With the Northern Soul scene currently bigger than ever, enjoying a renaissance period that sees dancers and collectors alike flocking to packed all-nighters up and down the country, W&H is proud to celebrate the career of DJ and musician BRIAN WALKER.
With a track record that spans four decades - taking off in style with a regular slot at legendary Manchester club The Twisted Wheel, his name was an automatic choice, not just in terms of discovering the truth about the soul phenomenon, but about the growth of youth culture as we know it. An avid collector of British, and American RnB releases since his schooldays, Walker’s involvement with the music has developed in tandem with the rise of Mod culture, both as a DJ and bass guitarist with his band ‘Soulfinger’- who can count backing band appearances with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Edwin Starr amongst the highlights of their 20-year existence on the live circuit.
With the DJ bookings still coming thick and fast, and a new band almost up and running, it has never been a busier time for this first-generation Absolute Beginner.
W&H managed to catch up with him in a rare reflective mood at his (X) street studios, which doubles as his Stockport home. Outside is a Mini 998, with 10” wheels (such little details, so important..). It’s fitted with a device that comes personally recommended by the man himself:
“That” he states, pointing to a box on the dashboard “is an inverter! Twenty quid, and it allows you to run a full stereo system from your car battery”. Further investigation reveals a midi system nestled behind the gearbox, complete with original speakers. Class! There is also the obligatory scooter, with unlimited mirrors – It’s a Vespa 125, souped up to something like 180cc, and capable of reaching speeds of 70mph.
Inside, musical instruments are scattered everywhere, and turntables are piled high amidst a plethora of cables, separates, and of course the records – 7” singles spill out of reinforced boxes, stencilled with the legend “Walker – Twisted Wheel”. These boxes are everywhere, dozens of them. A huge speaker sits in the place where a washing machine once resided, and the wall above the fireplace is adorned with cast-off singles rather than wallpaper. In the midst of all this, resplendent in carpenter jeans and highly polished Italian shoes, Brian Walker sifts through the vinyl that litters the floor, part of a truly amazing collection that gives some indication of just how much of an authority he is when it comes to Rhythm and Blues.
Peering over his gold-rimmed spectacles and addressing me as ‘young man’, the DJ begins to explain where his all-consuming passion for Rhythm and Blues first started:
“My mum and dad often used to have parties in the house…...and they didn’t have records, or didn’t play records as such – they had a piano – everyone had a piano… Les Dawson used to come to these parties – and he was heavily into boogie-woogie. Me and my brother, all we could hear all night, while we were upstairs in bed, while these parties were going on, was fucking boogie-woogie music – played by him! Dad was the team leader of salesmen for Hoover, and Les was one of his salesmen you see. That’s what turned me on to R n B."
"I said to my dad I said “What’s that sort of music called? I’d only be about eight, seven maybe. I’d never heard music like that before."
"Prior to this the only thing you might possibly have heard was something by Winifred Atwell (laughs) - on her other piano. When boogie-woogie came along, I knew what it was, thanks to Les”.
Continuing, he explains: “My mum and dad used to buy any records that were in the house then – 78’s and things like Bill Haley’s ‘Rock around the clock’”.
Emphasising the point, the DJ digs out and spins a 1946 release! ‘Rocket ‘88’ (Ike Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm), and explains how it was covered by Bill Haley and the Saddlemen (some years prior to the comets) c. 1948-50:
“That was reputed to be the first ever rock n’ roll record by a white artist covering the work of a black musician” he explains. Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’ was of course the soundtrack to the ground-breaking movie ‘Blackboard Jungle’ in 1954.
“When everybody ripped the seats out of the cinema” laughs Brian: “The Absolute Beginners”.
The emergence of Mod culture stems from around 1956-7 and the split between the trad. jazz enthusiasts and their stylish bebop listening counterparts, the modernists. “It was hip to be into beat culture then, but it was even cooler to be a Mod” remembers Brian
The emergence of Doo-wop and Rhythm and Blues, mainly released on London records – superceded skiffle and offered new excitement for teenagers.
“I used to order records from Eaglands in Stockport” (primarily a furniture store!).
“They had good service in shops then – even if they had never heard of the record, they would pull out these catalogues, detailed lists of all the new releases. I’d order the disc one week and more often than not it would be there the next”.
This would have been about 1960: “There were no American imports then. I remember putting on a Little Richard record, and my dad going “Bloody Hell, what’s that racket?- Instantly I knew it had to be good” he smiles.
“The Wheel only played British releases, well the Brazenose Street site did. It wasn’t until the club moved to Whitworth Street that American imports were played – a lot of which had filtered through from Liverpool”.
Confused as to how someone could be bothered to import a release yet not go to the trouble of distributing it, I discovered that the early American imports were imports in the broadest sense of the word:
“They were used as ballast in the hulls of ships” he laughs: “That must have been how the Merseybeat scene started, with all the Liverpool groups covering records like Arthur Alexander’s ‘A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues’” he muses.
Talking about his stint as a Wheel jock, c. 1965-6, Brian recalls: “There were no ‘name’ DJ’s then – DJ’s didn’t speak, there was no microphone – it was just a matter of putting the records on. The records all belonged to the Wheel – there were pigeonholes behind the decks, from which you made your selections. That’s how it was until somebody broke in and stole them all. All hell let loose then – there was a real panic on, as by this time they were putting the all-nighters on, and people were beginning to come to the Wheel from all over the country”.
“I was going to the Wheel, was always going up to the decks, bringing records in, asking about what was played. I can’t remember the name of the DJ, but one night he had to shoot off out on a 5min errand. The ‘5mins’ turned out to be three hours, and that was the start of that. Ivor Bardie (the Wheel owner) gave me the odd spot, and it turned into a regular thing”.
“It wasn’t until after my time, when the records got nicked, that the music began to change. The first niter after that, the owners were all over Manchester, at Barry’s Record rendezvouz and all the other record shops, trying to buy up everything they could lay their hands on, American soul. They still didn’t have enough, but they went ahead and did it all” he remembers:
“They played things like ‘Time Is Tight’ (Booker T. & The M.G’s) – then Brian Phillips came along, and put 2-3 record collections together”. That’s why he is the man, in my eyes, that invented what they now call Northern Soul – He had the records…..” - Simple as that.
Explaining how Brian Phillips had “cottoned on to this”, he explains: “Brian found a way of importing records from The States, through a company…I think it was called ‘Advance Records’….We had to arrange international money orders, but they would send you the sounds that you wanted – Brian (Phillips) used to get all Bobby Bland’s latest releases sent direct from The States”.
“I hadn’t been for quite a while, a few months, and I ran into Brian one day at a bus stop in the centre of Manchester. He said to me ‘Oh, they aren’t playing the old Wheel sounds anymore – the music is different, faster’. Things we didn’t know, like ‘Showtime’ (The Detroit Emeralds). Fast music, with a driving beat. Of course, what he was talking about was Northern Soul”.
This wasn’t without its drawbacks however:
“There started to be a thing about what label things were on – I got sick and tired of explaining to people that it was the music that mattered, not the label. If you’re going to collect labels, then you might as well collect stamps”
“You’d laugh if I told you what was rare then” he muses with a smile:
“Things like Tammi Lynne’s ‘I’m Gonna Run Away From You’ was nearly impossible to find on Black Atlantic. That was one of The Wheel’s biggest records! ‘Heaven Must Have Sent You’ (The Elgins) was another one - released on Motown, and deleted straight away – it wasn’t re-issued for a whole year”.
The Detroit Spinners ‘I’ll Always Love You’ was another rarity” he continues. The list is long, and Walker’s memory where this music is concerned is beyond encyclopaedic.
Watching him at a band meeting that involved three members deciding on a set list, Brian’s role was principally one of digging out the sounds and playing them on a portable blaster with a retractable turntable to jog the memories of the other two – a sort of 80’s Dansette.
Watching a couple of hundred records spread across the carpet, minus their covers, yet still find their way back to their sleeves and in order back in the boxes as if by magic is sheer skill combined with extensive knowledge. The two or three middles he keeps handy to plug the ex-jukebox seven inches with serves a powerful reminder of the beauty of vinyl.
If you have some knowledge of Northern Soul, you might be smiling too as you recognise these sounds, amongst the most rudimentary elements of the genre – but it remains as testament to the sheer length of Walker’s interest as a collector that he remembers them as ultra-rare discs. His passion for Rhythm and Blues was ignited at the very point in time that the music first began to hit these shores.
Following the closure of the Wheel in the early 1970’s Brian plied his trade at a number of venues, including a legendary Monday night session at Manchester’s Piccadilly club. With his own collection to draw upon by this time, away from the Wheel’s in-house record collection, he played and ‘broke’ records like James Carr’s ‘The Losing Game’, and The Isley Brothers’ ‘My Love Is Your Love’. Another favourite was Timi Yuro’s ‘It’ll Never Be Over For Me’.
As Northern Soul filtered right through to the teenagers, it was outside an Eccles youth club that he met one of Northern Soul’s biggest collectors:
“There was this young lad, with dead long hair, and he said ‘Can I carry your cases mister’ – to get in free, y’see. He looked dead cheeky! I said ‘Oh, go on then’. It turned out to be Ricky Warburton! (a huge collector, and now a record dealer). I’ve had loads of records off him, we’re still really good friends now. I went to the first niter at Wigan with Ricky….”
How and when did you start to perform seriously as a musician?
“Soulfinger” he smiles: “That began in 1981 (that was of course, the year that the Casino finally closed it’s doors for good)– I was DJing at a pub, and the band playing had this huge row. One of the band members came and stood behind the decks, and he was muttering to me about how sick he was of all the bickering. I said “Let’s start a band”, and that was the start of that”.
Soulfinger’s first gig was in a Manchester pub, The Millstone: “Word got round” remembers Brian “and they were literally hanging out of the windows” he laughs: “Roger Eagle walked in with Mick Hucknall..” (then of The Frantic Elevators) “…and they walked straight back out again” he grins.
Nevertheless, ‘Soulfinger’ have clocked up an impressive array of gigs, backing Edwin Starr on two occasions, once at the Manchester Ritz ballroom and once at an outdoor festival in Warrington in 1995. They also backed Martha Reeves and the Vandellas at Colne Municipal Hall during the same year.
Other appearances include a support slot with Hot Chocolate in Morecambe at a modern soul weekender, and a double header with the Merseybeats.
Brian explains all of this hurriedly as we hurtle round the M60 in his mini – a second interview session has been interrupted by a phone call from ex-Soulfinger vocalist Ben Brierley, who is at a Failsworth pub, The Dutch Birds Inn. Calling with the news that Womack and Womack are inside launching their new book ‘Family Business’ (at the pub on the A62!), he wants to know if Brian can arrange the musicians for a planned appearance in Manchester.
We arrive at the pub and are ushered past the formidable security team on the door and into this packed out boozer, where Linda and Cecil Womack beckon us over for photographs, and a ‘meet n greet’. I’m slack-jawed in the presence of greatness here (Linda is Sam Cooke’s daughter fergawdsake!!), and Brian looks similarly starstruck, if only for a moment, before he gets on with the business of discussing prospective musicians with the songwriting and performing couple.
I think Brian is enjoying the added credibility of having a journalist in tow, and we’re soon dancing like crazy along with everyone else present on the pub’s upholstered seating as the legendary couple perform an unforgettable 45-minute set to a wholly appreciative mixture of soul fans and ‘faces’ packed like sardines in this unlikely and intimate venue.
“Whaddaya reckon to this then?” he challenges, as we bounce about to the music booming from the Failsworth pub’s in-house P.A. “Are you gonna write about it”?
I smile and shake my head at him: “Naah, it’d be a bit boring for the article’s readers” I grin, opening a window to let in a welcome blast of cold air, as sweat begins to run down the faces of everyone in this unique cauldron of excitement. As distractions from the quite difficult task of pinning down the DJ for interview go, this one is unforgettable! I have mentioned that he’s less than easy to catch sitting still – despite his illustrious and ground-breaking past, he’s not one to dwell on it!
Back in Stockport, Brian’s thoughts turn to the current scene. It is notable that when records are changing hands for astronomical sums, Walker refuses to pay more than around £25 for a disc. It’s evident that he finds the false economy that governs in-demand sounds preposterous:
“The music is better now. I think that’s because DJ’s now can play all the stuff we used to play – but there’s all this other stuff as well,stuff that I just can’t understand how we missed. Things like Little Jimmy Robbins ‘I just can’t please you’. That came out on British President – an English release that was, and nobody but nobody played it. I hadn’t even heard it until this time around. Even Barry Tasker missed that one! I remember it from the listings, and Brian Rae had a copy, but he never played it”.
“There are quite a lot of things like that - that are played now. When Pete Roberts reopened the Wheel, or what’s left of it, he insisted on a 100% authentic playlist, and so the same sounds are being overlooked again. But how do we know that they weren’t played there? Don’t forget, that place was open nearly every night- The Brazenose St.venue was open at lunchtimes as well”.
A labour of love this one, for me – but it’s also been an education!
(Brian Walker still plays with alarming regularity on the Northern Soul circuit, and also hosts a true connoisseur’s night every Sunday at Baker’s Vaults on Stockport’s Market Square called ‘The Cotton Club’, where he is free to delve right into his almost endless collection without the constraint of the Northern scene to dictate the playlist. The night runs from 8-11.)
Brian also has a Myspace under construction, which will shortly provide details of up-and-coming bookings.