Monday, June 20, 2016

Blackpool International Soul Festival

Blackpool is famous for many things - fish and chips, Kiss Me Quick hats, the Pleasure Beach, the Tower and, not least, Northern Soul. It was one of the birth places of a genre which still has many thousands of mostly middle aged followers today. So it was appropriate that the biggest Northern Soul festival in recent years, the Blackpool International Soul festival should take place there. The venue, the Winter Gardens, is a grand 19th century structure best known as the venue for party political conferences. It has a huge ballroom, numerous bars and various rooms where different types of soul were played, including Classic, Modern, 70s Crossover, Jazz Funk and Ska. Many of the thousands of people who attended were there for the records and the dancing, and maybe the scooter meet up, but for me the attraction was the promise of live performances by four original American soul stars from the sixties and early seventies, three of whom I had never seen before, plus an interview session with William 'Mickey' Stevenson, Motown's original A and R man.
I wasn't disappointed, as all four artists put on excellent and highly enjoyable sets, backed superbly by the Snake Davis band, and Mickey proved to be an interesting and articulate interviewee.
First on stage on Friday was Gerri Granger (above), who looked fantastic with silver/blue hair and wearing a shimmery silver gown. Gerri's set was short but very sweet with dynamic performances of two soul numbers from the early sixties - Ain't It Funny and Castle In The Sky - plus her big early seventies track I Go To Pieces which was a crowd pleaser at soul all nighters. Her voice was great and she had a beautiful smile on her face throughout. The crowd wanted more and she came back on stage to reprise I Go To Pieces, much appreciated by the enthusiastic crowd.
Next was Dee Dee Sharp, a big pop name at Cameo Parkway in the early sixties and later a huge soul star when married to Kenny Gamble. Wearing a floral red dress and with a blond mop of hair she was funny, energetic and very tuneful, if perhaps a little too chatty. She began with Share My Love With You from 1975, dancing around the stage and fiddling with her dress. 'I talk soft and sing loud' she said, and both proved to be true, although some of her comments about her ex husband, and men in general, were hardly soft in tone. 'He was a dog. I hated that bastard', she said of Kenny, although she claimed they are now friends. Musically Dee Dee was excellent with support from two backing singers and the band on Mel Torme's Comin' Home Baby, Happy 'Bout The Whole Thing (written by Kenny Gamble) and Nobody Could Take Your Place from her What Color Is Love album. Anyone hoping for early hits like Mashed Potato Time, Gravy or Do The Bird (like me) were disappointed, but she did great versions of a couple of her earlier tracks, I'll Do Anything and Deep Dark Secret, Other stand out tracks included Standing In The Need Of Love, with considerable jigging about on stage, and Easy Money. Finally came What Kind Of Lady from 1968. A lady she certainly is, and an exciting one. Great stuff.
Lunchtime on Saturday saw a fascinating interview session with Mickey Stevenson, who has just published a memoir of his involvement in the early days of Motown (he left in 1967 to join MGM, along with his wife Kim Weston). Mickey was a guiding force behind all the great Motown artists of the era, including Eddie Holland, who he says gave up performing because of stage fright, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas and the Marvelettes. Writer/producer Norman Whitfield was a 'mad man but a genius', he told interviewer Kev Roberts, Marvin Gaye had to be persuaded not to sing his beloved jazz, Diana Ross was a 'workaholic' whilst he refused to sign Wilson Pickett because he felt he would not fit in to the Motown family. Fascinating stuff and I look forward to reading his book The A & R Man.
First act on stage on Saturday was Detroit born Bobby Hutton, who was smartly dressed in a tuxedo and came across as something of a lounge singer, but with a very soulful voice. His early seventies material was new to me but went down well with the far more knowledgeable crowd. Numbers included You Better Watch Where You're Going, More Today Than Yesterday, Come See What's Left Of Me, Loving You, Needing You, Loving You, Wanting You and You're My Whole Reason, which was co-written by Donny Hathaway and which Bobby sang on the Soul Train TV show.. All of them were very smoothly and tunefully presented, as was his final number, and best known song, Lend A Hand.
The final act, and undoubted star of the whole weekend was the wonderful Bettye Lavette, who on this occasion focused on her early recordings from the sixties, some of which, she said, she had never sung live before. Looking slim and fit and wearing a black trouser suit, she sang several numbers from her time at Calla and Karen, including I Feel Good (All Over), Almost, Only Your Love Can Save Me (written by Clarence Paul) and her version of the Kenny Rogers song What Condition My Condition Is In (see my Youtube video below), during which she danced around the stage like a teenager, despite having turned 70 earlier this year. She continued with You'll Wake Up Wiser, recorded for Atco in 1971, her second ever record You'll Never Change, recorded in 1962, which she said sold nil copies, and I'm Holding On from 1969. The climax of her act came with her best known song Let Me Down Easy, performed with intense emotion. with Snake Davis providing haunting backing on flute, which was quite superb. Bettye left the stage to a huge ovation and returned to sing acapella on I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, from her 2005 album I've Got My Own Hell To Raise. This was a classy set from a truly classy artist. It was worth the admission price on its own, but the festival itself was highly enjoyable. Let's hope that organiser Richard Searling makes this an annual event.    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aANTFicuXCM
A couple of photos of me finally with the stars, Gerri Granger and with Mickey Stevenson, along with Boston-based Noah Schaffer.

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