It’s rather bizarre to think that an artist that recorded just two songs in the late 1960s passed into the rich history of soul music. Yet that’s the case for Judy Street.
OK, so Judy’s story is about so much more than just one sublime 45rpm slice of vinyl, but at the same time it’s all about that single.
I’m talking about a recording for songwriter HB Barnum in late 1968 in California, as this sweet teen – just turned 19 – sang the rather risqué slow-burner You Turn Me On, coupled with the more dance-oriented What, which later caught the imagination as a Wigan Casino revivalist anthem some five years later.
That b-side has never been out of fashion since, and despite the fact that only 1,000 copies were initially pressed, it’s rated among the best Northern Soul songs ever.
What’s perhaps most surprising about this tale, though, is the fact that Judy – based in Nashville, Tennessee, for the past two decades – knew nothing of her fame on this side of the pond until the late 1990s.
It was at that stage, while searching her name on the internet, that she was astounded to learn about What’s cult status via the Napster online music service. But I’ll let her tell that part of the story.
“It blew my mind, and still does. I searched ‘Judy Street’ and ‘What’. In those days you could see emails listed under what you were looking at, and there were about 11 contacts with my record.
“I was thinking, ‘11 people have my record? This is over 40 years ago!’ So I picked a couple of random names and emailed them. I’m thinking that was around 1995/96.”
Ever since, Judy has been playing catch-up, and this week returns to the UK for her latest five-date tour, including star billing on a Preston’s Got Soul show at the University of Central Lancashire’s 53 Degrees venue on Friday, May 16.
There are four other dates, moving on the following night (Saturday, May 17) to The Swinley in the town where her late-found fame came about, Wigan.
Then there’s the Minto Hotel in Edinburgh (Friday, May 23), the new Twisted Wheel club in Manchester (Sunday, May 25), and Rumworth Hall, Bolton (Friday, May 30).
But I’ll go back to the beginning now, having spoken to Judy via the wonders of Skype, our video call bridging a 4,000-plus mile gap between Lancashire and Tennessee.
And give or take a couple of interruptions from errant but loveable one-year-old border collie Wilson, it was a fantastic reception, with the interviewee a pleasure to speak to – always bubbly, always candid.
Judy’s travelled a fair bit over the years – born in Indiana, discovered in Arizona, recorded in California, now in Tennessee.
“You got it.”
Did that go with the territory – being a professional musician, and a musician’s daughter at that?
“Even back then, I travelled with my dad when he was performing, then after that with a band – playing from Bermuda to Hawaii and all in between, across the States.”
Judy explained how there was always music in the house, her father a concert pianist who had studied at Chicago’s Conservatory of Music, while her mother played flute.
Her parents taught music lessons by day, and her dad performed in lounges and concert halls by night.
And in time, Judy had joined her dad on those performances, him playing piano, her singing and playing percussion.
“Dad was a pop piano player too, playing in clubs and singing songs, like Frank Sinatra tunes. He made his living performing, but his roots were classical.
“Mom played in a marching band, but when her and Dad decided to start their own music school in Phoenix, Arizona, when I was little, he decided she should teach accordion.
“Back in those days that was one of the instruments that was taught, and I played it from when I was about four.
“But while Mom played flute and knew how to read music and could dabble on piano, she had never played accordion.
“So one night, Dad told her he’d scheduled a student for the next day, gave her a book and the instrument, and said ‘learn’.
“The next day she had a student at three o’clock and said she was never as nervous in her life, especially when the girl’s mother walked in with her. Mom had stayed up all night to learn how to play.”
The gambit paid off, and she ended up teaching accordion for many years, as well as piano. And these days her daughter is a music teacher too – tutoring drums and piano.
“I absolutely love it. You see these kids start out with no knowledge of music and see them become piano players or drummers – like centre-snare players in marching bands, and I’m just so thrilled.”
Judy and her husband, Tom Stewart, have four children between them, now in their 20s and 30s, that love of music clearly spanning the generations.
Her youngest son plays trumpet with a local symphony group, while there’s online footage of Judy and Tom singing a Wynonna Judd song with daughter Beth, a powerful song with luscious three-part harmonies.
“Nashville likes country. 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? I guess they grew up without knowing too much about all that.
“My oldest son went with me to my first tour and show at Blackpool Tower, acting as my manager, helper, and right-hand man. So 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 loved it, and he’s coming again on this tour. And I’m really excited about that.”
What did your folks listen to when you were growing up?
“My family was old-school conservative. Dad grew up with classical pieces, so I grew up under the grand piano listening to him play.
“Later on, he would have rehearsals with his bands in our home, so I would sit there with an accordion case, forks, spoons or whatever I had, and join in on percussion.
“It was ‘40s jazz like Misty, Tenderly, My Funny Valentine – all those standards Dad played in the clubs. Then there was Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole …”
And who inspired Judy as a teenage artist? I’ve heard it was early Barbara Streisand and Karen Carpenter.
“Oh yeah, I listened to Barbara. She was brilliant at the time. She was young and she was hip, and I was listening to styles of singers.
“The Karen Carpenter thing came in because she was the drummer, and I was going to gravitate towards playing drums – no matter what. And I did!
“I had my own band and said, ‘hey guys, I’m going to be the drummer! I sat down and played, and they said ‘brilliant, play a Karen Carpenter song!’ It was a natural progression.”
Judy can certainly talk, and I got a bit confused at this stage with the timescale, asking if that was with the Swingin’ Society, the band she toured with across the US – just her and four guys.
“No, it was after that. The Swingin’ Society was right after I recorded What. At that stage I was in California, by myself, and had to make some money, so I auditioned, and they hired me immediately.
“We started working the next day at Disneyland. We’d rise out of the ground, do our 45-minute set, then go back down, coming 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’s Harrah’s Casino.
“We travelled two and a half years all across the States, playing real nice venues and places. We were very well liked and worked like crazy. We were exhausted when we finally got a break.”
By that stage, had she thought she’d blown her big chance? She’d recorded just one single and that had supposedly come to nothing. And now she was on the hotel circuit.
“Exactly. You got the picture. Six nights playing, packing up then moving on to the next city on the seventh.
“We did some television spots during the day, featuring the band in town, but there was never a recording situation, although there may be some terrible-quality reel-to-reel or cassettes about somewhere.”
Judy had lost her Dad when she was still at high school, when he was 47. It was clearly a difficult time, but she graduated and moved to Arizona, and it was there that she got her big break.
“I was in Phoenix and playing clubs when this manager came and saw me and told me ‘I’m going to make you a star, little girl, take you to California!’”
That venue was the Holiday Inn, and the manager was actor Conrad Bachmann, a regular on the big and small screen since 1961, his various roles including parts in Mission Impossible, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Dynasty, Starsky and Hutch … You name it.
While he was no proven music impresario, he certainly saw and heard something in Judy.
“In a short time, I was there and recording in the studio with HB (Barnum). But the music business was foreign to Conrad, and the marketing side fell flat.
“He knew everything about being on the screen, but as far as marketing a record at that time, he just didn’t have the facility.
“That would have been brilliant if it had happened, as we now know – with hindsight.”
How soon did it all happen between that initial meeting and her move to California?
“It was fairly quick. I had a contract where I was performing, so finished that, shortly after packing up and driving to California.
“Within a few weeks it was all put together. By the time I was there he had a place for me to stay and had the studio sessions set up.”
Then came her first meeting with HB Barnum, who had an office in Hollywood and had written and arranged for a wealth of big names – from Count Basie to Frank Sinatra, Etta James, Aretha Franklin.
“He knew them all, and knows them all. I got to spend the summer with him before I came to Blackpool in 2012, and sat at his house between recordings and talked.
“He would just blow my mind talking about all the people he knew and the inside of the music scene – who produced the records, who played on them.”
But Judy could never have guessed how important that one session with HB would prove.
As it turned out, the sound was just right for what the Northern Soul crowd craved in later times – with Judy’s so soulful yet under-stated voice.
What would her late Dad have thought of this innocent teenager singing You Turn Me On?
“When I was singing that, I was thinking ‘this has not been done before, a young girl singing something a little … what’s the word … risqué? He would have been like ‘Judy! What’re you doing?’ But I knew.”
The a-side was a great song in its own right, so much of its era, and a real grower. I tell her I’m surprised it was never a hit.
“I was too. That was supposed to be the hit. That was what we were marketing, because it was so unique at the time.
“HB wrote both of those songs and they were great. I was just so thrilled at the time to be allowed to sing them. He’d already had a couple of girl singers record versions of What, so I’m sure 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.
“The Blossoms were three black chick singers who did harmony for a lot of the studio work at that time, and for HB. They were his ‘go to’ singers. He didn’t have to write a chart out for them!’
“Yet I asked him recently about the band and he couldn’t remember who played the session or even where we were.
“He was so busy at the time, and was also the road manager, band director and writer for Gladys Knight for many years.
“He hired the rhythm section, guitar, bass, drums and keyboard – the latter doubling to play the vibes part you hear on What.
“We also had a full-on horn section – with four saxophones – and string section.
“Back then, there were no synthesisers, and I was blown away because I’d never been in that situation and then I walked into this studio and it was massive – gymnasium-size.
“I thought it would be small, like they are now, garage-size – but they needed to be big, with all these players.”
Did she record anything else while she was there?
“No, that was it. Conrad had booked a 45 session – the two sides – and pressed the records pretty quickly.
“It was some time around September, October, November – I’m not exactly sure.”
Does it still surprise her how much of an impact that song made over here, on generations of Northern Soul lovers? Has she ever analysed just what it was that appealed?
“The actual beat of that record fits so totally into that Northern Soul genre. I didn’t know that then, but do now.
“As far as my voice is concerned, I was so green – I was just this little girl with this vibrato. But I’ve always had this big sound, even though it was thin back then. A little like Petula Clark.
“When I found it was a huge Northern Soul hit, it made total sense to me. And you do realise that everyone thought I was a black chick singer? They thought I came out of Detroit. I guess I had some of that soul sound.”
The picture taken of Judy at the time – a version of which appears on her new Cover Girl CD – is pretty timeless too – with that oh so ‘60s hair and clothes. Totally hip.
“Yep, and everyone wants me to cut my hair short now!”
So will she?
There’s a clip doing the rounds on the internet of a group of Northern Soul fans dancing in a late night food bar in South Yorkshire to What. Has she seen that?
“I love that! They’re so real, and having the time of their life. I saw that several years ago, and I’ve re-posted it a couple of times on my artist’s page – it’s just so fun! My friends over here think that’s so cool.”
Then there’s the famous Wigan Casino footage to the same song out there too.
“The one where they’re doing the spins and all that has had over a million views, and that blows my mind. That was one of the first videos I saw.
“Kev Roberts – one of the first people I contacted in the UK about my single, sent me one of his books and a couple of knock-off copies of my record, and a copy of one of those films where they used my song for a Northern Soul.
“That was the first time I got to see the full story, and it took a long time for it to sink in.”
Being a little younger – with Judy’s single recorded around the time I was celebrating my first birthday – I admitted that it was Soft Cell’s version of What that I heard first.
“Oh, my gosh!”
That was in 1982, and it was probably another four years after that I caught up on the Northern Soul scene.
So is that right that Judy’s hoping to meet Marc Almond during this UK visit?
“I would love to do that, and I know he would like to meet me too, which is just so much fun.
“I just want to hug his neck, because he did what he did and loved my song, then recorded his version. The controversy over it has been hysterical – it’s been great!”
Was she aware of Gloria Jones’ Tainted Love before Marc’s version?
“Oh yeah! Actually, there was a time I was working in Newport Beach, California, with the partner I sang with, working the clubs, right down there on the beach.
“We were playing a show in this exclusive boating area, when 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 would know that, or the fact that the record had even been shipped over to England!
“They asked me about What then asked if I knew Marc Almond had a huge hit with it. ‘Who?’ I said. ‘Soft Cell,’ they said. ‘Who?’ I said.
“I can’t remember the date, but if I’d done something about it then, if there had been an internet … but I just dismissed it at the time.
“I just thought, ‘ok, you’re from across the pond and I don’t know what you’re talking about’. Had I followed up on that, maybe called HB …
“Or if someone had called me! They should have let me know! But it just didn’t happen.”
Judy’s more than made up for that time lapse in recent years, and is getting excited about her latest UK tour, and even thinking about her next trip beyond that.
“Well, I’m hoping next year I can do it with a live band, but this time I’ll be singing with my tracks. That’s why I recorded my Cover Girl CD.”
Yes, Judy has been getting some airplay recently, not least through Glenn Walker-Foster, who is among the DJs doing sets at Preston’s 53 Degrees, with her new CD.
A sneak preview showed me it includes her versions of Tainted Love, Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You (Indeed I Do), Long After Tonight Is All Over, Sunny, and much more, including one track written by Judy’s husband Tom.
“Sunny by Bobby Hebb was one of the first songs I sang with my dad, so when I found out it was a Northern Soul cover song, well …
“We also did Long After Tonight Is All Over, because I just fell in love with that song, as I did with It’ll Never Be Over For Me, both brilliant songs, wonderfully written.
“I loved every second singing them. As for Tainted Love – I want to give Marc Almond one of these CDs, it’s just going to blow his mind too!
“He recorded my song, so I’ve recorded his cover of Gloria’s! And we had to start the album with Tainted Love, because … can I say it? It’s just such a kick-ass track!”
That just left me with one more question, concerning word that she’d sold her last 18 copies of the original Strider 45 of You Turn Me On/What.
I guess she regrets that now, judging by the fake crying down the line, before recovering and adding: “Actually, don’t tell anyone, but I did find two after!
“I had 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?’
“So I sold them for … are you ready … $50 a piece, which I thought was great at the time. But they sell for over £500 now, I believe.”
Ah well. You can’t change that now, Judy, but just feel proud of the fact that you helped create such a great moment, one that generations of soul fans have appreciated since. And quite rightly.
Thanks to Andrew Kirkham at Preston’s Got Soul, with a link here for tickets and more information.
Appreciation too for background from Steve Handbury’s fine feature with Judy in Manifesto in 2005, reproduced online via thesoulgirl.com, with a link here.
And to keep up to date with Judy, check out www.JudyStreetWhat.com.
* Breaking news from writewyattuk … it appears that Judy – on arrival at Manchester Airport – was ‘refused entry to the UK due to an inadequate work permit’.
Her promoters at Preston’s Got Soul posted an update on their Facebook page just after 9am on the day of her Preston 53 Degrees appearance (May 16), apologising ‘to everyone for this situation, which is out of Judy’s and our control. Judy is devastated.’
They did however add that the Preston event will go ahead – with DJ sets from Russ Winstanley, Glenn Walker-Foster, Gary Hollins, Derek Smith and Glen Miller – although full refunds are available via Preston’s Got Soul or 53 Degrees.
For those still wishing to attend, there’s a £5 reduction on the ticket price if purchased in advance.
The promoter added: “Many apologies from Judy and the Preston’s Got Soul. We are hoping to rearrange this event in October and will advise as soon as possible.”
Please check via the venues for the other four events regarding rearrangements there too.
In the meantime, here’s to Judy’s return to the UK later in the year.
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