ROCK / Working nights: Edwin Starr sought global fame with Motown but ended up touring provincial Britain. He's still at it. Martin Kelner met him

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Surely this cannot be. Edwin Starr, source of some of the stompingest Motown hits ever, the man who was billed as Agent Double O Soul, is available for weddings, birthday parties and bar mitzvahs. 'Top echelon engagements,' he calls them. Like the performance he has just given for the Sultan of Brunei in a London hotel. 'We do that one every couple of years. The Sultan has a son and a daughter and they really like what we do.'

How can this be? We are not talking about some no-mark who spent five minutes on the charts in nineteen-sixty- something and is still cashing in. Starr is revered by fans of Northern Soul, that distinctive unsophisticated mid-Sixties pre-funky dance music, not just for what he did then, but for what he still does at all-nighters and soul revival gigs. He is now out on the road supporting the Four Tops. Edwin Starr, for goodness sake, gave us one of pop music's all-time great grunts - War, hunhhh, what is it good for? So what is he doing on the smoked salmon circuit?

'Listen, it is a privilege to work for these people. Work to me is wherever I happen to be at. A hotel, a marquee in someone's back yard, it makes no difference. I'm well respected in the Jewish community, so I do bar mitzvahs.' When I first met Edwin Starr, 20 years ago, I would not have put him immediately on a register of bar mitzvah- friendly acts. He was playing the Camelot Club in Taunton, a less than genteel venue with a clientele who defied geography in their attachment to Northern Soul. After a breathless hour and a half of the kind of sweaty stompers preferred by this crowd - 'Headline News', 'SOS', '25 Miles' - Starr showed himself able to roister with the best of them, or at least as well as the attractions of Taunton would allow.

What puzzled me then, when I interviewed him for the local paper, was why such an impressive live act, who had recently had a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic with 'War', was stumping round British provincial towns. Between 1966 and 1970, Starr toured Britain 28 times, and a glance at the venues - Doncaster, Preston, Great Yarmouth - suggests that his career path was not being plotted quite as carefully as that of Motown colleagues such as Diana Ross.

We now know that Berry Gordy favoured his own discoveries over artistes already established when the label signed them. Edwin Starr had had four R&B hits on Golden World records, just 12 blocks from Motown, when Gordy bought the label and Starr with it. At the time, the Motown boss was gobbling up all the smaller Detroit labels; as well as Starr, he acquired the Isley Brothers and Gladys Knight in this way. All suffered: the Isleys only got to record their big hit, 'This Old Heart of Mine', because the Four Tops were away touring, and 'War', intended as a Temptations single, was diverted to Starr because it was felt the anti-war lyric was inappropriate for such an important act.

'People like myself and Gladys always felt like outsiders at Motown,' says Starr. 'All the promotion went into Diana Ross, the Temptations, the Four Tops and Martha Reeves. But I was always in demand in Britain, because of 'Agent Double O Soul' . ' So while Edwin did the rounds of Top Ranks, Gordy moved Hitsville to Los Angeles, and indulged in some more myth-making around his new proteges, the Jackson Five.

'Diana Ross was always supposed to have discovered the Jacksons, but that's not true,' Starr claims. 'There used to be a talent night at the Apollo Theatre in New York every Wednesday night, and the Jackson Five took part one week. They were spotted by Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, who were recording for Motown. Tommy Chong, a member of the band who left to form Cheech and Chong, recommended the Jackson Five to Berry Gordy.' Starr's part in the Jackson story is more peripheral: 'We were on with the Jackson Five at the Hollywood Bowl, where they were taking pictures for the Jacksons' LP sleeve. They took a shot of some instruments on an empty stage, which they then used. So those were our instruments on the Jackson Five's first album.'

This was possibly the high spot of the early Seventies - not a productive time for Starr. In 1974, though, when he was living in Sherman Oaks, outside Los Angeles, he met Lillian Kyle, a feisty German rock promoter who helped turn his career around, and who still manages him. Partly as a result of his connection with Kyle he moved to England in the early Eighties. She is fiercely protective of him, and plays down the parties and bar mitzvahs, preferring to talk about his current tour with the Four Tops and the charity concert he is doing for Barnardo's at the NEC in Birmingham in October. She tells me several times what a star Edwin is, what good value he gives, and how he never disappoints. Richard Searling, a presenter on Sunset Radio in Manchester and one of the country's leading authorities on soul music, agrees. 'Edwin Starr is the real McCoy. There's no doubt about that. With more of a push from Motown, he could have been a contender.'

The man himself is realistic. The Northern Soul gigs, the private parties, the holiday camps he has been performing in all summer, and the royalties, have helped him to a comfortable life - a big house in a pleasant Warwickshire village, where he lives with Elaine, his wife of 14 years, and a collection of classic cars, including a Rolls and a Jaguar. He also owns a rehearsal studio in a warehouse in Birmingham, which he rents out to other Midlands acts like Steel Pulse and Gregory Isaacs. We meet in Maxine's cafe on the top floor of the warehouse, and it turns out he owns this as well. 'It's a kind of meeting place for musicians, and I figured they'd need somewhere to eat,' says Edwin.

This is where Edwin recruited his backing musicians on the basis, he says, of 'personality first, and music second.'

'We are all 100 per cent clean. No drink, no drugs, nothing. I don't care what they do in private, but when they are with me, they have to be clean. Quite often we find ourselves in the house of a multi-millionaire. You have to have people you can trust in that kind of situation. We did a wedding once, where there were 75 carp in the swimming pool. Those fish were worth pounds 4,500 each. You have to have people you can trust in those circumstances.' You would happily allow Edwin and his boys near your drinks cabinet, your daughter, your fish, and since he's prepared to play 'My Girl' and 'Stand By Me', and drop the Northern Soul stuff, it seems the top echelon work will continue.

One unfamiliar song you will hear when he opens for the Four Tops is 'Darling, Darling Baby', the old O'Jays number, which is Starr's latest single out next week on Motorcity, the Motown revival label run by Ian Levine, an English fan. 'I'm very confident about it,' says Starr. 'We just need one single to catapult us back into the mainstream, and I think this could be it.' You sense that, at 50, it's not just the chance to get off the bar mitzvah trail that drives him, but the desire to put one over on the old firm.

(Photograph omitted)