"David Nathan’s impressive career stretches back to 1965, when the enterprising London teenager founded the UK’s first Nina Simone Appreciation Society. From there, he and business partners Dave Godin and Robert Blackmore opened England’s legendary Soul City Records, the only spot in the late '60s where Londoners could pick up copies of the latest hard-core R&B discs coming out of the States – helping set the larger trend of soul’s remarkable acceptance in the UK. By the early '70s David had embarked on his own path as a journalist, writing innumerable articles on top stars of the day – Diana Ross, Earth, Wind, & Fire – and setting up residence in New York and Los Angeles. Later he published an acclaimed book, "The Soulful Divas" (1999) and produced many CD reissues of long-unavailable music from the 1960s, including the “Soul Classics” series that appeared in the mid-90s. [David must hold the record for “most CD liner notes,” having written several hundred of them!] By millennium’s turn, he was fulfilling a decades-long ambition to sing, and released his first CD, "Reinvention," in 2003.
Now, after more than forty years of successes – and a few disappointments – David looks back on the forces that have shaped his work and life."
DAVID FREELAND: Who were some of the musical performers you admired as a child, growing up in London?
DAVID NATHAN: Well, when I actually delve back into my childhood, I recalled that way before I was in my teens, when I was seven, eight, nine, I was actually really interested in music. There was a whole period that I kind of forgot about. And I had a few idols, I’m a little ashamed to admit!
DF: Who were some of them?
DN: A couple of these were well-known British pop singers, whose names probably won’t mean anything to people here, but I’m going to give them to you. There was a very big pop singer in England called Alma Cogan. She was one of my first loves. It’s a little embarrassing, but I was so besotted with her that I actually bought her a little brooch. It was a purple brooch. I don’t know how I managed to persuade them, but people around me actually found a way of getting an address for the Alma Cogan Fan Club. And I sent her a brooch! And I actually got a signed photo back. She was the biggest British pop star of her time. She was the “It.” She died early, in her 30s, I think. She was kind of this homegrown pop star, and that’s what I think made her so popular. So there was Alma Cogan, there was a lady called Eve Boswell, and Eve Boswell was I think a member of the Boswell Sisters, but she had her own records. And there was someone called Lita Roza. She was like Hungarian or something. And there were a couple of guys, like Cliff Richard. And I truly did like certain American records, because we had a record player that played 78s. And I remember there was “Wheel of Fortune,” by Kay Starr, and Perry Como’s, “This Magic Moment.” There was a fabulous record – and I think this was Lita Roza but I’m not sure – called “Hernando’s Hideaway.” And then there was a song that I loved called “Stranger in Paradise.” It’s from a musical. And so those actually came before I ever got into R&B. Music was there when I was much younger than I originally have talked about.
DF: What was Alma Cogan like, as a singer?
DN: She was very chirpy. There’s a style of British pop music, which kind of has the influences of American pop music of the 50s, very sing-a-longy, very infectious.
DF: Like Patti Page.
DN: Yes, yes. In fact, I remember – shamefully – that I actually had a record by Georgia Gibbs, but I don’t remember which one it was, but I think it was a cover of a Ruth Brown song. Another significant radio moment that I had, which I also don’t remember ever talking about, was hearing Mahalia Jackson one day on the radio, singing either “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child,” or “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen.” But I remember it was so moving that I asked my mother who it was, and she said – and I’m quoting my mother – “That’s a Negro gospel singer called Mahalia Jackson.” So there were some soulful references in my household before I ever knew what soul music was.
And also there was one other thing…when Billie Holiday died, which was in 1959, that was on the front page of the newspaper we got every day, called The Daily Mirror. It was the whole page: “LADY DAY DEAD AT 44.” And I asked my mother who Lady Day was, and she said, “She’s a Negro jazz singer.” At that time, using the word “Negro” was not offensive. It was quite interesting that my mother somehow knew who Mahalia Jackson and Billie Holiday were, and 9 years later, when I first took my mother to hear Aretha Franklin, one of her comments was, “She reminds me of Mahalia Jackson!”
DF: What impact did the coming of the Beatles have on your musical tastes?
DN: Well, the Beatles were there when I first started getting into British pop music of the early 60s. My first experience of seeing a show was seeing the Beatles and Mary Wells onstage next to the place where we lived, cause we lived above the fish & chips shop my dad managed. The Beatles and Mary Wells came to the State Cinema, in Kilburn, and me and my sister went. The only thing I remember about Mary Wells is that she wore a very glittery dress. Everyone was screaming for the Beatles, so poor Mary had to try to sing above all that, which was not easy. And the Beatles came out and I don’t remember hearing a thing they did, because it was just shrieks and shrieks and shrieks. There was a little side story, cause the Beatles were supposed to escape after the show, and there was a little plot to have them jump over our garden and hide in the storeroom, but they didn’t ever do it. Me and my sister thought we were actually going to have the Beatles in our house, which would have made us the complete stars of our school.
DF: And of course, the Beatles incorporated a lot of American R&B into their repertoire.
DN: Right. One of the songs the Beatles recorded was “Baby, It’s You,” which was of course a Shirelles song. And then there was Cilla Black, who like the Beatles was managed by Brian Epstein. She was the redheaded pop singer from Liverpool. Cilla did “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” I believe in the end of ’63, and I did not like the Dionne Warwick version originally. I had a fight at school about it – not a physical fight, but an argument, because I was so in love with Cilla Black that I listened to Dionne’s and I didn’t like it. There’s a muted trumpet in the Dionne Warwick version, and it put me off. It’s not in the Cilla Black version! And then, I had to eat BIG crow, because I heard “Walk on By,” and that was it.
That changed everything. It actually transformed my life, because everything changed with that. That’s when I started watching “Ready Steady Go!” on television. Vicki Wickham, the producer of “Ready Steady Go!” was such a fan of the music that she made sure some of these people came over to the UK. I remember seeing Lou Johnson, and some Chess artists: Sugar Pie DeSanto, doing a song called “Soulful Dress.” I remember seeing Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles in 1965 on another show – it wasn’t “Ready Steady Go!” – doing a song called “All or Nothing.” The most intense performance I ever saw on television at that time, ever! It was some five o’clock kind of children’s show. I was doing my homework, the television was on, and I stopped: “Who is that! Wailing like that?” I had not at that time really heard wailing singers, cause all the singers I liked – Dionne, for example – I’m not saying they didn’t have any soul, they did - but they weren’t the 'wailing' kind of singers - although thinking about it, Dionne did 'wail' on "Don't Make Me Over"! I wasn’t aware of all of them at that point, as much, cause my tastes were kind of 'poppy,' what I would now call more 'Uptown Soul." That performance of “All or Nothing” was really my introduction. I was at a point in time where I was beginning to deal with the emotional roller coaster of adolescence and all that comes along with that, and it sparked something in me.
DF: Wasn’t Nina Simone also a large part of your musical education?
DN: Yes. Somewhere in there, towards the end of ’64, is when I think I heard “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” Nina’s original version. I was like, “Oh, my God. Who is that?” And I remember working in a record store on Saturday just to earn pocket money, and I asked the manager if we had any records my Nina Simone. We had that one record, Nina Simone at Town Hall, and I heard that and I started to cry. I didn’t weep, but I got teary-eyed when I heard “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” I found out how to get in touch with Nina Simone through Philips Records, and I wrote to her then-husband/manager Andy Stroud and said I would like to start the Nina Simone Fan Club, because all the other people had fan clubs, and I didn’t have anyone to have a fan club for. We called it the Nina Simone Appreciation Society.
DF: How did you start doing interviews?
DN: My first interview was actually with Dee Dee Warwick, and it was set up by the president of the Dionne Warwick/Shirelles Scepter-Wand Appreciation Society, a lovely person called Gloria Marcantonio. It was at the Cumberland Hotel, in London, in the lounge.
DF: Was Dee Dee friendly?
DN: She was. It was my first interview, so I was very nervous. I was 17 – I did the best I could. I wrote little notes, and I asked her a few questions about Dionne but I didn’t focus on that. But later, she told the fan club secretary that she didn’t like the interview because I asked her too many questions about Dionne, which really upset me, because I knew I hadn’t!
That same year, 1965, the interview was published in a magazine called Rhythm & Soul, USA. The magazine was the outlet for a fan-related organization called The Friends of American Rhythm & Blues Society, FARBS. FARBS was the predecessor to the Tamla-Motown Appreciation Society. So the person who started the Tamla-Motown Appreciation Society was Dave Godin, and he was the godfather of R&B in England. He was like the doyen. If you wanted to start a fan club, you didn’t have to go to him to ask permission, but if you wanted to be in the inner circle, you had to meet him. I was very intimidated at first, because he was obviously older than me, at least ten years older, and was quite eccentric.
DF: How was Dave eccentric?
DN: Just his manner. He was a vegetarian long before it was popular. He was a very politically minded person, very radical. We never talked about his sexuality – I don’t know if he ever talked about it, actually, to anybody – but he had a strong gay sensibility, and I had never met anybody like that. To be honest with you, I was kind of scared of him. But we did become friends, and I stayed for a period at his house outside of London. I remember what was a benchmark moment for me, the day that Lorraine Ellison’s “Stay With Me” was released in England. We got a copy in the post, and he played it. Dave and I couldn’ t speak. I had never heard anything like that, nor had he.
DF: How did you come to open Soul City Records?
DN: In that time period, around the spring-summer of ’66, is when we hatched the idea of starting a record shop. Because I had worked at record shops when I was earning pocket money. I used to work at a little record shop around the corner from where I lived called Musicland, and Musicland was run by a Jamaican guy who had started a record shop to cater to other West Indians who wanted imports from Jamaica. He used to do American imports at the same time. So after I discovered Aretha Franklin, because I worked there, I was able to get him to order all the Aretha Columbia albums.
So Dave said, “You worked in a record shop, you know how that works. Why don’t we start a record shop and call it Soul City?” It was named after a record called “Soul City,” on Cameo-Parkway. It was one of his favorite records. So we hatched this plot, and the plot was we would use the magazine, Rhythm & Soul, to advertise all these import LPs, and we’d get the money, and then we would use the money to start the record shop, and then we’d get the records after we’d started the record shop. It was a little bit naughty, because obviously we didn’t have the records when we advertised them! We said it was going to be six to eight weeks, so we figured by then we’d get all the money in. People would call up and say, “Where’s my record?” and I’m the one who had to say, “It’s on order, it’s on order.” And finally, I think, Dave got some financing from someone else, and we got enough money to put down a deposit on a record shop in South London. That was the beginning, September of 1966; a friend of Dave’s, Robert Blackmore joined us so essentially, the three of us ran and owned “Soul City.” We had to do the best we could, cause we didn’t have a lot of stock, so my Aretha Franklin albums ended up being part of the stock!
DF: Your own personal albums?
DN: Yes, yes! We opened accounts with all the record companies, and then we found an importer from Florida by the name of Mr. Shapiro, so we were finally able to fulfill some of the orders from the people we had gotten the money from, to start the shop with. A little late! It was a really pioneering venture. Dave was a stickler. He said, “We are not selling anything else,” except music from what he called Black America. No reggae, no pop.
Photo: Soul City, 21 Deptford High Street, 1966; from "The In Crowd" by Mike Ritson & Stuart Russell)
DF: Was that the first record shop of its kind in the UK?
DN: Oh yeah, in Europe. It was revolutionary. I remember certain records so well, that became little club favorites at that time. There was Aretha’s “Cry Like a Baby,” a record by Peaches & Herb called, “We’re In this Thing Together.” The magazine was still going, and we would let people know about the new releases. It was a great time.
DF: You were only 18 when you were doing this.
DN: It was a big adventure. And then Dave got it into his head that we needed to move to the West End. We would never make it big if we weren’t in the center of London. To begin with I was a little reluctant about it, but he just had this vision. And then a couple of things happened toward the end of ’66 that were really important for us. We didn’t have much money, and the Christmas bonus was you could make a long-distance phone call to anybody in America, any artist you wanted to speak to. So Dave chose Big Maybelle and I chose Aretha Franklin.
DF: How were you able to find Aretha?
DN: I got the number because at that time they used to put the manager’s phone number on the bottom of promotional photos. So I called the number, and I think I just asked for her, cause I knew she was married to Ted White, and Ted White’s number was on there. I remember the address was 1721 Field Street in Detroit. So he answered the phone, and I said, “My name is David Nathan, and I’m calling from England, and I would like to speak to Aretha Franklin to wish her a Merry Christmas.” And he put his hand over the phone and he said, “Aretha! Phone from England!” So she came to the phone. I told her, “I’m the person who’s been writing you fan letters.” I had sent a letter to her father’s church, c/o Reverend C.L. Franklin, New Bethel Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan. Cause I didn’t have any address for it. And somehow she had gotten the letter, and wrote me a letter back. So, she came to the phone and was so delighted to speak to someone in England. It was November 1966. And she said, “David, I’ve just signed a new contract with Atlantic, and I’m getting ready to go record in January.”
DF: So that was your first encounter with Aretha.
DN: Yes, 40 years ago. Then, the next significant thing was we actually did move the shop, around the late autumn of ’67, and we moved to the West End, to a street called Monmouth Street. Monmouth Street was in the theater district of London.
DF: It seems like you got soul music at a great time, because it was really just developing as an art form in the 60s. And it also seemed like London was ready for it. Was it an exciting time to be in the London of “the Swinging 60s?”
DN: Oh absolutely. London was very much a place for breaking new ground, with different ideas, fashion, film, and, of course, music. The openness of sexual orientations, people were a little less uptight. This wasn’t the whole country, but in London there wasn’t quite so much stigma. There was a freedom that people experienced, a rebellious attitude.
DF: How did you feel, being a part of all that?
DN: I was still in school. For me the closest I came to being revolutionary in school was to cut my hair differently – like the Beatles cut – and to share the music of Nina Simone with one of my classes. We had a project to do, and I chose to let them hear “Strange Fruit” to illustrate the injustice and lack of freedom that Black Americans were experiencing, and to bring to my classmates’ attention an issue that they had no other reference for. Then, when I left school, and when I left home, I have photographs of myself in dashikis and robes and beads, being my own equivalent of a flower child in London. One of the most unpleasant comments I ever heard was standing in line outside a club I frequented in London called the Sombrero, which was a fabulous club in Kensington. It was a little upscale, but it was frequented by a lot of young Arab men, princes, a lot of Europeans, and the music was fabulous, all the Aretha songs.
DF: How much of a role did Judaism play in your upbringing?
DN: I was conscious of anti-Semitism. One of the most unpleasant incidents in my life was coming out of the library with the Billie Holiday autobiography, and walking down the hill and passing another schoolboy who looked at me, and said, “Are you Jewish?” And I said, “Yes,” thinking he was going to say, “So am I.” And he spat in my eye, which reduced me to tears. I kept walking. And I was holding Billie Holiday’s autobiography – the symbolism of it! Who knows what impact that had on my psyche. I remember going home and telling my mother about it. I was really upset. She said, “The English bastards,” or something like that. It was a pretty sad experience, when you’re like 13 years old.
DF: What did your mother and father think of all your entrepreneurial activities?
DN: They thought I was completely mental! “You’re not earning any money.” But one of the high points of 1967 was that I had written something about Aretha Franklin in the Atlantic Appreciation Society Magazine, and Jerry Wexler saw it, and he was so thrilled that someone in England knew so much about Aretha that he sent me a promo copy of “Baby I Love You.” I couldn’t get over it – I had a letter from Jerry Wexler. And why I remember it particularly well is because it was a red and white promo of Atlantic. I had taken it over to my boyfriend William’s house, and I was playing it, and then I heard the other side of it, “Going Down Slow.” When I was going through boyfriend troubles with William, I would play “Going Down Slow!” [laughs]
(Photos: Soul City, 17 Monmouth St., 1967/Big Maybelle Visits Soul City, summer of 1967)
But the bottom line is we did move the record store, in the late autumn of ’67 after we had a major burglary and pretty much got 'cleaned out.' Dave had very high ideals about how it should look, so we had all these colors designed, magenta and blue, and we hired a friend of his to do that. We launched Soul City Records at 17 Monmouth Street, and it became very popular because we had increased our import orders, and we really had started to establish a name. And simultaneously, we also started the Soul City record label, which consisted of licensed material. We had a hit, a charted hit, with Gene Chandler’s “Nothing Can Stop Me.” And I was the press person. I was the record order person and I was also the publicity person for the label. We released about 20 records, and then Dave coined the phrase “deep soul,” to refer to a particular kind of soul music that was very intense. He was the first person who ever said those words. That’s when we started the Deep Soul label. There were some very obscure records. We had a record by the Emotions called, “Somebody New,” we had the Ad Libs’ “Giving Up.” The thing that’s important about this is that we were so far ahead of our time. We really were pioneers. It was really an amazing experience, and I know we were on the vanguard of promoting and establishing music in the United Kingdom.
DF: So it seems that there was a real flurry of activity starting in ’67. For those next couple of years you were really cooking.
(Photo: Dave Godin, David Nathan and Robert Blackmore, Soul City team on an outing, Brighton, 1968)
DN: Yes, and then an executive from Epic came, Dave Kapralik. He had heard about the shop, and he came and said, “I want you guys to help promote Sly and the Family Stone in England.” They paid us to help promote. When we had new records we would go up to the BBC to help promote them and try to get them on the air. We had to see someone called a “plugger,” and if they liked them then they would make sure they got on the radio. We did really well with "Dance To The Music," it became a British hit and Sly and the group came over: I met Sly at an event we had for them and when I was being introduced to me, all he did was nod!! Like no response at all!
But the most significant thing during that time period was that I got really ill, probably from all the stress of trying to do all that I was doing. And they thought that I was going to leave, like die. It was very serious. The thing that turned the corner was I got a telegram from Nina Simone and her husband, saying we heard you were in the hospital, and we wanted to wish you well. When I got the telegram it made me cry, to think that someone like Nina Simone would think about me, and I had a conversation with God, basically saying, I’m only 21 years old. I haven’t had any life yet, and you just can’t do this. I actually remember saying that, mentally, to God. And I started to get better. The doctors were like, “we don’t know what happened.”
DF: So really, music saved your life in a more literal way.
DN: Absolutely. And through all my teenage years, it was really my salvation, because I did not come from an easy household. There was a lot of tension, there was a lot of stress, a lot of fighting. Gambling, there was all kinds of things. It was not always easy growing up, trust me - although I would say that my mother and father did the best they could, all things considered: we always had food on the table, school uniforms, I even had my own Olivetti typewriter and one point, a little Xerox photocopying machine! But music really did provide me the solace, the salvation, the comfort emotionally. And I know that I would have not made it without music. That’s why it’s become the central theme of my entire life. Because without it, I don’t know – it would have been a different life or no life.
DF: After you opened the record shop, and you moved to the West End and it got pretty successful, did they have a glimmer that maybe this was something that might turn into a career?
No. I loved what we were doing. And of course I thought that it would be successful and it would continue. But I wasn’t thinking, “Well, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I wasn’t thinking career although I did love singing so I would sing along to the records we were selling. I remember singing along with Nina Simone's "To Love Somebody" when Elton John (who I think was 'Reggie Dwight' at the time - we're talking 1968) came in to buy records since he was a regular customer! I even tried to record a little duet with a friend of my sister's Gloria in the store - we were doing "I Say A Little Prayer" and I remember it was pretty awful!
DF: How did you make the transition from record-store owner to becoming this professional music journalist?
DN: There’s a transition period when Dave Godin and I had a tremendous fight because of the direction of the record shop. We were not making money, things were not going well, and we had a fight. He said, “Well, I’ve had enough,” and he walked off in a storm on a Saturday night. Over that weekend I had called John Abbey, who had started Blues & Soul magazine and had his own little company called Contempo. I cornered him and said, “John, I think I need your help because I don’t know what to do. Dave’s left, we’re going to need some money to keep Soul City going. Would you be open to that?” And I guess John must have called Dave Godin, cause when we got in Monday Dave had changed the locks and he just went completely beserk: “Oh, it didn’t take you two minutes, I turn my back and you try to sell the shop to John Abbey!” So he threw me out.
This is all 1970. But what happened was I kept in touch with John, and Aretha came to England to do “Top of the Pops.” And I of course had had the previous relationship with her, and her record company person told me where she was staying, and I sent her some flowers, spoke to her on the phone, and she said, “I would love if you come to the t.v. studio.” Later, I talked to John Abbey: “I went to the studio to see Aretha.” And he said, “You know, David, she’s not talking to the press, she’s not doing any interviews. Do you think you could turn that into a story?” So that became my first cover story for Blues & Soul in August 1970. Then a position opened up in John’s company for somebody to do mail order stuff. So I began to work for Contempo. Because of my background working in record companies, I knew how to order records. At the same time, John started to give me stories to write, and that’s when I started to develop myself as a journalist for Blues & Soul.
(Photo: David's 1st cover story, Blues & Soul, August 1970)
DF: Are there any funny stories from that period?
DN: Oh yes. There was a group called the Blackberries, who were actually originally background singers. They were on A&M in England, and A&M was behind my house, so on my trot to A&M to do the interview, they said, “Why don’t you come to lunch with us?” I said, “Oh, my gosh, I have to get back to work.” They said, “Oh, come on, come on.” So I went to lunch, and I had champagne. Not a good idea. I dragged myself back to work, and John’s wife, who also worked there, had a fit. “How could you leave us? This is disgraceful! We have all these orders to send out!” When you’re a little tipsy you respond differently, and I said, “Oh, shut up!” So she burst into tears, and John’s like, “You can’t talk to my wife like that! What kind of behavior is this, coming in at 3:00 in the afternoon?” I said, “I’m really sorry. I’ll write a really nice story about the Blackberries!”
The point is that I really developed a love for writing through those articles for Blues & Soul in the early 70s. When I came on holiday to the states in October ’74, at that point I was clear I wanted to be a writer. During that trip I interviewed Labelle, Ashford & Simpson, and Millie Jackson. And then I saw Aretha and Blue Magic at Radio City Music Hall, and after that I was like, “This is what I’m going to do, for the rest of my life.” So I went back home, told my parents, told John Abbey. John said, “Well, you’re not doing it on my money, I can’t afford to employ you.” And I said, “Well, I’m gonna go anyway,” and my friends are like, “Are you mad? What are you going to do?” At that last minute, at the eleventh hour, John Abbey said, “All right, I can see you’re serious. You can do this as a trial for three months, and we’ll see how it goes.” He paid me a salary, and Blues & Soul had a little apartment in New York, which was really a photographic studio. So I got to sleep on the sofa, and that’s where I stayed for three months. And I went nuts. My job was to do as many articles as I could in those three months to prove to John Abbey that I could do this. I literally was doing three interviews a week. Back then, we had typewriters, we didn’t have any computer. I used to use a lot of White-out. And then I started a new column called “Inside America,” which I had to turn in every two weeks.
DF: You were in New York for about six months in 1975?
DN: Yes, and great times they were! I remember my first Gloria Gaynor interview - her manager lived in the same building I was living in - The Westerly on 8th Avenue. I got to know Zulema and used to hang out a lot with her. I went to my first 'gospel' church with Arthur Freeman of Revelation up in Harlem. Went to church in Newark with Doris Duke! Had my first - and last - taste of chitlins with Herb and Brenda Rooney of The Exciters. So many good times! And interviews, interviews, interviews, shows, parties...good times!
We had a period when the magazine went weekly, so that was completely beserk. I had to turn in a lot of work. And the time it went weekly was when I first moved to LA, in August of ’75. And I stayed there for about six months. Couldn’t handle it, and I was having relationship issues....
(Photos: David Nathan, New York, 1975)
Part Two: David moves to Los Angeles, back to New York and back to Los Angeles again!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.