Stoke & Staffordshire

Soul-on-Trent: 50 years since The Golden Torch opening

Archive photos of the Golden Torch in Stoke-on-Trent Image copyright BBC / Chris Burton / Ellen Coulson
Image caption The Golden Torch was built on a quiet residential street surrounded by terraced houses and a stable block

Fifty years ago, a nightclub opened which would have a short but lasting influence on the music scene. Credited with birthing the modern all-nighter, the Golden Torch's brief stint as a superclub secured its place in history. But what was behind its rise and fall?

A quiet terraced street in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent, it is not the most obvious place to find a nightclub.

But by the early 1970s, the Golden Torch was a raucous hotspot, blaring out the latest Northern Soul hits to appreciative crowds.

"The first night the queue went round the corner. When the queue reached the chip shop [more than 200m away] you knew it was going to be busy," says Colin Curtis.

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First opened in 1965, the venue, in Tunstall, played host to the likes of Black Sabbath and T-Rex.

It was 1970 when Mr Curtis and fellow kingspinner (or DJ, as they are now known) Keith Minshull approached the owner of the struggling nightclub with the proposition of starting a night based on their newfound love of up-tempo soul music.

The popularity of Northern Soul, fuelled by venues such as Manchester's Twisted Wheel, and high-profile bookings including Edwin Starr and super-group The Stylistics, quickly turned the Torch's all-nighters into the stuff of legend.

Image copyright BBC / Chris Burton
Image caption Colin Curtis and Keith Minshull (pictured right) met each other through their shared love of soulful songs and quick-beat tempo tunes in a Kidsgrove record shop."There was a real magic there. Just something inside. I don't think I've been anywhere else that gives me that feeling," described Kingspinner Colin Curtis (pictured near the Keep The Faith emblem). The Golden Torch closure "was one of the worst moments of my life," says former owner Chris Burton (pictured left)

From 20:30 to 08:30 every Saturday, its kingspinners played "12 so-full soulful hours" of music for the gathered crowds - making it a "must-see" place where young people flocked to hear the latest rare seven-inch gem from the States while busting the sort of fluid dance moves the genre is famed for.

"When the all-nighters started the whole thing became a different animal," said former owner Chris Burton.

Image caption It wasn't just Kingspinners who filled the dance floors; exciting names not often seen live in the UK appeared at the Golden Torch including (centre - clockwise) The Stylistics, The Drifters, Arthur Conley, Major Lance and Edwin Starr

At the height of its popularity, the Torch attracted world-famous acts such as The Stylistics, although some of its facilities "weren't quite up to international standard they were used to", Mr Burton said.

Indeed, the group was put up at the Sneyd Arms pub in nearby Tunstall because the club's dressing rooms were considered unsuitable for the A-list talent.

"I'll never forget walking them down the back of Tower Square and a small alley," Mr Burton said.

"They were dressed in white and as they got closer they heard the music and could not believe the atmosphere. The crowd was just buzzing."

Image copyright BBC / Michael Sveikutis

Another US act who flew in to headline the Hose Street venue was Soul singer Major Lance, who would only take to the stage after half a bottle of whiskey.

He brought the dance floor to its knees with You Don't Want Me No More. On the only live album recorded at the venue, a raucous crowd can be heard cheering, clapping and even dancing.

Many people who were there described it as one of the defining Northern Soul gigs.

Hundreds packed in, including 12-year-old Paul Rudnicki, who was snuck inside by a friend. "After that gig - I was hooked and it's simply one of the best gigs I've ever been to," he said.

'Keep the faith'

The distinctive clenched fist emblem has come to represent the Northern Soul genre for many - and it was born in Stoke-on-Trent.

Chris Burton commissioned a man in Hartshill to create a logo and there the Keep The Faith emblem was born. No-one can remember his name but recall it was inspired by the two black American athletes who raised their fists during the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

Thousands of badges and patches were made using the design and were originally given away, but demand was so great Mr Burton made the decision to charge 10p each.

Fans have fought to keep the logo free from trademark, successfully blocking a Manchester shop's bid to copyright the logo.

But as its flame burned brighter, the Torch's success drew critics like moths to a flame, with residents dismayed by the "mayhem" caused by the club's 12-hour openings.

After just 18 months, national newspaper headlines about drug-taking at the Torch, coupled with the local reaction, meant its licence was not renewed.

In a bizarre twist, Edwin Starr accompanied Mr Burton to the city council's licensing meeting in the hope of a miracle.

Instead, Mr Burton said, he was given an ultimatum: "Unless I stopped the all-nighters they'd close it."

Image copyright Ellen Coulson
Image caption A Northern Soul fan paid tribute to the club by putting up a blue plaque before he died in 2009 from a brain tumour. John O'Brien, who worked behind the bar at the club for many years, is described by his family as a mega Northern Soul lover. The Golden Torch was built in 1964 and opened its doors a year later
Image caption Colin and Keith were labelled the Kingspinners, playing six-hour sets packed full of seven-inch singles, with an entry fee of 50p (for members). Artists such as Chubby Checker, Jackie Lee, Johnny Moore, Laura Lee and Roy Hamilton filled the floors for hours on end - 12 hours of non-stop music

"My attitude in those days was, 'this club is going nowhere financially without Northern Soul'."

Right there and then, the club closed in March 1973 - with no final goodbye.

The Northern Soul torch was passed to its Lancashire neighbours - clubs including Blackpool Mecca and Wigan Casino continued for many years.

And the kingspinners, Colin Curtis and Keith Minshull, went on to DJ in the local area before becoming part of the second-phase of the Blackpool Northern Soul club.

Though the Torch is no longer standing, for many, the memory of spellbinding quick-flick dance moves, live music and soulful lyrics lives on.

Hear the story of the Golden Torch with BBC Radio Stoke's Richard Searling, who tells the story of Tunstall's legendary venue.

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