A brief history of... Wigan Casino
The first of a new series taking a cheeky look at the most influential clubs throughout the ages. Where better to start than Wigan Casino?
2am, 23rd September, 1973. Station Road, Wigan. The double doors of a grand ballroom – once known as The Empress – swing open in the Sunday morning mist. From inside, the thump of The Sherrys’ Put Your Arms Around Me guides a stream of bodies, 600 or so, up a narrow flight of steps. An old dear called Mrs Woods mans the battlements at the top of the stairs, taxing 75p a head and pointing up another staircase, through another set of doors onto a gleaming maple-sprung dancefloor. Welcome to the Wigan Casino Soul Club.
Many of the folks on that first night came clad in badges from the Twisted Wheel, Blackpool Mecca and the Torch all-nighter, which had recently shut in Tunstall after a precious 13-month lifespan. Even still, the scene at that time was evolving: nights at Va Va’s in Bolton, the Catacombs in Wolverhampton and dayers like the Top Rank in Hanley flew their flags high, while Colin Curtis and Ian Levine had sealed their spots at the Mecca’s Highland Room.
Step forward Mike Walker and Russ Winstanley. Walker, manager of the club, hatched the idea for a new all-nighter in Wigan and brought in Winstanley’s from his sets at Central Park rugby club as head DJ. Their aim was to fill the niche left by the Torch and put Wigan on the map for a reason other than rugby league. Winstanley had already stocked an impressive arsenal of US imports thanks to his uncle and contacts at Selectadisc. His music policy proved to be as strict as it was simple: keep playing the mid-60s rarities, stompers and classic oldies.
He soon enlisted the help of Kev Roberts, Martyn Ellis and, slightly later, Richard Searling to rival the Mecca’s established lineup. Ian Levine – son of a casino owner in Blackpool – was feeding the Mecca’s playlist more than anybody at that time, at the turn of 1974; so where were the unknown Wigan DJs getting their records from in the early days? Kev Roberts was one of Winstanley’s earliest recruits, and it’s interesting to hear him describe the relationship he developed with an infamous character named Simon Soussan – a relationship that turned out to be of inestimable value during Wigan’s formative years.
“I actually played the second ever all-nighter on Sep 30, 1973,” explains Roberts. “Simon was a contact I had in LA. He was a real good record-finder, French-Moroccan, but he’d spent some time in the UK which is where I met him – in a Nottingham club called the Brit, actually. He was a face on the scene, a bit of a character, business-minded, but also had an unbelievable ear for these records.
“Russ [Winstanley] had a record stall at the time and got in touch with Simon too, so a lot of the Wigan rarities in the first few years were sourced through him. We were hungry to get these records through and constantly on the phone to find out what each other had lined up to play next Saturday. There were quite a lot of parcels coming to my mother’s door.”
Key tracks between 1973-74 included World Without Sunshine by Sandra Phillips, I've Gotta Find Me Somebody by The Velvelettes and I'll Always Need You by Dean Courtney. Then, moving into 75-76, you'd likely hear the sounds of Dana Valery, Bunny Sigler and Lou Pride ringing round the main hall.
Soussan, also a serial bootlegger, was ultimately responsible for sourcing many of Wigan gems in the early days and beyond, and even had a hand to play in the story of Frank Wilson’s ultra-rare Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) a few years later. Legend has it that he borrowed one of only two known original copies from Tom DePierro, a Motown exec, in 1977 before pressing 2,000 bootlegs on In Records under the name Eddie Foster; Soussan and others claim he bought the record from DePierro fair and square. Either way, the disc ended up in Winstanley's hands in 1978 ready for the Casino floor.
The Casino stage also played host to an impressive alumni of live acts, and artists like Edwin Starr and Jackie Wilson were noted for their powerful performances. There's even the story of James Brown, who rocked up to the venue one night on the premise of a hefty booking fee, and peered down at dancefloor from the upstairs balcony, before eventually refusing Winstanley's invitation to play. Presumably Brown was just too damn funky for his own good.
“The thing about Wigan, though,” Roberts continues, “is that it left a huge legacy in its own right and I’d say that’s because it was open for eight years – much longer than any of the other allnighters going previously at the Wheel or the Torch. When the Torch closed the music really was top-draw in Tunstall and that had a really positive effect on the opening of the Casino, no doubt about it, with tracks like Here I Go Again and Love on a Mountain Top. The list goes on.
“The Casino had its own identity, its own uniform, and it was generally in the right place at the right time. It picked up where the Torch left off, and I’d say that when the TV cameras turned up in 1977, that was the final milestone in the progression of the original Northern scene. Of course, the scene is bigger now than it ever was. The 10,000 people who were originally part of that movement can’t still be going out, so the music must have been passed down through friends, family and the modern-day wonders of technology. I’m proud to say it’s a treasure chest that my generation discovered.”
Another former Wigan DJ who, like Kev Roberts, has done his fair share of record-hounding over the years is Richard Searling, who filled the spot as Russ Winstanley’s co-DJ following Roberts’s tenure. Searling clearly impressed during his residency at Va Va’s in Bolton and is, in fact, the guy who unearthed Gloria Jones’s Tainted Love.
“I found that record on the floor of a warehouse in Philadelphia,” says Searling. “It looked good as I had heard of Gloria and the producer Ed Cobb. When I got it home and dropped the needle I couldn’t believe the power and the urgency coming back out of the speakers. It was immediately a huge hit on the dancefloors and probably got me the gig at Wigan.”
Soft Cell know who to thank, then. Searling soon built a dedicated following and worked towards a more mid-tempo sound with tunes like Jackey Beavers’ I Need My Baby and Carol Anderson’s Sad Girl. Meanwhile, the Mecca gradually mixed in the sounds of The Carstairs’ It Really Hurts Me Girl and Gil Scott-Heron’s The Bottle. “Blackpool was indeed our main competitor,” admits Searling, “but it was never personal. They had a great following and so did we, and a lot of people made the trip between the two towns every weekend.”
If the rivalry was never personal then it certainly was based on differences in tempo, style and fashion, and those differences spurred the progression of the scene for years to come. That said, although the Mecca regulars – a typically Paul Smith-styled clan – turned their nose up at the iconic baggy-panted look favoured by the Wigan dancers, there were countless convoys between the two towns with the Mecca running 8pm to 2am just in time for the start of the Casino. The Northern scene has always been a nomadic fraternity, after all.
Wigan also had Mr M’s: a second room named after club owner Gerry Marshall and dedicated to playing forgotten oldies often heard at the Twisted Wheel and, later, the Torch – stuff like Ritchie Adams’s I Can’t Escape From You and The Incredibles’ There’s Nothing Else To Say. These records were generally more available than those heard in the main room. “It formed part of a two-pronged attack,” remembers Roberts. “The beauty of the second room was that the music reached the average bloke on the street as well as the die-hard soulie searching for rarities. That proved to be a bit of a masterstroke and added to the reputation.”
By the early 80s, although new discoveries were being made, the magic was on the wane. The council wanted the building back, the scene had peaked and the true spirit of the Casino had changed. Still, every allnighter culminated with the same three songs, the Three Before Eight: Tobi Legend, Jimmy Radcliffe and Dean Parrish. This idea was coined by DJ Dave Evison, although Martyn Ellis used to finish with Dean Parrish anyway. On the final night in December 1981, these three tracks were played three times consecutively; and have no doubt that they will continue to be played in bars, bathrooms and kitchens, on radios, hi-fis and newfangled android devices long after the end of that final night.
More from The Skinny:
Catch Kev Roberts' Signal Soul every Saturday from 6pm on Signal 2, 1170am & DAB
Richard Searling also has a new weekly Northern Soul show on BBC Radio Manchester starting at 10pm on 10 Apr