David Nathan was a young man with only a short experience of working in record shops when he, Peckham born David Godin and Robert Blackmore, embarked on the Soul City project in 1966. I fan of Dionne Warwick and Nina Simone, his interest in Soul, or Rhythm and Blues as it was then termed, had been further piqued after discovering that many of the tracks by bands he admired, such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones, were actually covers of Black American Artists.
It was the beginning of a three year journey which would see Soul City open up the world’s first exclusively Soul music record shop outside of America in Deptford, South East London, and a record label which gave Gene Chandler his first UK hit and whose releases were central to the development of Northern Soul. Peckham Soul’s Craig Jamieson caught up with David to find out the details on this fascinating story.
CJ : How did you and Dave Godin hook up in the first place and how did the shop get set up in Deptford?
D.N : Because I was doing the Nina Simone Appreciation society, it’s logical that Dave was someone that I would have met at some point.
Initially Gloria Marantonia, who had run the Dionne Warwick and The Shirelles Appreciation Society introduced us. We met a few times and at that time I had left school and started working in record shops. We stayed in touch through the Nina connection and when Motown started to become more popular in the UK they didn’t feel there was a need to employ Dave as he was actually employed by Motown to run the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society. So he had to figure what to do to earn a living.
He started a new organisation called the Friends of Rhythm & Blues Appreciation Society (FRABS) FRABS had this publication called Rhythm & Soul USA. He only had a few hundred printed because there were not that many members. I wrote two pieces for that, one on Nina Simone and the other on Dee Dee Warwick –Dionne Warwick sister. I left my job at the record shop and Dave asked if I would help him develop FRABS. That lasted a couple of months and we had a meeting around the spring 1966 and from that we developed the idea of doing a record shop specializing in Rhythm & Blues. What we did to get initial money was go through the Schwann catalogue, a catalogue which listed a whole load of albums which were not available in the UK. Major Lance, The Artistics, all kinds of things. We put an ad into the Rhythm & Soul magazine saying we can import these. People sent postal orders in and we used that money to open the shop. Not exactly the right way to do it and I wasn’t entirely keen on Dave’s idea. There was also another backer called John, but I only met him once and knew very little about him
Because Dave lived in Bexleyheath, he was drawn to finding a premises in South East London. It was an area that I knew nothing about. I had lived in North East London and Fulham. He found the premises on Deptford High Street and I wasn’t overly enthused about starting the shop there. I didn’t know the area and I didn’t understand how it would attract hardcore Soul fans. At that point Deptford wasn’t as easy to get to as it is now. The only way you could get there was by bus or going to New Cross train station. Deptford didn’t even have a train station then.
Somewhere around the end of the summer 1966 is when he befriended someone called Robert Blackmore who had worked in sales, I think in a hardware shop. He wanted to bring him in as a third partner, which I didn’t understand. Yes we could employ him but he didn’t know anything about the music. I wasn’t privy to their conversation, but I’ve since found out that their relationship went beyond friendship
Anyway, we started Soul City around August or September 1966, I think it was September and we had to use some of our own collection as stock. Somewhere within the first couple of months we did get working with an exporter from Florida called Mr Shapiro. Mr Shapiro set up an account with us and that’s how we were able to fulfil on our orders of everybody who sent us the initial postal orders. It took a while, and we had to make up excuses like saying they were out of stock, but we got it.
By October we had started getting the first import stock shipped. This was an important part of our trade and what people wanted. We also had what was available in the UK at the time. Pye records had Chess, Stateside – which was an EMI Label, licenced tracks from many different American labels, Tamla Motown started in 1966, Decca had London American, and there was Sue and Atlantic which was coming out through Decca also. So there were UK releases. We also looked at their back catalogue to see what they still had, along with the new releases.
CJ : What was Deptford like then?
I didn’t really know Deptford and only really spent time on Deptford high street. What I can tell you is at that time there was a substantial influx of West Indian Immigrants. That may have had some bearing on why Dave choose that area. He was also a much more a South East London person given that he lived in Bexley Heath.
What was funny was that because of the location we had a lot of West Indian customers, usually young, and they’d ask for certain imports which we could never get. There was a record by Barbara Lynn called ‘Letter to Mummy and Daddy’ which was particularly relevant to the West Indians who had left their home. Back then the only means of communication was a letter. You couldn’t call people – it’d cost a fortune. They also wanted Willie Tee’s ‘Thank you John’ and ‘Walking Up A One Way Street’. The other thing they wanted was Nina Simone’s ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ as a 45. Apparently it had been released as a Jamaican 45 in 1959 and of course by 1966 you couldn’t get copies of it. They’d come in every week to ask.
C.J : Deptford Shop certainly had a unique look, how did that come about?
The design of Soul City was Dave’s idea. He had a designer friend called Henry Giles and Henry came up with the colour scheme. My first thought was that this doesn’t look right in the middle of Deptford High Street. Magenta and Blue, the colours of the Soul City label. That was the colour of the stripes outside the shop and all the record bins were magenta.
The problem was that this cost a lot more money to do. Dave was not a good business man. He was a creative person who thought creatively but he didn’t think about the bottom line. Of course I had worked for record shops but I didn’t really know about the business aspects, and neither did Robert, so none of us were trained to deal with this. It was very difficult to get Dave to understand that you can’t spend all this money on decorating the shop. And of course he wouldn’t deal with all the phone calls when we couldn’t pay the bills. At some point I had to talk to the record companies. So there was some conflict around stuff like that
C.J : How did the move up to Monmounth Street in Covent Garden come about?
We continued on in Deptford until the spring of 1967. Then I had an argument with Dave, probably the first week of March. I wouldn’t go back. So there was a period of several months when I wasn’t there, so I can’t give you details on it as I was working at a record shop in Cheapside in the city. But at some point during this period there was a strange burglary which resulted in insurance money. This insurance was used to move Soul City from Deptford to Monmouth Street.
C.J : How was Monmoth St. different from Deptford?
Obviously because of its central location we attracted a different sort of customer. We had a lot more people coming there because of its central location. One of the most significant things was we had a lot more people coming from the North. They would come down for the football and visit the shop and it was during that time that the term Northern Soul first got coined by Dave Godin.
C.J : Was there any particularly memorable guests how came to the new central location?
Nina Simone came in 1968, Big Maybelle came in September 1967. Aretha Franklin was meant to come 1968 but didn’t show up. Elton John was a customer, or Reggie Dwight as he was then.
C.J : Was the plan to set Soul City record label along with the move to the West End?
I can tell you it wasn’t part of a plan. We didn’t sit in Deptofrd and discuss the idea of a record label at all. Setting up the record label was more of a natural progression. I do know Dave was having conversations with Trevor Churchill, the subsequent founder of Ace Records. At the time Trevor was working with EMI and he was the person we would be able to contact for licencing. In fact the very first record that we licenced was through EMI, a track by Don Gardner
& Dee Dee Ford called ‘Don’t You Worry’
C.J : So the initial material for the label was very much driven by your contact base?
I think that once we had that initial conversation with Trevor we realised that we could do this and then we sat down and came up with a list of possible tracks that we could licence. To be honest with you, most of that work was done by Dave. I did do the press material, the release sheet. Dave handled the licensing, the negotiations and the production aspect of it. Distribution as I remember was initially with Island and a guy called David Betteridge. (Chris Blackwell’s partner) I can remember how excited he was when our second release, Gene Chandler’s ‘Nothing Can Stop Me,’ charted. We weren’t expecting that.
I remember me and Dave would go up to the BBC and meet the BBC plugger. You couldn’t actually go there to meet the people on the radio like Tony Blackburn, you had to go through a plugger. So you would present the record to the plugger and then they would say yes we’ll do something with it. Most of the time they would say no but they jumped on ‘Nothing Can Stop Me.’ It reached the top 50 and gave Gene Chandler his first UK Hit and was our only Chart single.
A lot of the licencing was done with independent companies. Although some was done with EMI, a lot of it was direct contacts with American companies. For example, The Valentinos was done through Atco, a company owned by a guy called Allen Klein who was a business partner at some point with Sam Cooke. That’s how we got the Spar material and Billy Preston. Dave chatted to guy called Hy Wiess at Old Town and that’s how we got Thelma Jones. Chris Jackson came to us through a manager called Bill Barnes. Bill Barnes was a New York based manager that worked with a lot of Philadelphia acts. He was responsible for the Ad-Libs, he also worked with Van McCoy and that’s how we got connected to Chris Jackson. He came to London and that’s when we met him.
Then we licenced stuff from CBS and our contact there was David Kapralik, Bill Barnes introduced us. David Kapralik was also the A&R person at Epic and that led to us doing Billy Butler, Major Lance, Staple Singers and Erma Franklin. Then we did some more stuff through EMI, Chuck Brooks, Mighty Sam, Allan Toussiant.
CJ : I believe your connection with David Kapralik led to Soul City’s involvement with breaking Sly and the Family Stone in the UK?
DN : In 1968 David Kapralik came into Monmouth Street. As I mentioned before, he’d been in touch about licencing material for Soul City records, but he also said that he also managed a group called Sly and the Family Stone and he wanted to see if he could hire us to help break them in the UK. So we said yeh ok, so we met with them, talked about it and charged him a hire fee. So we took ‘Dance to the Music’ up to the BBC plugger, they played it and ‘Dance to The Music’ went Top Ten. David brought over the band and we got to meet them all, which was quite memorable. That was a major high point of that time period.
CJ : You must have had a pretty good knowledge of what soul fans wanted through the extensive customer base of the shop. Did this knowledge, particularly with soul fans coming down from the North and the burgeoning Northern Soul Scene, play a factor in what Soul City released?
Back then DJ’s covered up what the record was and most people bought records because they were on tiny obscure labels and by one off artists. Northern Soul as a movement took a while to get going, and by the time it became a movement Soul City had finished. There was however two records which were done in response to people asking. One was Billy Butler ‘The Right Track’ and the other was Major Lance’s ‘Monkey Time.’ These were released in direct response to what soul fans from the North of England were asking for. I don’t know whether we couldn’t get them on import, but they were designed to appeal to this particular audience. Dave certainly made trips to Wigan, Manchester and maybe Sheffield, so he was aware of what was played in these Northern clubs and Dave came up with the term Northern Soul to describe it.
But we didn’t have a designated team running the Soul City label, there was three of us doing that, as well as running a shop, and all that entailed. We weren’t set up like a record label at all, we didn’t have an A&R department, we didn’t have promotion staff, didn’t have anything – basically it was just us. So we were limited by what resources we had and whether we might have been able to release more product, I don’t know. From a financial aspect, we really didn’t make any money off of those releases. And again it was all based on the premise that the music was great and we wanted the music to come out and were driven more by a passion for the music than an eye on the bottom line. Which is probably why Soul City as a record label and a record shop didn’t survive.
CJ : Was it around the early 70’s that the whole Soul City project stopped?
It stopped in 1970. The way I can reference it is that the first cover story I did for Blues and Soul appeared in August 1970. It was an Aretha Franklin interview which only I managed to get because of my previous relationship with her when I had called her from the Deptford shop at Christmas 1966. It was set up as a conversation which I turned into an interview. I specifically remember calling John Abbey (founder of Blues and Soul) in June of that year to push it and at that time I wasn’t working for Soul City. I left before it ended, sometime in the spring of 1970 and by the end of the year it had folded.
CJ : What precipitated you leaving?
On a Friday night Dave said I’m fed up, I’m not doing this anymore and left. Just left. And there was me, Robert and Sylvia, my sister who was working in the shop. So I immediately phoned John Abbey and said to John that Dave’s left ad we need to get another partner, are you interested? At that point we were in real financial trouble so I had turned to John Abbey as a life line to keep it going. He said let me think about it. Over that weekend he must have had a conversation with Dave Godin because on Monday morning Sylvia and I showed up for work. We put our keys in the lock and they didn’t work. We said that’s weird and the next person we saw was Dave Godin saying ‘You went behind my back – as soon as my back was turned you talked to John Abbey and it’s all come apart now, I’ve had the locks changed’ and whatever conversation we had there on the street. So I said well that’s me leaving and that was the end of us.
CJ : Your departure from Soul City definitely didn’t end your engagement with Soul music. What happened after it?
After I did the Aretha Franklin cover story for Blues and Soul I didn’t have a job and I asked John Abbey if he needed anybody. He said we’ll I’m actually expanding the mail order section which we have at Blues and Soul, you can come and work for us there. He was turned part of the office into a record shop which became Contempo Label, a label known for selling imports. I worked there from 1970 to 1975 doing the label inventory, as well as being the label’s press officer, as well as writing for Blues and Soul. There was different hats which I wore for a five year period. Then in 1975 I said I was going to go and live in America as a writer and I asked John Abbey if he would employ as a writer for Blues and Soul in America. He said no, but three weeks before I left he said ok we’ll give you a three month trial period and the three months turned into decades.
David’s still very much championing Soul music. There’s been his critically acclaimed biographies of Lionel Richie, Nina Simone and Soul Divas, and currently David’s set up www.soulmusic.com a platform for re-issuing Soul music lost treasures. Peckham Soul cannot thank him enough – both for his generosity of time with this interview, but also for giving us a first-hand insight into Soul City, a culturally important British shop and label, which despite all the obstacles placed in front of it, was brave enough to build an original platform for the appreciation and love of Soul music for countless numbers of fans.