Subculture Unsung: DJ Colin Curtis

50 Years: From Northern Soul To House Music

Tuesday 14th November 2017

Having celebrated his 50th anniversary as a DJ earlier this year, there are few who can claim to have influenced UK club culture as much as Colin Curtis. Starting out in Northern soul, moving through jazz-funk and then playing his part in breaking house music, Curtis’ unrivalled contribution to dance music on this side of the Atlantic has led to comparisons with legendary NYC disco pioneer David Mancuso.

Growing up in Stoke-On-Trent, Curtis first discovered Motown at around the age of 10, and so began his deep pursuit of music; absorbing all he could from pirate stations like Radio Caroline and Radio Essex, whilst acquiring as many cheap American imports he could get his hands on. “Luckily back in those days, shops like Woolworths used to send excess imported black music over and stick them in the cheap rack,” Curtis recalls.

This put him in good stead when he first took to the decks in his mid-teens in 1967. Starting out at Newcastle-Under-Lyme’s Crystal Ballroom he quickly made his All-Nighter debut at Stoke’s hallowed Northern soul venue, The Golden Torch.

When he moved North and began working at The Blackpool Mecca in 1973, Curtis rose to new heights, finding the perfect DJ partner in Ian Levine who’d enjoy a huge advantage over his peers, given the fact he was able to pick up bulk quantities of records during his family’s trips to the States.

With the close-by club, Wigan Casino not opening until 2am (the same time the Mecca closed) many of the Blackpool dancers would head over to Wigan and leave the dancefloor relatively empty in the final hour, which allowed Curtis and Levine to experiment with new sounds. The increasingly retrospective Casino would view them as heretics, creating an infamous schism, but the music played during the ‘last hour’ at The Mecca became the stuff of legend.

Curtis left the Mecca after 5 years and set up the North’s leading jazz-funk night at Rafters in Manchester, where he would find another significant partnership in DJ John Grant. Jazz dancers would flock to Rafters and help lay the foundations for UK breakdancing in the ‘jazz breaks’, where dance battles would ensue. Jazz was gaining momentum on the North and Midlands All-Dayer scene too, where Curtis had become a favourite. “You’d have two or three massive circles in amongst over a 1,000 people with battles going on,” he recollects.

Curtis continued in the same vein at his residency at Manchester’s Berlin, an eclectic mid-week session he started in 1983 with Hewan Clarke and it was here that he felt most at home. “Everything was thrown into the mix and I would play for maybe 5/6 hours,” explains Curtis, adding “guys who were into reggae were coming and asking me for jazz tapes, there was a social change and people were more open to what was going on.”

Later in the decade he’d experiment with electro and early house music at Nottingham’s Rock City and he’d also work with Hewan Clarke again, this time at The Playpen in Manchester, where they’d play cutting-edge Chicago house imports from Trax and DJ International, helping inform the musical direction the Haçienda would later make the city famous for.

A testament to his profound love for music, Curtis still DJs to this day and goes through around 200/300 tracks a week in pursuit of new sounds to fuel his DJ appearances and prolific podcast series - “music is life,” he concludes.

Written by Josh Ray

The following playlist includes three tracks from Curtis’ Northern soul era, three from his jazz-funk heyday and three from his pioneering house music period: 

Electrospective - Colin Curtis Interview:

Related Links

Colin will be appearing alongside Greg Wilson at a special 'Return To Legend' event in Manchester early next year: Click here to find out more

Read more about Colin Curtis over on Electrofunkroots:

Listen to Colin Curtis’ podcast here:


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