#960: 1961, Jimmy Ruffin, Don’t Feel Sorry For Me

by George_East on November 25, 2014

As I mentioned in my Cine-East Film Club post on Saturday Night Fever a couple of weeks back I recently saw Northern Soul, a film which is, as the title suggests, about the northern soul movement of the 1970s.  The film isn’t up to much but is a damn sight better than another recent film about the same sub-culture, the execrable Soulboy which was on the telly the other night and which was so bad, I didn’t even make all the way through.

What both of these films do have in common though is some great scenes in a recreated Wigan Casino and it is those joyous scenes that have spurred in me a bit of a fascination with the whole northern soul thing.  The idea that this was a genuinely working class music and dance phenomenon which flourished in places as unlikely as Stoke, Wolverhampton, Droitwich and yes Wigan, and which attracted people from all over the country on pilgrimages to clubs in those towns really is pretty hard to get your head round.    The queues for the legendary Wigan Casino Saturday night all-nighters (from 12.30 to 8 am) were such that there were sometimes riots among those trying to get in.

The dance style with its almost trance like solo movements – twists, jumps, kicks and proto break-dancing floor turns, seem somehow as detached from the music as the dancers were from each other.   This wasn’t dancing to pull.  The dancers you see in the clips barely seem to know each other are there.    The music with its obsession with cult rarities from tiny soul labels – eschewing the output of Motown, Stax and the like.    An obsession that even in the 1970s would see certain rare soul singles changing hands for £100s (records that can now reach 5 figures among a still thriving collectors market), with record stalls surrounding the dance floors at the clubs.

The very idea that in 1978 US music magazine  Billboard voted Wigan Casino the greatest club in the world (despite this being the peak of Studio 54’s fame in New York and disco’s moment) – a club in a faded Lancashire mill town, a club that didn’t even sell alcohol, sounds like a bad film plot rather than reality.   Just one watch of some of the clips of Wigan Casino at its peak on Youtube though brings home the extraordinary almost hypnotic  energy of the place, which would be maintained throughout the 1970s to its closure in 1981 (to make way for a shopping centre – the shape of things to come).     I thoroughly recommend checking out This England a 30 minute TV documentary from 1977 which is available on Youtube and gives a real sense of what Wigan Casino and the Northern Soul scene meant to the factory workers, young apprentices and hospital orderlies that made up its clientele.

This is a record that might well have been played on those nights –  the debut single from Jimmy Ruffin on the Miracle label.  Ruffin would, of course, go on to record successfully for Motown (most famously with the great What Becomes of the Broken Hearted) but would be destined always to be in the shadow of his little brother, David, the lead vocalist in The Temptations during their 1960s golden years.    Jimmy Ruffin sadly died last week.  So as well as a tribute to Northern Soul and Wigan Casino, this is a tribute to him too.

Jimmy Ruffin RIP

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