Northern Soul icon Judy Street lands in the North-West this week. MALCOLM WYATT spoke to her via a video link from her home in Nashville...
Forty-five years after recording one of Northern Soul’s most-coveted tracks of all time, Judy Street is heading to Lancashire.
Tennessee-based Judy headlines Preston’s Got Soul this Friday at 53 Degrees, promoting her new Cover Girl CD.
And she’s also performing the following night in the town that made her name – Wigan – at the Swinley, Saturday, May 17.
Before she heads home she’ll also have played Edinburgh’s Minto Hotel (Friday, May 23), Manchester’s new Twisted Wheel (Sunday, May 25), and Bolton’s Rumworth Hall (Friday, May 30).
Judy only recorded two songs in the 1960s, yet passed into the annals of soul history thanks to Hollywood-based songwriting legend HB Barnum.
The sweet teen – just turned 19 – delivered slow-burner You Turn Me On and seminal dancer What, which just so happened to catch the imagination at Wigan Casino around five years later.
That B-side has never been out of fashion, and although only 1,000 copies were initially pressed, it is rated among Northern Soul’s finest moments.
Yet Judy knew nothing of her fame this side of the pond until the mid-1990s, when an internet search led to her belatedly learning about her cult status.
“It blew my mind, and still does. There were about 11 contacts with my record. I was thinking, ‘11 people have my record? This is over 40 years ago!’”
Despite 4,000 miles between Lancashire and Tennessee and interruptions from errant young border collie Wilson, the line was clear and Judy was bubbly throughout.
She’s travelled a lot over the years – born in Indiana, discovered in Arizona, recorded in California, and now settled in Tennessee, something that went back to her formative years.
“I travelled with my dad, then after that with a band – playing from Bermuda to Hawaii and all in between, across the States.”
Her father studied piano at Chicago’s Conservatory of Music, while her mother played flute in a marching band.
They taught music by day, and Dad performed in lounges and concert halls by night.
In time, Judy joined him too – singing and playing percussion, and now she’s a music teacher too – tutoring drums and piano.
“I absolutely love it. Kids start out with no knowledge of music and you see them become piano players or drummers – like centre-snare players in marching bands.”
Judy and her husband, Tom Stewart, have four children between them, in their 20s and 30s, that love of music clearly spanning the generations.
Her youngest son plays trumpet with a symphony group, and there’s online footage of Judy and Tom covering a Wynonna Judd song with daughter Beth.
“It’s not my roots, but through the years I’ve sang country songs, and Wynonna is from here and we’ve known her for a while.”
So what do their children think about her late-found fame across the water?
“My oldest son came on my first tour and show at Blackpool Tower, as my manager, helper, and right-hand man. He was on board before I was, almost.
“He grasped the concept and kept saying ‘Mom, you’re a star’. But I’m just Mom. He’s coming again on this tour. I’m really excited about that.”
Judy grew up ‘under the grand piano’, listening to her father play, later joining in at his band rehearsals, ‘with an accordion case, forks, spoons or whatever’.
The teenager listened to Barbara Streisand and fellow singing-drummer Karen Carpenter. And while Judy’s father died when she was still at high school, she graduated and moved to Arizona, where she got her big break.
“I was in Phoenix and playing clubs when this manager told me ‘I’m going to make you a star, little girl, take you to California!’”
That manager visiting the Holiday Inn was actor Conrad Bachmann, a TV and silver screen regular over the years, including roles in Mission Impossible, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Dynasty, and Starsky and Hutch.
While he was no proven impresario, he certainly saw and heard something in Judy.
“In a short time, I was there and recording with HB (Barnum).
“But the music business was foreign to Conrad, and the marketing side fell flat.
“He knew everything about the screen, but as far as marketing a record, just didn’t have the facility.”
Barnum wrote and arranged for many big names – from Count Basie to Frank Sinatra, Etta James, Aretha Franklin.
“He knew them all, and knows them all. I saw him before I came to Blackpool in 2012. He blew my mind talking about people he knew and the music scene.”
Judy could never have guessed how important that session would prove, but while the A-side was a great song in its own right, it never charted.
“That was supposed to be the hit. That was what we were marketing. HB wrote both songs and they were great. I was just so thrilled to be allowed to sing them.
“He’d already had a couple of singers record What. He knew it was a great song.”
The single, released on the Strider label, was recorded with a full orchestra and backing vocalists.
“The Blossoms were three black chick singers who did harmony. They were his ‘go to’ singers. He didn’t have to write a chart out for them!
“HB was so busy at the time, and was also road manager, band director and writer for Gladys Knight.
“I walked into this studio and it was massive – gymnasium-size. But it needed to be, with all these players.”
Has she ever wondered what it was about What that won the hearts of Northern Soul fans?
“The actual beat of that record fits totally into that genre. I didn’t know that then, but do now.
“I was so green – a little girl with this vibrato. But I always had this big sound, even though it was thin then. A little like Petula Clark.
“When I found it was a huge Northern Soul hit, it made total sense.
“You do realise everyone thought I was a black chick? They thought I came out of Detroit. I guess I had some of that soul sound.”
There’s an internet clip doing the rounds of Northern Soul fans dancing in a late-night kebab hut in South Yorkshire to What. Has she seen that?
“I love that! They’re so real, having the time of their life. I’ve re-posted it a couple of times on my artist’s page – it’s just so fun!”
Then there’s the famous Wigan Casino footage to the same song.
“The one where they’re doing the spins and all that has had over a million views. That blows my mind!”
For many of us, Soft Cell’s 1982 version opened the door to What, and Judy hopes to meet Marc Almond during this UK visit.
“I would love to, and know he’d like to meet me, which is so much fun.
“I just want to hug his neck, because he did what he did and loved my song, then recorded it.
“The controversy over it has been hysterical – it’s been great!”
Was she aware of Soft Cell’s version of Gloria Jones’ Tainted Love prior to that?
“One time in Newport Beach, California, playing a show, a couple of young English gentlemen came to me on a break and asked, ‘are you the Judy Street?’
“I had no idea how they’d know that, or that the record had even been shipped over to England!
“They asked about What then asked if I knew Marc Almond had a hit with it. ‘Who?’ I said. ‘Soft Cell,’ they said. ‘Who?’ I repeated.
“If I’d done something about it then… but I just dismissed it. It just didn’t happen.”
After her brief recording stint, Judy joined the Swingin’ Society, touring across the US with four male bandmates.
“I was in California, by myself, and had to make some money, so auditioned, and they hired me immediately.
“We started the next day at Disneyland. We’d do our 45-minute set, then come back an hour later for another 45 minutes.
“It was a show band, doing show-tunes and big songs of the era, a full-on five-piece.
“We played from Disneyland to Lake Tahoe, two and a half years all across the States. We were very well liked and worked like crazy.”
Did she think she’d blown her big chance? The single had supposedly come to nothing, and now she was on the hotel circuit.
“You got the picture. Six nights playing, packing up then moving on to the next city on the seventh. We did television spots in the day, but there was never a recording situation.”
Judy’s excited about her latest tour, and is even thinking about her next UK trip.
“I’m hoping next year I can do it with a live band, but this time I’m singing with my tracks.”
Cover Girl includes new versions of Do I Love You (Indeed I Do), Long After Tonight Is All Over, and Sunny, a song she once sang with her father, and Tainted Love.
“I want to give Marc Almond one of these CDs, it’s going to blow his mind too! He recorded my song, so I’ve recorded his! And we had to start with Tainted Love, because – can I say it? – it’s such a kick-ass track!”
Is it true that she sold her last 18 copies of the original Strider 45 of You Turn Me On/What?
Her response is fake crying, before adding: “Actually, don’t tell anyone, but I did find two after!
“I carted this box of 45s from California all the way here, and it sat in my closet for 40 years. Then I thought ‘what do I need those for?’
“I sold them for – are you ready? – $50 a piece, which I thought was great at the time.
“They sell for over £500 now, I believe.”
For ticket information for Preston’s Got Soul go to https://www.facebook.com/PrestonsGotSoul. And for more about Judy’s other dates, try www.JudyStreetWhat.com