E. Mark Windle Jan. 2021
By its very existence, the soul scene has a responsibility to hold safe the history of the music it reveres. In various ways, much has been done to achieve this end; and not just through the physical support of soul nights, all-nighters, weekenders and Sunday chill-outs. Numerous websites and social media forums now provide the opportunity to discuss recordings, discographies, the soul scene, and to reminisce or banter about events and eras. Writers and researchers have documented the evolution – and devolution – of the northern soul scene, and have dragged former recording artists out of obscurity in their latter years to obtain first hand oral histories before they are lost forever. Even TV documentary makers, film makers and podcast interviewers have played a part.
But whilst it’s an important part of cultural reference, preservation of soul music history is not only about holding onto the past of our underground subculture. At the heart of the scene of course, is the record industry itself. Motivation and increasing effort is required to discover new recordings, from all eras of the music we love.
At the centre of it all, and for the soul music scene to survive – let alone progress – is the continued need for independent record labels to sustain the supply of legitimately re-released rare or previously unreleased recordings. It’s true that new discoveries are becoming much harder to locate these days; a logical consequence given fifty-plus years of detective work. Yet we are constantly surprised by what can still turn up, especially when it is material from artists who are familiar names on the soul scene. Diversity of collectors’ taste over recent years also helps. Luckily, there are a myriad of reissue labels who provide everything from traditional northern soul, to modern soul, latin soul, ballads, deep soul and more.
As years pass, there has been an increased desire among experienced collectors and DJs to make firm their lasting contributions to the scene. Giving back, in a sense. Independent label releases are one way achieving this end. Seeking out previously unheard recordings and presenting them to a record buying public is of course a process that in itself identifies and preserves history. Last year I interviewed Garry Cape and asked him about his drive for the long running Hit And Run imprint. The relatively recent passing of his good friend, legendary record dealer John Anderson made him reflect on issues of his own mortality: “…I’m sitting on all these unreleased studio recordings…if I go, and I hadn’t done anything with them, no-one would ever even know about them, let alone be able to enjoy hearing them. And that would be a real tragedy…”
One of the latest names to join the ever-growing family of indie soul labels is Soul Direction. Owner Alan Kitchener sees the label itself as a natural extension of his long established activities in record collecting and record dealing, since his initial introduction to northern soul as a young teenager in the mid to late 1970s. His first exposure to a venue catering to soul fans was at Coleman’s, a club somewhere down a Nottingham city centre alleyway. “The music just blew me away,” he recalls. “I remember walking through the door and the soaking up the atmosphere. The place was packed. You could feel the ceiling and floor bouncing from the music and the dancing. Gedling Miners’ Welfare club was a another local haunt.” Whether drugs or a revoked licenced for some other reason was the death knell, Coleman’s was eventually shut down. But now bitten by the bug, Alan had progressed to Notts Palais all-dayers, others events in Rotherham. Bradford and Fleet; and then onto what was to become a major influence: Stafford’s “Top of the World” all-nighters.
Alan Kitchener (Man From Soul / Soul Direction).
Even though he does not consider himself a ‘career’ DJ by any means, Alan has been frequently behind invited behind the decks. One of his earliest experiences came after an invite by Dave Raistrick to the Rock City events, one of a handful of progressive northern and modern soul clubs which helped drive a new record collecting phase after what many considered become a stagnant northern soul scene. Since then, further DJ opportunities came via the legendary Shotts all-nighters in Scotland, and in more recent years at various European and UK events.
The foray into the record dealing and label business was helped by a portfolio of long established US contacts; a network progressively developed since his first record buying trips to the US with long time pal Dean Anderson in the late 1980s. Up to that point, Alan had been buying regularly from the States, through contacts established via Goldmine, mailing lists and other sources:
“My parents didn’t have a phone. I had to run down to the phone box and slump 10p’s in like there was no tomorrow to order records. There had to be a better way. I just thought I needed to go to the US, and started talking to Dean about it. He had a cousin who lived in Boston where we could have a base to work from. So we just decided to go. We did Boston, then New York for about ten days, and later New Jersey. Initially it was mainly the dealers’ record stores, and then in later trips the huge Austin Record Fair. I’ve always been interested in searching for the unknown. What’s always excited me are sounds that are fresh to the ear.”
Stateside record buying trips have remained a regular thing for Alan Kitchener since then, with frequent visits across the states from the Carolinas to Texas, and everywhere in between. However the advent of the Internet would provide an additional route to sourcing both his personal collection and for stock. By the mid to late 1990s, eBay was still very much in its infancy. Alan’s print company would prove an advantage as the industry was already immersed in computer-based technology, and he was picking up records from eBay earlier than most. “There wasn’t a need to go to America quite as frequently as before. US sellers would be putting stuff on eBay when they clearly weren’t that savvy at that time about rarity or UK prices.” Now trading as Man From Soul, he has had a few healthy years as a full-time record dealer, building on the personal and business relationships secured within the scene and from the US.
Over the course of 2020 during the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, Alan had time to reflect on where he wanted to go with the new idea of the Soul Direction record label, in releasing rare and unreleased material. For the first release, Alan seized the chance to present Andrea Henry’s version of The Holliday’s classic Tony Hestor-penned “I Lost You”. Henry is a familiar name, not only among Detroit soul collectors but within the wider scene. Her first outing, as Ja Neen Henry, was a cover of Juanita William’s “Baby Boy” for the Mercury subsidiary Blue Rock. The mid tempo “I Need You Like A Baby” for MGM, recorded the following year has of course been a popular collector’s sound and all-nighter record. That was about it for physical releases, though previously unreleased material has appeared in more recent times, including the sublime “Time Fades Away”, available via the Groovesville Review CD.
So, secured from the vaults of Don Davis and taken from the original master-tape, Andrea Henry’s take of “I Lost You” made its first ever appearance on vinyl via Soul Direction (SD 001) in October 2020. For completion, “I Need You Like A Baby” seemed a logical choice and was licenced for the flip.
Further previously unreleased material, this time from Eddie Holman, quickly followed on the Soul Direction imprint in January 2021. Eddie’s singing talent was discovered in the mid 1950s at the tender age of eight. His first venture into the studio would be in the following decade for Cameo-Parkway and Bell, before hitting the big time with “Hey There Lonely Girl” for ABC; spending seventeen weeks in the Billboard Hot 100 charts and peaking at no. 4. Eddie’s live performing career has never let up, and he regularly appears on stage at soul weekenders and related events. Two previously unreleased Eddie Holman recordings were selected for SD 002, namely “Ready, Willing, Able” and “Too Young for Love”. The topside was recorded around the same time as “Stay Mine For Heaven’s Sake” and has elements of the melodic structure of that song, but with the up-tempo drive of his “I Surrender” a few years later.
Eddie Holman was an idol for Alan who, like many, grew up with his recordings forming part of the soundtrack of his youth on the northern soul scene. He has fond memories of seeing Eddie perform live back in the 1980s at the Top of The World and other venues. Needless to say the opportunity to release expose these newly discovered tracks on Soul Direction wasn’t one to be passed:
“Only recently this acetate was unearthed from the belongings of Philly producer, musician and songwriter John Stiles. ‘Ready, Willing Able’ was recorded at Virtue Studios in Philadelphia. Most likely Eddie had written and recorded the song as a demo intended for another artist. Funkadelphia originally offered a largely unedited version of the recording on iTunes in order to help the wife of John Stiles, who was having financial difficulties at the time. I started championing the track when deejaying at the Boat Club in Nottingham, after some discussions with Funkadelphia and a clean up of the raw track. Due to the lack of performance work for Eddie as a result of the Covid-19 situation, it seemed the perfect time to put it out on vinyl, to help the artist and the producer’s family.”
Eddie was keen to see a vinyl release of “Ready, Willing, Able”, and provided Alan with a number of other tracks to consider one as an option for the flip. “I opted for ‘Too Young For Love’; a raw mid-tempo and earlier sounding demo track, unknown until now but a nice contrast to the A side. It’s a win-win situation all round then: we have a nicely cleaned up version of ‘Ready, Willing, Able’, Eddie is happy, John Stiles’ wife benefits from the deal, and the soul scene gets to hear two great Eddie Holman songs previously unreleased on vinyl. Personally, I’m proud to have worked on this project.”
Alan is the first to admit that launching a new independent label has been a steep learning curve. Challenges include unpredictable external factors affecting scheduling. The Eddie Holman release had to be delayed a few weeks when the pressing plant closed completely, due to staff shortage issues related to Covid-19. Soul Direction has also drawn on the advice and expertise of others in the industry, including mastering, licencing and general advice from Ady Croasdell at Kent Records, Dave Welding at Soul Junction, Alberto Zanini at Cannonball Records and others who know who they are. The skills of young graphic designer Jordan Wilson have been called upon for the visual aspects; all ensuring the brand presents itself as a quality platform for rare and unreleased recordings.
“I’m always considering the best way forward with the label. I make my own decisions but not before I’ve taken advice from people in the industry I respect and who know what they’re talking about. The one thing I want to get across is that I don’t want the label to be all about me. This isn’t an ego trip. I’m there in the background as a driving force, but ultimately it’s about the artists and the songs.”
There has always been controversy surrounding new releases and reissues on the soul scene, especially on the northern soul scene, with questionable licencing permissions or provenance for the material released (something Soul Direction is keen to ensure never happens). But at risk of romanticising, I do get a sense of genuine appreciation within the record buying community for new and established labels that act with integrity and support the artists. As Alan says: “Having these previously unheard recordings in my possession, spending the time to track down the artist, forming bonds with them and agreeing contracts to release their almost forgotten songs gives me a great sense of pride”.
Soul Direction already has another clutch of recordings lined up for release and contracts signed, ensuring that it continues to play its role in the preservation of soul music history. I for one wish this label, and others who respect and support their sources, every success for the future.
This article also appears in Soul Up North February 2021 (issue 107).