WHAT ABOUT WHAT?
WHAT I have learned, since the late 1990's when I was first informed that the song was a massive hit in the Northern Soul genre and that I was considered a Northern Soul singing legend, is that there are many stories surrounding it's discovery and evolution. The promoters, the record labels, the disc-jockeys, the artists as well as the dancers and fans, all have their stories to tell. The following are a few of those interesting and varied stories.
Neil Rushton - DJ, record collector and record sales
Ian Dewhirst - Northern Soul record collector
Neil recalled this story when I met him at his record booth in 2014 at Butlin's. "In the summer of 1976, Ian Dewhirst found some copies in L.A. and sent them to me in the U.K. I sold them to the main DJs. I played one of those first copies at the Manchester Ritz All-Dayer. That may have been the very first time it was played anywhere in the UK.”
Ian Dewhirst described his role: “Yes, I'm the one who discovered ‘What’ in L.A. in '76. I noticed the H.B. Barnum credit and thought it could be Northern and boy was I right! Strange world ay? I found ‘What’ at a hippy record dealer's house - a guy called Chris Peake who looked scary like Charles Manson but turned out to be a good guy. I'll tell you the whole story when I get a minute 'cos I'm the guy who gave Soft Cell ‘Tainted Love’ as Mark Almond used to work in the same club as me in Leeds. Because of his success with ‘Tainted Love’ he then covered ‘What’ and had another huge hit with that!”
The story of the Northern Soul classic 'What' by Bob Stanley.
Northern soul classic 'What' was initially recorded by Melinda Marx on the Vee Jay label in 1965. Melinda was a somewhat reluctant pop singer with a sweet but rather limited range - as she'd have been the first to admit – which was far better suited to the softer, mid-tempo flip side 'It Happens In The Same Old Way'. The high notes on 'What' found her straining a little, which may explain why soul fans prefer the b-side with its hints of Barbara Lewis and Dionne Warwick-like sophistication. Melinda cut one further single, 'East Side Of Town', before squirming out of recording duties which had been largely foisted upon her by her father, Groucho Marx.
It would be three years before Judy Street recorded the version of 'What' that became legendary at Wigan Casino. Judy Street had been born in Indiana in 1949; her father was a concert pianist and her mother a flautist. After she married a Mr Corner in the sixties she became Judy Street-Corner, but wisely used her maiden name as a singer. Her manager Conrad Bachman discovered her singing in a bar in Phoenix, Arizona, and asked her the classic question “do you want to be a star?” Unlike Melinda Marx, Judy Street very much did. What was recorded as the b-side to 'You Turn Me On' – the session was arranged by the song's writer HB Barnum, and Darlene Love and the Blossoms provided backing vocals.
Judy's version of 'What' appeared on the tiny Strider label and sold even fewer copies than the Melinda Marx version. Yet it was picked up by the Wigan Casino crowd, and found immortality when it featured in ITV's This England northern soul documentary, directed by Tony Palmer. A few years later the song was finally a hit when it was covered by northern soul nuts Soft Cell, who gave it an electro-pop brush-up, much as they had done with Gloria Jones' 'Tainted Love', and were rewarded with a no.3 hit in 1982.
Tony Palmer's documentary is well worth a watch, incidentally. Its footage of the dancers at Wigan Casino – notably a cheeky hospital laundry worker called Christine Rigby, dancing to the Judy Street 45 – is very precious; virtually no one else ever filmed inside the venue. A Hollywood producer took Palmer out for lunch shortly after it aired and pumped him for stories on Wigan; a little while later, the movie Flashdance appeared, with its main character seemingly based on Christine Rigby. None of the dancers in Flashdance are, I'd venture, as good as she was.
Paddy Shevlin, Soul Survivors Family
“One cannot overstate just how big this track once was on the scene. As I recall it ‘broke’ just after The Torch closed and when played at the infamous Leeds All-dayer, circa Summer 1973, it was greeted with mass euphoria. At the time we didn’t realize Judy Street was a West Coast white pop singer, nor that two Leeds Polytechnic students would cover it and have a Number One hit when they got together as Soft Cell. Those facts would have many dismiss the track as pure gash now – but it was a milestone record in the evolving story of Northern Soul and no worse than a host of other ‘pop’ tracks that somehow registered with the faithful. I remember everyone was talking about your record and when it was played, it fairly ripped the place apart. The room was huge, and the floor was concrete but no one there that day will ever forget it, even though it's something like 37 years ago. 'What' fitted in perfectly too with the Northern Soul genre, the tempo was perfect, and it built up spectacularly to allow people to synchronize their dancing. Imagine if you will, literally hundreds of people spinning on the spot during the instrumental break before launching themselves skywards into a back-flip as you sang 'oh tell me - WHAT! That little line 'over and over again' was another cue for more spinning. Crazy I know Judy and I wonder what you must be thinking as you read this, but the song's sheer simplicity and drama was captivating and for many now middle-aged people, it captivated a time and place in their youth which was quite joyous! On behalf of thousands over here, I'd like to thank you sincerely for the three great minutes of happiness you once created for us! Good Luck & God Bless.”