Soul Britannia: Ain't it funky in here?

The sound of the city arrived on these damp shores in the 1960s and we did some weird and wonderful things to it - except produce a lasting black soul sensation. Phil Johnson knows why
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The Independent Culture

When the UK got soul in the early Sixties, soul music, by default, got the UK, quaint cultural baggage and all. What was new and hip hit the stiff upper lip, and the sound of the city, as the critic Charlie Gillett called the rise of American rhythm and blues, started to become the sound of the suburbs and the provinces.

Soul's many subsequent English Eccentric adaptations - mods, Ready Steady Go!, thin white boys dancing acrobatically in very wide trousers - had an undoubted significance to the story of race in the UK, evident in the sociologist Dick Hebdige's comment that "It is on the plane of aesthetics; in dress, dance, music; in the whole rhetoric of style, that we find the dialogue between black and white most subtly and comprehensively recorded, albeit in code". Yet these British adaptations also reflected a postwar culture closer to music-hall than to Memphis.

It was a world where the future impresario Peter Stringfellow could turn Sheffield church halls into soul nightclubs by covering the windows with chipboard, hanging red lightbulbs from the ceiling, and plugging his mother's radiogram into the choir's PA system. Where an Esperanto-speaking vegan-anarchist from Bexleyheath, Dave Godin, would open Soul City, his record shop in Deptford High Street, by getting the novelist Bridget Brophy to make a speech about freedom (after a burglar swiped all the stock, the shop moved to Monmouth Street in Covent Garden). And where black soul singers, like the jazz and blues men who preceded them, were simultaneously representatives of a downtrodden race, and the ultimate in existential heroes: Sartre and Camus in mohair suits.

It was also a culture riven with contradictions: black US expatriates such as the singers Madeline Bell and Geno Washington attained through their rarity a kind of magical significance, yet could still find it difficult to rent a bedsit. The bubbly singer-songwriter Linda Lewis, born in East Ham, was expected to display the primal exotic allure of a Southern siren, despite a liking for the soft-rock of Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell. And rough young men from poor port cities struggled, through the frequent application of cigarettes and phlegm, to make their voices approximate those of black vocalists trained in the ghetto and the pentecostal church.

What's even stranger is that they succeeded and changed the course of pop music forever, making earthy grizzlement the standard for white pop vocals. Indeed, soul music has helped to launch, and to relaunch, the careers of countless mainstream pop singers, from Dusty Springfield to Joss Stone, with David Bowie, George Michael, Boy George and Mick Hucknall in between. The problem, business-wise, came if the artist was both British and black. If we except good old Billy Ocean, not a single black British soul act has gone on to lasting international success, despite a remarkable wealth of home-grown talent: Eddie and Chris Amoo of The Real Thing, Loose Ends, Cymande, Incognito, Caron Wheeler, Mica Paris, D'Influence, Omar, Lynden David Hall, Beverley Knight.

"If you weren't from America, you couldn't be real," says the DJ Norman Jay, in one of the BBC4 documentaries that will be screened to coincide with next weekend's Soul Britannia programme of concerts and films at the Barbican Centre in London. In response, British soul became as unreal as possible, turning the music's heightened emotionalism into classic British camp, like Leee John's Imagination. In truth, of course, soul was as camp as a tent full of gospel singers to begin with.

"When you went and watched these people they were so exciting, they put on an act", remembers Elton John, who as a young keyboard player backed tours by Patti Labelle, Major Lance and Billy Stewart. "And I cried! How can you fail to be moved by this music? How can you not be moved by a beautiful black voice, by the soul and the raw power of it all?"

The way British singers tried to assimilate the styles of first blues and then soul involved some unusual strategies, from the mincing stage-moves of Long John Baldry and Mick Jagger, to the swallowed-a-gallon-of-petrol vocal mannerisms of Chris Farlowe or Tom Jones. There's even a theory that working class British vocalists became so successful at copying their American forebears because they were, well, nearly black themselves. "I don't know if it's a black experience," Van Morrison says in the first of the three BBC4 films. "To me it was the white working class experience. That was my version of it... I felt the white working class situation was the equivalent of whatever the black situation was." In another interview, Tom Jones compares the mines of south Wales to the cotton fields of Mississippi.

The Average White Band's Hamish Stuart, who appears as part of the Soul Britannia All-Stars for next Saturday's Barbican show and a subsequent UK tour, considers such views rather disrespectful. "To compare the black American experience to anywhere else isn't really on", he says. " We didn't have it that rough. But I do think the music connected to people from industrial cities, and that did become a shared experience." Stuart's own baptism of soul-fire was seeing the legendary Stax-Volt Revue at the Locarno in Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street. "It was the state of the art. They were such intense performers", he remembers.

Madeline Bell, Stuart's colleague in the Soul Britannia All-Stars, arrived in London in 1961 with the Alex Bradford Singers in a show written by Langston Hughes. "I was straight out of the church in Newark, New Jersey. You spoke a different language and I found it cold," Bell told me last week from her home in Spain. "It was the middle of June or July and we all went out and bought winter coats. We were in the UK for 15 weeks staying at the Regent Palace hotel and we didn't know anyone. One night we went to the Flamingo club in Wardour Street and that was our introduction to everything. In August 1963, everyone else went back home and I stayed." Although Bell made her career in the UK, becoming a regular on Ready Steady Go!, a friend of Dusty Springfield, and eventually the iconic voice of Blue Mink's "Melting Pot", racism remained a threat. "I had a couple of situations," she says. "Looking for a bedsitter it happened twice; first I went and the lady said the room had gone and then my friend tried and it was available again. But one thing I found is that in the business people didn't see colour. And I came from Newark, New Jersey and no one messed with me!"

Linda Lewis, another Soul Britannia All-Star, got caught in the middle. "My grandad was from the Caribbean and my nan was typical East End, from that musical vaudeville tradition," she says. "When I was about 12, pirate radio came out and I first heard Motown and thought, 'Oh wow! What is this?'." Lewis began singing as a guest with Herbie Goins and the Night-timers. "I would come on and do my Mary Wells take-off, and after that everyone had me pegged as this little soul lady." She bucked the stereotype by writing her own material and signing as a solo artist to Warner Bros in 1971. "I did have a certain amount of creative control there because they saw the dollar signs and left me alone," she says. The problems began when she switched labels to Arista in 1975 . "Clive Davis saw me in that black singer mould - it was before he found Whitney Houston. In the States they didn't want a picture of me on the album cover because it wasn't black enough. Later, people would get me mixed up with Minnie Riperton. They'd come up to me at parties and say, "I thought you were dead!" Like Madeline Bell, Linda Lewis has found renewed popularity on the contemporary London soul scene, where her old records are treasured as rare grooves.

But the saddest Brit-soul story is that of Lynden David Hall, a wonderfully gifted singer, songwriter and musician who signed for EMI at the same time as Robbie Williams, but failed to get the backing he deserved. As his manager, Tony Hall (a vitally important figure on the UK jazz and soul scene for five decades, who also looked after The Real Thing and Loose Ends) says, rather mordantly: "The major labels don't let R&B artists just perform R&B; they want them to do pop. But Lynden was a serious soul musician. Not only did he refuse to become what he wasn't; he couldn't. All he wanted was to play and sing his music, but everybody tried to make him into something he wasn't." The marvellous debut album, Medicine 4 My Pain was even recalled by EMI because the cover photo was deemed too dark (black artists not "printing" well, has been a continual problem). Dropped by EMI, Lynden David Hall died on Valentine's day last year of Hodgkin's lymphoma, just as his latest, independent, album was starting to make waves.

While BBC 4's Soul Britannia series begins with Beverley Knight claiming that British soul's importance is partly as the progenitor for subsequent styles, from drum'n'bass to Grime, it's hard to agree. Soul music conquered the world (and, through American R&B, continues to do so), while Grime struggles to conquer a few east London postal districts. Frankly, it's entirely possible that acclaimed, Mercury Prize-winning artists Miss Dynamite and Dizzee Rascal are unfit for purpose, and no good at all. Like the British Empire, the real glories of Soul Britannia may have already come and gone. Raising a glass in belated celebration is therefore the very least we can do.

Soul Britannia at the Barbican Centre, London EC2 (020 7638 8891), Fri to 4 Feb; 'Soul Britannia' begins on BBC4 on Fri; The Soul Britannia All-Stars begin a national tour in March


Dusty Springfield Dusty in Memphis (1969)

Sultry lounge-soul with a torch-song twist from the queen of Ready Steady Go! Produced (in New York, not Tennessee) by the Atlantic Records team of Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd, who later also worked with Glaswegian soulsters Maggie Bell and the Average White Band.

David Bowie Young Americans (1975)

Inauthentic, maybe. But the Thin White Duke just about nailed high-gloss Philly Soul on this intermittently inspired project, especially the divine title track. Not many men from Beckenham have had Luther Vandross doing backing vocals, either.

Loose Ends So Where Are You? (1985)

Still going strong, Carl McIntosh's stripped-back soul-funk trio laid the foundations for Soul 11 Soul, Omar and the Young Disciples. They made even David Bowie's "Golden Years" sound human.

Massive Attack Blue Lines (1991)

Soulful vocals by Shara Nelson and Tony Bryan helped make the Bristol boffins' debut the most satisfying release of their career. Listen to the cover of William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful" and swoon.

Lynden David Hall Medicine 4 My Pain (1997)

D'Angelo-style R&B from the most promising soul singer we ever had.