” I said “I’ve been a DJ for years” He said “oh really?” I said “yeah” He said “oh, OK” so we came to a deal. I can’t even remember what it was so I came out of there and I thought ‘great, all I’ve got to do now is get a disco!”. I looked in the paper and I wish I could remember his name, he was a very, very tall white guy, he must have been six foot five. I know he lived over the Wirral and he rented disco equipment. And I phoned him up and he said he’d rent me some disco equipment. And I came in on the Friday, I told all my mates, I just brought all my records down, sat there and bluffed it. I was most probably shite the first night but it was stuff that they wanted to hear and the place got rammed.
The Masonic was a pub where it was in town, but not right in the middle of town and, you know, a lot of brothers went there, and a lot of white guys went there, it was a fairly working class pub, you know, but it was good. A lot of gangsters went there because it was right over the road from the Blue Angel, which is arguably, I don’t care what anyone says, the most famous club in England. The Blue Angel is old. You need to do some research on the Blue Angel. It’s always been there. It’s always the same. Ike and Tina Turner were down the Blue Angel. You know, the Stones have been down the Blue Angel. It was the quintessential R&B club, so people would come up from town, go there, then go into town. There was no Kirklands or anything like that. And down the road on the other side was a club called the Pun. Now, this little Arabic guy owned it, right, I think his name was Omar. He used to come up all the time and say “all these people are staying in the pub and not coming down to my place,” and I said, “well, when I finish here I’ll go down there.” He said “OK” and that’s how I moved into a club – it was a little, tacky cellar-thing called the Pun.
That was the first time Blues & Soul and that started picking up on us. And that was rammed. If you weren’t in there by nine-thirty you might as well go home.
And all the Yanks… Yanks used to come from as far as Scotland to the Pun club and the Timepiece. They’d come from Upper Hayford, Lakenheath, Alconbury, all these places down South. You’ve got to remember there was no M11, no M25. The M6 didn’t even go as far as it was and the M1 didn’t reach London at the time! You know what I mean? There was no M42. So these guys did it mostly on A-roads and every weekend they would drive up and go back on a Sunday night. Granted they came for the girls but, you know, a lot of them came and we had an affinity with them and we also were more aware of the situation with the Vietnamese war and everything that was going on, you know, because a lot of people were getting shipped out. And you’d talk to them, you know, and then someone tells you he’s dead, because they didn’t last very long in Vietnam.
For every eight black guys, two of them would be white or Hispanic or whatever. I mean, the Yanks, they’re like any soldiers, “if there’s pussy I’m there”! And they were hearing their music, you know. Unless a guy was an out-and-out redneck, he felt more comfortable coming down. He isn’t going to hear something in the middle of the English countryside. So, you know…
US AIR BASES
I did nearly every American air base and that’s mostly how I got my stuff. That was one of the things I kept very quiet to myself. It helped me a lot for my later understanding of Motown, because up until I set up my own company, I only ever worked for American companies and, because I spent a lot of time mixing with Yanks, I didn’t feel out of my depth when I went to the States. Basically, it was just keeping it close to your chest, as a DJ you do. We had the Burtonwood, just down the road. I’d go there and I’d do stuff during the week and they’d pay me in dollars. I remember one time I’d opened this bank account, and I kept going with a load of dollars. One the day I went in there and the manager called me in and he went “can you explain where you get all these dollars from?” I said “I can, but I won’t. If you’re not happy with it, I’ll take my money and go somewhere else.” So then I explained to him what I was doing. It was unusual for some guy from Liverpool to be walking in every week with a bag of dollars. From my point of view, they paid me well and they also gave me access to some amazing stuff that was just really rare in that respect. And that’s one of the reasons that, for a long period, our Funk all-nighters did have a bit of an edge.
If you stand outside of the Masonic, you can see the Blue Angel on the left and the Pun further down on the right. And you can just see the footsteps that I made. So I just basically took them there. The thing that then happened, and we were doing very well. Blues and Soul, Black Music, Record Mirror would write stuff about me, so a lot of record companies started paying note and giving me stuff.
I remember coming down to London. By that time record companies were noticing us. You’ve got to remember there was no regional radio. I started going to London quite a lot, because you had to hustle to get your stuff. And I got pally with a guy called Pat Martin who was a half-Arabic Indian guy from Birmingham. Wonderful guy, I don’t know what happened to him. He was a DJ and we used to go down, visit all the different record companies to get promotional stuff. And I said to him one time on the train, I said “Look man, we know quite a lot of people, we should start a National Association of DJs,” because, to be honest with you, the thing that used to frustrate me, was that I have a business mind but I was never allowed to use it in them days. It was like “shut up and play the records, that’s what you do.” So we started the first National Association of DJs and we’d just target DJs who were of our type of music in different clubs. we used to deal with people in Leeds, Birmingham, all over the place and what we used to say to the record companies was very simple – “you give us the records and we’ll give them to our DJs” So, for a start, our DJs weren’t worrying about getting it, they were getting it. There was only about one hundred of us. But you’ve got to remember there was nothing happening then, this is like pre-George McCrae I’m talking. So that’s what I’m saying.
The first time I met George was in Barclay Square with RCA. They brought us down because, you know, we worked on all that very early stuff. The guys would play it every hour, on the hour, and that was our guarantee, for which, if it went into the charts, they got an album. But me and Pat got a grand! We thought, ‘This is fucking great!’ So, I mean, that’s what we were doing, and it was like, what they now call networking, but, you know, I made a lot of contacts down in London.
The UK Motown Crew 1970s
There was a very nice white guy called Roy Carrington who owned the Timepiece. At first it was called the Time And Place, then he changed it to the Timepiece when I moved there. It was dying on its arse and he came up and he said to me “will you come and work for me?” So I went there and that gave me a higher profile in a better club, and a lot more white people came there, they felt more comfortable because the problem with the Pun was that you went downstairs into a cellar, which held two-three hundred, and like people literally queued up to come in and go out. It had a slightly bluesy feel to it and people loved it, but, you know, the thing about the Timepiece is that you could be a white person off the street, like R&B, walk in there and not feel intimidated. The Pun, you needed to be strong-minded to go to.
At the Timepiece we had people like the Ohio Players, ConFunkShun, you name it, we had them down there. I’m looking at pictures right now of General Johnson of Chairman of the Board, who we had live, standing on stage with a tambourine at the Timepiece. That’s why when I looked at Trevor’s [Nelson] thing I almost put pen to paper because it was like, we had this stuff and when they were doing the Northern Soul all-nighters, we were doing massive Funk all-nighters down in the Timepiece years before they ever done it in London. And it was like, please, you know, tell me about Canvey Island. I don’t take anything away from that, but…
Now we had Chairman Of The Board, we had Heatwave, we had Ohio’s there. We’ve had Ronnie Spector there… I’ll have to get a list of the people. They all played live. I remember when our club burned and we opened half of it and the Detroit Spinners were playing at the Liverpool Empire. We’d been really supportive of them from the very early days, but also we’d played the album tracks and all that. That was one of the things I loved about the places – we could get away with playing album tracks. Millie Jackson ‘Still Caught Up’, all those sorts of things.
The thing about the Timepiece audience, you couldn’t give them doo-doo. You were dealing with guys and girls who knew their stuff. You were dealing with girls who were going out with Yanks, so they knew all the latest stuff. You were dealing with brothers who could tell you what underpants the guy had on when he went to do the session. They knew their stuff. I’ll tell you one of the things that felt really good for me, a good few years ago, I got a call off this girl and they were doing an American serviceman’s reunion at St. George’s Hall, and all these Yanks had voted that they wanted me to be the DJ. It really choked me up. I turned up and got on the bloody stage and I realised that I couldn’t read the CDs without my glasses on! So I had to quickly step off, get my bloody glasses and get back on there. The night went great.
Les Spaine – 1976
You know, to be honest with you, we, even though a lot of people didn’t realise it, we were one of the people who started that bloody swing nonsense that went up, simply because two Yanks wanted to jive, so we played some Glenn Miller stuff and then people kept asking. I panicked (laughs), I thought ‘I don’t need this’. It wasn’t what I needed when I’m trying to drop Ohio Players and so on and so forth. So we contained it into a segment that we did for like twenty minutes – bang – and finished. That was for a little period in the Timepiece and that took off big, but, you know, we also did things like, I mean, we were like the opposite to Northern Soul in the sense that… I remember the Glitter Band made a b-side called ‘Makes You Blind’. So we just played it, because it was a killer Funk song!
I wasn’t a part of that scene at all. You’ve got to understand, Northern Soul to me is stuff that I heard either when I was very young, or it was so rare that (hesitates) – I’m going to upset a lot of people when I say this – a lot of Northern Soul is the Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s got to be rare. It’s got to be unavailable and the guy’s got to have died young of tuberculosis, working on a car line in Detroit. The minute it became popular, they didn’t want it. Most of it was shite, if we tell the truth. I’m not saying there wasn’t good Northern Soul, but quite a lot of it was musically bad and it was very old. I wasn’t into old music.
We were more the other end, you know, what is new? What’s George Clinton doing? What are the Funk bands doing? What are the people like the Manhattans and the Dells and all that… That’s what we were into, what is coming out new, now? I didn’t see anything interesting in finding some obscure guy who cut two records. And the other thing is that it all has the same bloody beat! One of the things from our point of view, because we had so many Yanks that used to come down, there was like a new dance every two months. You know what I mean? And the music went with it. So it was constantly changing. Northern Soul didn’t appeal to me or my followers because it all went the same way.
When I keep hearing this Northern Soul thing – more power to Northern Soul’s elbow, but I personally, at the time, felt it didn’t do our music any good. I used to think ‘what is the point of it?’ If you’ve got a record, you cover it up. I wasn’t bothered. My vibe is ‘yeah I’ll play it, and if you want to ask me what it is I’ll tell you – so what?’. I’ll find something else in two or three weeks’ time. It might have been the arrogance of youth but that was the way it should have been and that’s the way any good DJ was. You got it, and by the time you’d played it for a month or so and people knew it was coming out and you did your little chart in Blues & Soul – you got the recognition. For God’s sake, you didn’t record the record yourself personally, and you moved on. All this business about covering it up, putting a funky name on it that isn’t true, then they’re going for fifty pounds or whatever to some poor, working class… I was never into all that and I never understood it.
I used to say “this is bullshit.” and I didn’t think it helped – who did it help? Did it help the people who wanted to part with the hundred pounds when they’d worked all week in some bloody shoe shop, to buy a rare record? No! Did it help the guy who did it? No.
I just thought ‘these people just aren’t real Soul fans.’ I think a lot of real Soul fans who were into the Northern scene were used. I could see very little difference between the way the people who ran the Northern Soul scene carried on, and drug dealers with junkies. Now that might sound extreme but you analyse it. They had their market, they got it hooked and they kept it hungry.
Text taken from an interview with Greg Wilson, 2004
Thanks to Gavin Kendrick for transcribing
FROM FREETOWN TO MOTOWN – L8 AT THE TATE 22.04.2010
Les Spaine & Greg Wilson at The Tate Liverpool 2010
Les Spaine in conversation with Greg Wilson at Tate Liverpool.
Internationally renowned local DJ Greg Wilson, and Les Spaine, who inspired him during in the 70s, explore the little told story of the development of the thriving black music scene in Liverpool.
Watch the full video interview here: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/freetown-motown-les-spaine-conversation-greg-wilson
© Greg Wilson. January 2004, updated January 2011