'It was like there was magic built into the walls'

Russ Winstanley wanted to bring Northern Soul to Wigan. And for eight extraordinary years, he did just that

By David Barnett

At 9am on the morning of December 7, 1981, Russ Winstanley packed up his car and drove from Wigan town centre to Rivington, where he parked up and walked to a spot on the hill overlooking the reservoir.

It was almost mid-winter and the sun was struggling to rise. It was cold — later that month the country would record one of its worst winters for years — but Russ didn’t feel it. He gazed out over the slate-grey water, mist obscuring the usually far-reaching views across Lancashire and Greater Manchester.

And he wept.

To hear Russ describe it, it was the sort of grief that brings wracking, uncontrollable sobs. The sort you might associate with death or the end of a love affair. It was neither of those things, yet at the same time, it was both. He had just lost the thing that had consumed his life for eight years, and now he didn’t quite know what to do.

Russ Winstanley had just played his last record in his last DJ set at the last ever all-nighter at the legendary Northern Soul venue Wigan Casino. And life would never be the same again.

Gonna Be A Big Thing

Northern Soul. Quite literally, soul music played in the north of England. But not homegrown, at least not at first. In the 1960s the Detroit record label Motown defined the sound of soul. We’re talking The Marvelettes, and The Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Detroit Spinners.

Why did music performed by predominantly black artists get such a foothold in the north of England? Who knows. Perhaps there was some spiritual connection between the industrial north and Detroit, home of the American motor industry. A working class affinity that stretched across the Atlantic. A subconscious kinship, allyship, with the black artists who were making the records America danced to but sometimes couldn’t even get into the venues they were supposed to be playing because of the colour of their skin.

Whatever the reasons, Motown was popular in the North. The Twisted Wheel club in Manchester was one of the first venues to start playing Motown, and the locals loved it. But as the Sixties gave way to the Seventies, soul music began to change, to evolve. It became funkier as it set itself a course towards what would become disco.

They weren’t having any of that at the Twisted Wheel. They knew what they liked, and it was the up-tempo, melodic vocal stylings of classic Sixties soul. So they kept playing it. And people kept coming. One of those people was the young Russ Winstanley.

Looking For You

“There was a DJ there called Brian Rae and he was playing this music and it was just incredible,” says Russ. “It was Motown, or Motown-based, and you just knew…that’s the funny thing with the records that became Northern Soul classics, you listen to the first 10 or 20 seconds and you just know it’s right. Anyway, Brian was playing a lot of really rare stuff, and that’s what kept people coming back. Or he’d find records that the likes of Jackie Wilson had put out in the 1960s but hadn’t been a hit.”

And that was both the problem with, and the attraction of, Northern Soul. The industry had changed and wasn’t putting out the stuff that the growing army of aficionados loved. Listening to the classics was all well and good, but the people who started to come in from all across the country to the Twisted Wheel and another of the early Northern Soul clubs that Russ haunted, the Blackpool Mecca, were hungry for more. Fortunately, there was more out there. Lots more.

According to Russ, the Motown record company was recording more material than it could ever release. There are said to be a fabled 5,000 unreleased tracks in the company’s archives. And there were songs that had never been released in the UK, or had flopped in America. So the Northern Soul DJs started to track them down, scouring backstreet record shops and market stalls and pretty much anywhere they could to find elusive, rare, unheard soul records. And Russ decided to join them.

Dance, Dance, Dance

Russ was from Wigan and there was a big Northern Soul following there at the start of the 1970s. They were getting buses and coaches out to Blackpool and Manchester. Not for long.

The Empress Ballroom on Station Road had been built in the early part of the 20th Century. In the 1960s the name was changed to the Casino and it became a venue for bands and artists such as Herman’s Hermits, Tom Jones, even David Bowie, and The Rolling Stones. The Casino had a sprung dance floor and a capacity of 1,500, and the club next door, Mr M’s, was run by the same people and bumped the capacity up even more.

By 1973, it was past its heyday as a live music venue. Russ spoke to the owner Gerry Marshall about the potential of staging an all-night Northern Soul event there in September 1973. The initial answer was no, but the club’s manager, who was a soul fan, talked Marshall round.

“We agreed to split the door profits,” says Russ. “Nobody thought it would be very much money at all. So I took out an advert in Blues & Soul magazine. The normal club was closed at 12.30am and our night started at two, to run to eight in the morning. We had 650 people turn up.”

The night raked in £400 and Gerry Marshall decided he’d been too generous — and was suddenly a very big Northern Soul fan — and told Russ he could have £50 out of the takings. Russ didn't mind. "I was on twelve quid a week at the time so that was a hell of a lot of money for a night’s work.”

That night was the start of history being made. Russ remembers clearly the first record he played — Put Your Loving Arms Around Me by the Sherries. Just over eight years later he would reach into his record boxes and take out at random a record that would be the last one ever played, while a distraught, packed house begged for the night to never end. 

Out On The Floor  

At its height, 12,000 people used to pass through the Casino’s doors every week, at the Saturday all-nighters, which had become legendary around the country, and the two earlier sessions mid-week. People travelled from all over the country, and beyond. Russ scoured the country for rare soul records, and his uncle, who worked in Florida, would dig out obscure tracks from junk shops and record stores and mail them over.

The North took soul and made it its own. The fashion was specific — both boys and girls would wear leather trench coats, abandoning them once inside to reveal tank tops or shirts with wide collars, and flared trousers. Girls would wear long, cotton dresses which would flare out when they danced, or cheesecloth shirts and denim skirts. If you were there, dear reader, you know all this.

Oh, and the dancing. Frenetic, athletic, gymnastic. The best of them would drop to their hands, spin around, kick high in the air, in a frenzied, balletic, hypnotic display. Nobody went to the Casino for romance. There was no smooching or chatting up. It was about the music and the dancing. That’s all that mattered to the estimated four million people who visited the Casino between 1973 and 1981.

People wondered how the clubbers could stay up from midnight to 8am with no booze available. They suspected drugs — among them, controversial Greater Manchester chief constable James Anderson. As part of his war on vice, the man they called God’s Cop despatched officers, with Russ’s agreement, to stage random searches at an all-nighter. They didn’t find so much as an aspirin.

There were famous faces, of course. As the Casino’s fame grew, and Russ’s reputation spread far and wide, he was able to bring in some of the Motown stars who were amazed that the records they had made a decade earlier and were now out of fashion in the music business were being venerated in the church of Wigan Casino. Edwin Starr, Freda Payne and Martha Reeves all appeared at the Casino to be worshipped all over again… in fact, like some of them had never been worshipped before.

“Back in the 1960s, it could be difficult for black artists in many parts of America,” says Russ. “There was never anything like that in Wigan, the crowd just loved them for the music they’d made.”

There were also names who weren’t famous at the time but would be in the future. Regulars at the Casino included Dale Winton, Paul O’Grady, Pete Waterman and Tony Wilson. In its latter years a pair of young Manchester scallies called Shaun Ryder and Bez — who would of course later form the Happy Mondays —would turn up and quiz Russ about the records he was playing.    

“There was another lad from Southport who used to come up to me every single flipping week and ask me to play a song by Gloria Jones called Tainted Love,” says Russ. “He was obsessed by it.” So obsessed that the boy — Marc Almond — would in 1981 re-record the song with his band Soft Cell, and make it one of the biggest-selling singles of all time.

And that wasn't the first time the Casino had influenced the music industry. Russ didn’t just play records, he released them on the Casino’s own label as well. The Casino crowd’s burning enthusiasm for the music of Motown plucked records from obscurity and made them hits.

Do I Love You?

In 2019, on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, the eventual winner of that series — former Emmerdale actor and Oldham lad Kelvin Fletcher — did a Northern Soul routine to a song called Do I Love You? by Frank Wilson. The song would have been familiar to anyone who watched the show — it’s been used in adverts and TV shows and is a staple on the radio. And nobody would ever have heard that song but for Russ Winstanley and Wigan Casino.

Russ used to pore over the old catalogues Motown put out looking for rare tracks. This song caught his eye. It had been recorded in 1965 but he’d never heard it, and neither had anyone else he asked. He tracked down one copy sitting in Motown’s vaults — it had never actually been released — and begged it off them. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard it,” he says wonderingly. “It was an absolute monster. I couldn’t wait to play it at the Casino. I knew they were going to love it.”

He was right. Russ tracked down Frank Wilson who told him that just 500 copies of the single had been pressed — and he’d had 499 destroyed because he didn’t have time to promote it. So the library copy Russ had was the only one in existence. Until the Casino crowd went wild for it a decade later and Motown released it finally in 1979. Wigan Casino had made Do I Love You? by Frank Wilson famous. So it was only fitting that it was the soundtrack to the death of this iconic powerhouse of a club.

Long After Tonight Is Over

I was too young to go to Wigan Casino — when it staged its last all-nighter on December 6, 1981, I was a month or so off my 12th birthday. But Northern Soul infused the pavements of my hometown. Only when I first left the town did I realise Motown records weren’t in the blood of non-Wiganers like they were in ours.

In May 1982 a fire broke out in the empty building. I ran with my friends to see. It felt like something big had been lost, even if we didn’t quite understand what it was. And that sense of loss was magnified a million times for Russ Winstanley.

The Casino team, which now amounted to about 50 people, had been told in 1981 that Wigan Council wanted the building — which they owned — back to extend the civic centre. The closure was at first slated for September, but a stay of execution bought them a little more time. Until Saturday, December 6.

“We never understood why they wanted us closed,” says Russ, his voice heavy. “We were bringing thousands of people in every week. They were spending money in the pubs beforehand, buying food the next morning. The Casino was good for Wigan.”

By the end, Russ was doing two DJ sets a night — from when the club opened at midnight to about 1.30am, and then the last hour or so until 8am. The tradition had become that he would play three absolute bangers in the run-up to 8am to finish off the night. But on that final night, the crowd wouldn’t let him stop.

“I played the ‘three before eight’ three times each,” he says. “People were bursting into tears and holding each other and waving their hands in the air. They were begging for more music. They didn’t want it to end and I didn’t want it to end. I was crying as well and it was 9am and I had to do something to break the spell, so I just reached into my box and said the next record I’m going to pull out will be the last one.”

It was, of course, Do I Love You? by Frank Wilson.  Exactly two minutes and 31 seconds later, Russ wordlessly packed up his records, put them in his car, and drove up to Rivington to ponder the end of Wigan Casino.

It wasn’t the end of Northern Soul, of course, nor of Russ’s career. He’s 68 now and he’s been keeping the faith for 40 years, taking Northern Soul across the world — he’s played in Cyprus, Ireland, Dubai. There are multiple Northern Soul clubs and nights across the country. But none of them are Wigan Casino.

“There was something special about that place,” says Russ. “The sprung dance floor, the people, the atmosphere…it was like there was magic built into the walls. And once that has gone, you never get that back, do you?”

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