Photo credits: Gerry Constable)
As you know, some months ago, founder and organiser Russ Winstanley invited me to the “Northern Soul Survivors Weekender: Celebrating 60 Years Of Motown” in Skegness last weekend, and to take part in a question/answer session with a trio of Motown ladies who were performing throughout the Saturday. I agreed in a heartbeat. To be in the company of Chris Clark, Gloria Jones and Brenda Holloway was irresistible. To mingle with the likes of, and see performances by, Bobby Brooks Wilson, The Flirtations, Paul Stuart Davies, Tommy Hunt, Johnny Boy, Eddie Holman, Stefan Taylor and The Signatures was certainly an added bonus. Besides I was a NS ‘virgin’ and had no idea what experiences lie ahead. A brief back story: I believe I last saw Gloria in 1977/78, while Brenda and Chris I caught up with after the “Divas Of Motown” show at the Hammersmith Apollo in November 2009. However, the week before setting off on my adventure, I was invited to attend the European premiere of “Hitsville: The Making Of Motown”. Such bad timing for sure and, although I was naturally thrilled to be included in this prestigious occasion, I knew I had to be in Skegness because friendship comes first. The film is, however, due to be screened locally and of course will be available on DVD within a few weeks, so I won’t miss out entirely. >With Gerry Constable and Lynne Pemberton, I travelled the long road to Skegness, and upon arrival late Thursday afternoon, texted Chris Clark. After unpacking, headed to her apartment in Minnows Way, where she and the ladies were staying; in fact, Chris and Brenda were opposite each other. As we left, The Flirtations arrived at the apartment block, so catch- up time was spent with Pearly, Shirley and Ernestine. Anyway, moving on…
At 10.30am on Friday, Chris Clark was booked in for rehearsal time in the Reds venue with Stefan Taylor and The Signatures – the coolest bunch of musicians and singers I’ve yet to meet – and once the first song was under her belt, the music fell into place. The balance of lead singer, support vocalists and music was perfected, which was an extraordinary achievement, bearing in mind this was the first time they had worked together this week. Brenda and Gloria also attended as a show of support to their friend – their rehearsals had, I believe, been the previous day – before The Flirtations arrived for their run through. Prior to this, while walking to Minnows Way, I chanced to meet Paul Stuart Davies for the first time; what a fabulously talented guy, having played his music regularly on my radio show and exchanging messages via FB. I felt the vibes were good and getting better.
After the rehearsal, we headed for coffee, diet coke, juice and snacks in the Pavilion, the huge area where stalls selling NS memorabilia, records and merchandise were being hastily erected, and where, in the centre was a dance floor overlooked on one side by the large DJ console on stage, and seating area on the other. It never occurred to me until the first time it happened – the ladies now belonged to their fans in the nicest possible way. Sitting back to watch the warm interaction between them all was touching as they exchanged easy conversation, signed autographs and posed for photos. We sat there until around 3pm before heading off, planning to meet up again two hours later for dinner in the artists’ section of The Deck restaurant.
While eating that evening, Gloria explained the three were the sisterhood, looking out for each other and, indeed, when they later switched and swopped stage clothes, it was indeed ‘family’. Like Motown in the early days, she continued, when they were Berry Gordy’s favourites because he could always rely on them. Later they became the “Los Angeles Girls” and talked over the blessed times on the West Coast, where the Mowest label was born. Working with The Commodores was a wonderful experience Gloria added; working with Pam Sawyer on their debut single “The Zoo (The Human Zoo)” lifted from the group’s debut album “Machine Gun” on which they also produced several tracks. She now lives in Sierra Leone where she tirelessly runs a children’s school in her late partner Marc Bolan’s memory.
Chris drew on her memories of touring the States with fellow artists and the audience reactions when she walked on stage: one white singer among a host of black groups. She worked hard to win them over. Talking about Michael Jackson’s envy when she introduced him to her big cat, a cougar, led to her re-telling her audition with Berry Gordy. She was eighteen years old and he kept her waiting outside his office for hours, adding to her anxiety levels. Once inside, he made it clear he wasn’t interested in signing a white singer. Undeterred she sang “All I Could Do Was Cry” accompanying herself on the piano, not realising at the time Gordy had penned the song! The rest is history. This evening Brenda was eating elsewhere with her husband, Sam, in another section of the restaurant. They joined us later.
Meal times had never been more entertaining and this was to continue: if you had told me a year ago my eating companions would be three of Motown’s most legendary artists I’d have laughed in your face. Leaving The Deck, Chris inadvertently dropped some papers where upon I bent down to retrieve them. My age kicked in as Gloria had to help me back up again! As if that wasn’t bad enough, I then accidentally knocked a small picture frame off its stand and watched in horror as it smashed to pieces, glass shattering everywhere. Chris laughed “You’ve been taking lessons from Dusty”, referring to the British singer’s love of smashing up crockery. Gloria said it was a good luck omen. Immediately, a member of the Butlins’ staff was on hand to clear it up, while a mortified me apologised profusely. By 9pm we were in our individual apartments readying to watch Martha Reeves on Celebrity Masterchief when sadly, she was voted out.
Saturday was ladies day. Brenda at 2.30pm; Gloria at 11.15pm, leaving headliner Chris to walk on stage at 00.45am, with Bobby Brooks Wilson, The Signatures, and non-stop music in between. Following our breakfast, Chris headed for another quick rehearsal with The Signatures at Reds because she was unhappy about her opening song. In the end, it was ditched to be replaced by the emotive “Rock Me”.
A packed venue greeted Brenda when she hit the stage. Dressed in a flowing, almost see through, gown, this beautiful singer kicked off with “Just Look What You’ve Done” followed by “When I’m Gone”. She epitomised cool soul. Working every inch of the stage, the audience sang with her, while her strong, pure voice brought up soulful goose bumps. “Operator”, “You Beat Me To The Punch”, “Two Lovers” and “My Guy” were next – her tribute to the first ‘Queen of Motown,’ Mary Wells. With a short introduction and a huge smile, she launched into the haunting “Every Little Bit Hurts” before raising the roof with a NS anthem “Reconsider” which, she said, was responsible for her being at Skegness today. A dramatic take on “You Made Me So Very Happy” closed her awe-inspiring performance that left the audience crying for more. Wow!
The immediately recognisable strains of “Tainted Love”, so synonymous with NS fans, introduced a vivacious Gloria Jones to an adoring audience. Dressed in a white gown, her welcome was overwhelming as she acknowledged the love. Her plan was to party, so she invited The Signatures’ singers and members of the audience to share the moment, as she set the pace for the 1979 Gonzales’ dance single “Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet” which she penned, and co-produced with Paul Riser. “Just Let It Lay” was its flipside, a song written by them both with Gloria’s (late) brother Richard who chose the title from a phrase I regularly used at the time. Following a song I failed to note down (to my shame) as I was bouncing around trying to emulate some of the dancing audience, the hard-hitting NS diamond “Heartbeat” was next. A rousing few magical musical moments where her audience belted out the lyrics alongside her – an unashamed happy mingling of hundreds of voices, before she left the stage with a reprise of “Tainted Love”. Double wow! Could today get any better? You bet…
Just after midnight, the event’s elegant, quietly-spoken headliner slowly walked on stage: microphone in hand, to a rapturous welcome that hit the ceiling and bounced off the walls. Dressed in black, Chris Clark had arrived – epitomising cool on so many levels, her voice true and emotional. Following “Rock Me”, she moved the music to a higher pitch with the immortal “From Head To Toe” and “Do Right Baby”. Like Brenda before her with “Reconsider”, Chris performed a unique NS discovery “Something’s Wrong” where, once again, the audience joined in. So much love and respect bounced from stage to auditorium where the atmosphere was hot, hot, hot in every respect. In between songs, she modestly talked about her music before telling of her surprise to be headlining the event, saying it should really be Brenda. Moving the pace down a fraction, she introduced “I Want To Go Back There Again” while “Love’s Gone Bad” raised the temperature (if that was possible as faces already glistened). What else could this remarkable singer pull out of the musical hat? “Just My Imagination” with The Temptations on support vocals, that’s what. A master stroke for sure. All too soon, the unmistakeable riff of the finale arrived – “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)”. Treble wow!
Adrenalin was pulsating through the veins as we all reluctantly stepped out into the morning air to collapse on our beds. The ladies had flown the Motown flag higher than high, they had performed and conquered, reinstating the extremely special relationship enjoyed with NS folk, whose dedicated loyalty to their music is to be applauded and cherished. A master stroke by Russ Winstanley.
(Photo: Brenda Holloway, Chris Clark, Gloria Jones, Sharon Davis, Russ Winstanley)
Late on Sunday, we collected Chris Clark on our way to watch Paul Stuart Davies in Reds at 1pm. This guy certainly knows his stuff as he performed like the true showman he is through a non-stop act of favourites before an audience that was with him from the start. What a terrific way to start the day’s entertainment, and, for myself, was thrilled to be at part of it all. An hour later, Brenda and Gloria arrived for the question/answer session. Sitting on the stage, with Russ Winstanley kicking off the proceedings, I was wondering how my presence there was credible in the presence of Motown royalty. In fact, and I’m ashamed to admit it, I froze during Russ’s introduction and was shaking so much that his thoughtful wife, Claire, helped me on stage. Brenda recalled working with The Beatles during their second American tour, and the time when Ringo Starr knocked on her dressing room door to borrow her hair dryer. Chris then related how she came to be a member of the Motown family as a singer and later the script writer for “Lady Sings The Blues”. She also holds a massive collection of Motown artwork and photographs, being taught how to utilise her unique camera skills by Berry Gordy. In fact, she carried her mobile and camera with her all the time, such is her passion for the art.
Gloria, on the other hand, talked, among other things, of the writers she had worked with, and how she, Brenda and Chris had established a lifelong bond of friendship. Talking about working with the likes of Pam Sawyer, Frank Wilson (who held a special part in their hearts), Clay McMurray, alongside the often overlooked heroes responsible for laying much of the company’s musical foundation, was of great interest with the others adding their memories. Asking me how I became involved with Motown, I told Russ it was due entirely to Dusty Springfield’s infatuation with the music, saying “what was good enough for her, was good enough for me”.
While the ladies explained the 24/7 working schedule of the studio where songs were recorded in conveyor belt style, with no knowledge of what would eventually be released, I explained how difficult it was for me to actually purchase those records in East Sussex. They then confirmed they had no idea of what was released outside America. It was only through visits to the UK that they were updated on their releases – much to their astonishment – and that there was indeed a flourishing fan base for them, led by the NS contingent who elevated them to cult stardom. The fact that their records were also officially British released also bypassed them, which, I fear, was typical of Motown at the time. They had careers they knew nothing about. It was an enlightening experience being in such a gloriously friendly environment, with easy interaction from the audience who, believe me, knew their stuff. As I had mentioned Dusty, the DJ played her “What’s It Gonna Be” for me as we left the stage; a touching moment.
From here, the ladies joined The Flirtations, Paul Stuart Davies, The Flirtations and others for a meet and greet session, while I headed for the nearest bar! Watching from the sideline as long queues formed to patiently wait to meet the artists, a feeling of ‘family’ once again hit me. NS people are gentle, friendly and respectful; no elbow pushing or raised tempers in this house. My, I was so glad I came to see this for myself and be a part of what later turned out to be the last “Northern Soul Survivors Weekender”.
Early Sunday dinner meant we missed Tommy Hunt, but happily caught The Flirtations, the last act to perform, and hell’s bells, these ladies can party. What a wise choice by Russ to close the event as their act was upbeat and joyous in the extreme. Party, party, party! However, the atmosphere really hit fever pitch with the grand finale just before midnight, where all the artists returned to the stage to sing the obvious uplifting “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” led by Paul Stuart Davies, in true Motown fashion, before a sweltering packed house. Inspiring to say the least; arms were raised in the air en masse, singing from the audience mingled with that from the stage, growing louder by the beat. The second coming sprang to mind but on a musical level. A celebration to end celebrations!
As the music faded, Russ Winstanley was called to the stage whereupon Tommy Hunt presented him with a very special award recognising his tireless contribution in organising events like this and keeping NS alive. An astonished Russ was humbly thrilled yet it was so well deserved, proving just how the artists hold him in such high esteem.
As the clock passed midnight, the NS bubble reluctantly burst and it was a weary stream of people who walked from the suffocating heat of the venue into the sharp morning air, to head for bed. For three days solid, NS music filled the air that we breathed, even in the restaurants. It was the backdrop to our stay, embracing us with a much needed respite from the outside world. However, we were in for a shock.
Rumours had circulated around the dance grooves that this was to be the last “Northern Soul Survivors” weekender at Skegness, and when Russ Winstanley issued a press statement, he confirmed the damning soul whispers. After thanking everyone for supporting him at this friendliest of events, he explained that “Due to the calendar changes at Butlin’s, I regret to say that this will be our last ever Weekender. It’s not all bad news though, we’ll be including more Northern Soul into some of the Soul Weekenders next year, starting with my Northern Soul room in Crazy Horse on Legends of Soul Weekender at Skegness 24 – 27 January 2020 with more dates to be announced….There probably won’t be a dry eye at the Finale in Reds on Sunday night….Do I Love You…Indeed I Do.”
Finally, I can only echo Russ’ final words and thank him unconditionally for the invitation. And, yes, I did love it, every emotional, musical moment, while harbouring pangs of regret that I didn’t join in the fun a helluva lot sooner. Northern Soulers are very special people and to thank them for welcoming me so warmly, for their friendship and caring ways, would full more pages, but suffice to say – ‘you made me so very happy’.