It’s a grey weekday morning and you’re about to go on holiday.
You’re waiting to be picked up and taken to the airport and the driver pulls up in his car. As he loads your luggage into the boot and you open the passenger door, you are greeted by the soulful sounds emanating from his stereo.
The driver’s name is Mike Presswell and the genre, he will be happy to tell you, is northern soul.
He says: ‘It is playing in the car all the time and when customers say “I haven’t heard that before” I give them a complete rundown of northern soul. They are stuck in the car for an hour-and-a-half so they have no choice!’
The 61-year-old from Stubbington is a private hire car driver by profession, but he is better known in the community as the founder of the Portsmouth Soul Club, formerly the Gosport Soul Club, which is now located at the Southsea Leisure Park in Eastney.
He has built up a loyal local following since relocating the club to Portsmouth and will be hosting the first-ever northern soul ‘weekender’ in Portsmouth next Easter, with 20 DJs and two live acts.
And Mike has plenty of experience to draw from, having DJed at many of these events around the country since 2009 and even played at a soul night in Perth, Australia.
He did a set at the Irish Club while on holiday with his wife Sally after the venue’s owner Pete Fowler contacted Mike on Facebook.
‘There were 100 people in this club and you could tell they were all expats because they all had northern accents. It was really weird.’
He only took 30 records with him – a fraction of the 200 he would normally take to a gig – but thankfully his setlist went down well with the crowd.
‘It is easy to construct a set if you know what a place is like, but that was more luck than judgment.
‘You have to read the dancefloor. If they are not reacting to the music you have to change it. It is all about mixing the tempos.’
Mike was also invited to DJ at the Skegness Northern Soul Weekender by founder Russ Winstanley after he headlined one of Mike’s events in Gosport.
Russ is considered a legend on the northern soul scene, having hosted and DJed at the famous Soul All-Nighters at Wigan Casino since the inaugural night in September 1973.
The venue was the spiritual home of northern soul until its closure in December 1981 and was voted by Billboard magazine in America as the World’s Best Disco in 1978, beating Studio 54 in New York to the top spot.
While Mike didn’t go to the legendary venue himself, it was in the local scene that he found his passion for soul.
‘It was in 1970 when I was 16 that I went to All Nighters at the Marina Club in Goldsmith Avenue. My first memories were walking into this dark club with oppressive heat and hearing music I had never heard before which sent a tingle down my spine.’
Most of Mike’s friends who he went with were older than him at the time. He met them at the Fareham Youth Club.
‘They were legally allowed to go in there,’ he says. ‘I’m tall – 6’2” – and there were no things like ID in those days. If you were big you got in; if you were small you struggled.’
Mike’s musical education began under the tutelage of Dave Godin, writer for Blues and Soul magazine.
Thanks in part to Dave, Mike is now the owner of more than 2,000 records.
He confesses he would buy a record ‘blindly’ if recommended by the pundit, who coined the term northern soul.
‘Up until that time it was known as rare soul. Dave owned a record shop in London and a lot of football fans from up north came into his shop asking for obscure American soul records when they were down to see a match. So he made a section and labelled it northern soul so it would be easy for them to find it.’
In Mike’s experience, the majority of northern soul fans are football fans too.
‘I’ve only just stopped going to see Pompey play myself after 40 years,’ he says.
‘There is something about the music, drinking, dancing and sport.’
The reason for this, Mike says, is because the northern soul scene is ‘very working class’.
‘You don’t notice it so much down here, but talking to the guys up north the fans from rival clubs would beat seven bells out of each other before the game and then go to the club afterwards and be best friends.’
Despite the friendly atmosphere at the clubs, there was still lots of kicking... and spinning and backdrops, the signature moves of northern soul dancing.
‘The dancing is very athletic,’ says Mike. ‘It was the precursor to breakdance. I must admit I never did it because I wasn’t fit enough, too stiff. I certainly couldn’t do it now, but when I DJ up north there are guys my age who are still doing it.’
In his heyday Mike simply channelled the grooves.
‘I just danced,’ he says. ‘Everyone has their own style – it is their expression of the music. No-one points fingers or laughs.
‘The dancefloor is like our temple. No-one takes a drink on the dancefloor. If I ever see someone on the dancefloor with a drink I turn off the music, pick up the mic and tell them to put it back. It’s that serious.’
You might not be able to drink and dance, but feel free to sprinkle talcum powder on the floor.
This unusual tradition dates back to the ’70s, when the talc was put down on the floor to make dancers’ feet slide more easily, but it still happens today.
‘You have to make it clear to people if it’s a no talc dancefloor even now because they’ll try to put some down.’
At his gigs, Mike is happy to take requests – but don’t expect him to put on anything but soul.
‘Someone asked for Great Balls Of Fire recently, and I told them that isn’t northern soul, it’s rock and roll. They replied with “it’s a good dance song though” and I said ‘‘that may be, but I can’t play it!’’’
While these rules aren’t likely to be as strict for his day job, a word of advice – if Mike is driving you one day, don’t ask for Jerry Lee Lewis.
What is Northern soul?
According to Mike, one way of defining northern soul music is its focus on promoting non-mainstream soul artists.
‘The thing with a lot of northern soul music is that these guys only made one or two decent records – you don’t have many favourites that released a string of hits.
‘A lot of the music is on obscure American record labels. The groups never had hits in their own countries, but it was DJs going out to America in the early ’70s and breaking them out in the northern soul scene that made them famous over here.’
This phenomenon is embodied by Sidney Barnes, who Mike met when the pair appeared at the Skegness Northern Soul Weekender three years ago.
He was a soul singer who settled down to a normal life in Asheville, North Carolina, but still commands a devoted fan base in the UK.
His songs I Hurt On The Other Side and Standing On Solid Ground are considered modern classics of northern soul, but have had little impact in his native country.
Mike says: ‘Sidney was sat in Starbucks having a coffee with his wife and he asked me and my wife to join him.
‘People were coming up to him and asking for his autograph while we were talking, but he was very easy-going.
‘He said it was so weird to him that no-one back home knew his music, but when he came over here there were 8,000 people singing his songs.
‘He had no idea how big the scene was over here – back home in Asheville he worked in a department store.
‘He said he never stopped working there because the music business is so precarious.’