I was to Northern Soul what Pete Tong is to dance music today

Back in the day: Colin Curtis and Ian Levine , at Blackpool Mecca in the 1970s
Back in the day: Colin Curtis and Ian Levine , at Blackpool Mecca in the 1970s
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Ian Levine’s love for Tamla Motown began when he was a teenager living in Blackpool. His interest for the music kicked off a huge career in the Northern Soul scene and later this month he will return for a Preston’s Got Soul night – something he says won’t be repeated. LAURA WILD spoke to him about his passion for the music

He was a legend of the Northern Soul network, with a passion for music and discovering the unknown. Something he is still doing today.

But now instead of hunting through hundreds of thousands of records in the Miami heat while on family holidays Ian Levine searches for them on eBay.

Recalling the early days of his love for the music, Ian says: “There was a pirate station called Radio Caroline which Kenny Everett was the DJ on and he used to have this amazing show.

“This would have been 1967 when I was about 13.

“I was a very crafty schoolboy I would take my pocket money and I would skive off school every Wednesday and go to this market where once a week the ex-duke box records came in and they were half a crown. You could buy eight for a pound.

“There was a guy who sold Motown and rare soul in Victoria Street, one of the first early pioneers of Northern Soul – a guy called Gary Wilde.

“All the 18-year-old lads would come down on their scooters and buy these records for £5 each and go down to the Twisted Wheel on a Saturday. I was far too young of course but I was getting fascinated by it all.

“I bought all these Tamla Motown records because Motown was so popular at the time with all the mods and he could turn them over in no time.

“I would get eight for a pound and I would go to him and he would allow me a trade of a pound each of each one against the more expensive records.

“He had £5 records, basically I didn’t have a fiver. If I bought eight records for a pound and traded them I had eight pounds worth of trades so I could afford £5 records without having a fiver to spend. So that’s how it began.

“I was 13 and in particularly at 14 I set my goal to collect every Tamla Motown record. I bought and sold and bought and sold. I’ve got more than 100,000 singles now. I had 60,000 records and sold 40,000 of them in one fell swoop. I only sold them for 4p a record and now some of those are worth £10,000.”

Soon it wasn’t just shops along Blackpool front where Ian was getting the records from it was Miami too when he was away on holiday.

“I went to America with my parents. And I went into some record shops when they were on the beach.

“By 1969 I was going to record shops and saying what have you got that is like the Motown sound and they had all these obscure Detroit records that nobody had ever heard of, that nobody in England had ever seen, so I bought them and I brought them back. When I first went to Twisted Wheel, you were suppose to be 18, I went when I was 16, it closed the first week of January 1971.

“I went the last few months before it closed, late 1970 it would be. The DJ was Les Cokell, I remember vividly at the time he was playing classic Motown, he was playing Edwin Starr ,his first record Agent 00 Soul.

“I said ‘I’ve got an instrumental of this’ and had a box of records that I had taken down with me. He said ‘everyone has, it’s on the B Side’ and I said, ‘not this one’ and I pulled this completely other version out of the box by Sonny Stitt and he looked at it and put his hands to his head and almost fainted, because no one of them knew such a thing existed.

“So suddenly the word was out and here was this 16-year-old kid from Blackpool coming to the Twisted Wheel with a box full of records.

“I had a record by Rose Batiste called Hit and Run which went on to become a huge Northern Soul legend, it is still worth about £400 today, and no one had ever heard of it in their lives. It had that big Motown crashing beat to it. I gave it to Les Cokell and I said ‘put it on’ and he said ‘I can’t put on a record I’ve never heard of’. I said ‘well listen to it on your headphones’ and he put it on and all these record collectors came running up asking ‘who are you? where have you found all these records?’ I became a bit of a legend.”

Ian recalls searching through half a million records in a Goodwill Shop in Miami and at the end of the holiday after spending all day in a red hot shop searching through the records he had boxes filled with 4,000 records.

“My dad had booked to go from Miami onto the Bahamas for a week and then back to England.

“I had to take the records with us. It was a little two propeller plane and the pilot starting moaning and screaming because he couldn’t get off the ground because of all these 4,000 records.

“My dad lost his temper and wanted to throw them in the sea because the plane wasn’t getting up high enough – 4,000 records weighed quite a bit. I never heard the end of it from my father.”

But what was the best song he ever found? “There’s far too many. A good half of the classics came from me in that period. Stuff like The Charades Key to My Happiness, Jean Carter Light One, The Salvadores, Stick by me Baby, there’s just so many I can’t even think.

“I’m excited about now, I do a podcast once a month, on Mick’s Cloud, I play three hours a month of unheard of records. Every month things that people have never heard of before, that have been discovered, there’s so many turning up now.

“Now its like a flood of them because of what people are doing on the internet, now 100 different people are out looking for records and trying to sell them. You have to look for things by certain sellers who have been buying things and don’t know what they have got. I’m just lucky that I will pick up something for a tenner and it could be worth £2,000. I keep on to them.

“I sold them all in the late 70s down to virtually nothing. I built it all back up and then in 2003 I sold them all again. I kept a lot of the cheap stuff. All of the big money stuff I sold.

“Some I sold that were the only copies in the world and I will never get them back.”

Looking back at the times he played in The Highland Room at Blackpool Mecca Ian says: “The Wheel closed at the end of 1971 and Blackpool Mecca had a top floor called the Highland room which became very famous and they didn’t know what to do with it, they had a big ballroom that held about 2,000 people and this room above it that held 800. They had these Tamla Motown nights there on a Saturday.

“There was this DJ there called Tony Jebb and he didn’t have any of these records, just the common Motown stuff, like Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Four Tops.

“Everybody said ‘well, we will go to Blackpool Mecca because The Twisted Wheel has closed’, so I brought my records down and loaned them to Tony Jebb every week and Northern Soul was revitalised in 1971 in Blackpool Mecca.

“I didn’t DJ at first. Les Cokell played with Tony Jebb. So we turned it from a commercial Motown scene into a scene where the records were very rare but had that Motown sound to them.

“The Northern Soul crowd went all the way from London to Scotland, they moved around, it didn’t matter what city it was in.”

“We had people at the Mecca from London so when the Torch opened we got deserted.

“There was a line up of DJs at the Torch, Colin Curtis, Keith Minshull, Tony Jebb and Alan Day, Marin Ellis and me. .

“But I wanted to get back to the Mecca, because Colin had got it and by July 73 I was back at the Mecca and that is what we call the Golden Years of Northern Soul.

“Wigan opened in September 73, small at first but then it got bigger and bigger. Eight weeks after it had opened Russ Winstanley asked me to come from the Mecca and do a big guest spot.

“At that point I was to Northern Soul what Pete Tongue is to dance music today.

“Russ wanted me so I went and did this fabulous spot at Wigan. “

Ian stayed in Blackpool until July 1979. But when his parents emigrated he moved permanently to London.

Preston’s Got Soul night on January 17 is one not to miss out on.

He concludes: It’s the first time really in about 30 years apart from the Ritz. If you used to go an hear me at Mecca you should come along.

“They asked me for six months to do it. I am doing this one thing.

“Don’t miss it. You’re not going to get another chance.”

Preston’s Got Soul night is at on January 17 at 53 Degrees, featuring sets from DJs including Ian Levine, The Wigan Casino & Golden Torch’s Dave Evison, Glen Miller and Derek Smith. Tickets are £8 in advance and £10 on the door and are available from See Tickets http://53degrees.see...-degrees/754776 or by calling Luke Gale on 07708 335 731, Andrew Kirkham 07885 077 638 or James Stead 07969 578 385