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THE TORCH STORY
The Golden Torch Ballroom in Tunstall, Stoke On Trent played a crucial part in the formation of the Northern Soul scene. Below are some of the original adverts and flyers for the venue. I've also included the first half of an article published originally in Blues & Soul 103.
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AS WITH most old buildings, the fabulous Torch club has a story of its own and who better to tell it than the clubs' only owner. Chris Burton, who bought the club in 1965 and still holds the reins very firmly.
"The actual building dates back to somewhere about 1824. At first it was a church in one part of the building and around the turn of the century it became a roller skating arena before becoming the Regent cinema. And it was the Regent cinema that I bought in 1965.
"We were looking for a local site in the Stoke area because until then I had been promoting shows and hired the Town Hall in Stoke for the occasions. They had proven very successful and I felt that the town was big enough to support a club of its own.
I knew of the old Regent cinema, of course - in truth, it was the town's bug hutch, the local dive where all the cheap films were shown. But, beggars can't be choosers and so I bought it, the whole thing -- the building AND all of the original decorations -- cost in the region of £27,000.
"It's strange now that I look back because the first star attraction to the club -- it was the Golden Torch then -- was one Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. Frankly. though. it was a case of who drew the crowds because I knew we had to show a profit.- He was certainly successful for the club and we continued in a middle-of-the road rut until around late 1967.
ln fact, what originally encouraged me to turn the club into a Soul venue was when we had Inez and Charlie Foxx here in 1967. They were the first Soul act we ever had in the club and they went down fantastically. That convinced me that I could make a business out of putting on Soul shows regularly and the "Torch has been a successful Soul venue ever since.
"Yes. I have tried other types of music here but we always go back to 1000% Soul. We tried Reggae even once, and, of course. we have had a stab at the so-called heavy market a few times but it's never proved to be good for this club. I think it's true to say that we didn't feel it -- we don't feel anything outside of Soul music, really, do we?-- and that may be why we never succeeded. Our hearts simply? were not in what we were doing.
"When the club was first opened back in 1965. it was called the Golden Torch: it was a semi-ballroom with all the delicate awnings painted golden to add to the effect. And. let's be honest. the Golden Torch sounded better. too! Then. when we went over to Soul. we had all the bits and pieces removed and everything was painted black and that's the way it still is today .
Why do we continue to prosper? Well. I have to say first of all. that we are perfectly placed from a geographical point of view: people can get to us from almost anywhere. Then, I think the club has the right attitude to the kids who have made it what it is.
"We have never filled the place with a lot of big bouncers looking for trouble -- that's why we have never had any trouble. The kids respect us for this and they look after their club. They look upon the club as their club: it's a kind of meeting place for them. They come from all over the country- to talk about the rare records and the artists -- in fact. anything that involves their Soul music. Sure. we all realise that the music we play here is mostly in one vein but that is exactly what our patrons want. And as long as the kids keep bringing in their rare records. it's going to stay that way. it all swings back to dancing. really.
"The great moments of the Torch? I would have to say that the greatest memory for me was that eve-opening night when Inez and Charlie Foxx came here and showed us all what Soul was all about. I remember at the time having contracted to pay £150 and 1 was more than a little worried that I could be on the wrong end of a loser. They were the days of Roy Tempest!
"But the greatest reaction the club has ever given is to Major Lance just before last Christmas. That was the night he recorded the 'live' album of his greatest hits: it was also the night that he broke an existing gate records. There were almost as many people outside trying to get in as there were inside.
"The recording of course, is something of a landmark in our history, it's a sort of recognition for what we are doing. But the kids here have always been Major Lance fans: they appreciate the way he always gives them more than value for money and that always pleases audiences.
"Oscar Toney Jr is another act that always goes down well at the Torch -- he's nor a well known act but the crowd always gives him a big hand. And the club always does good business when Oscar Toney is here: Junior Walker did good business for us last year but I was personally disappointed with the so-called All Stars. I liked the Stylistics they were very professional in everything they did but they didn't go down too well.
"Are there any dull moments in the Torch's history Well. we had one last Saturday Roy C. is about the worst act 1 have ever had in the club. As far as the actual artists go though. I can honestly say that I have never encountered any real problems. Soul acts are far less trouble than the Rock people.
"The future? Factually we are doing some rebuilding Upstairs where the bar now is. we are going to extend it across the main ballroom it will certainly add to the capacity but it will not affect the viewing of live acts. Our motto has always been that acts have to be seen.
"Then, we are working with the Top Rank clubs in Hanley and Watford to bring Soul acts into those two venues. In a way Soul has become a forgotten art form and people such as Rank are turning to outside expertise to bring the crowds in. The Torch has proven once and for all that Soul is nor a weeny bopper scene."
There is no disputing that the Torch is a shining oasis in a desert of nonentities calling themselves clubs. Every Saturday night. they cram hundreds of Soul folk inside their four walls. The place gets packed to the point where the only way you can move inside the sticky sticky hall is when the person next to you moves. But, above all, this Victorian bastion has one thing that so many places completely lacks -- and that is summed up in one word -- Atmosphere!
I don't know what it is about the place bur it grabs at you the moment you enter the front door. My vivid memories of the club are coming off the roundabout in the town centre and into a dark semi-main road then turning into this dismal side street. barely lit with terraced houses opening straight into the pavement way. Then. as you make that final turn, the music can he heard by a keen ear and the more you walk along the street, the more it becomes a case of following your ears rather than your eyes or nose.
Then suddenly you come face to face with a glass door behind which a smiling face looms out from a foyer, obviously a throwback from the cinema days. But the thing that strikes you about this smiling face and all the other smiling faces that clog up the doorway is that they are all smiling! When did you last go to a club where they attendants were happy doing what they're doing?
Then you get inside and it's a little like one of those old bar rooms in the western movies. Without the people in the main hall, it could easily be mistaken for just that and with a few select chairs and hard-back chairs. I'm sure Chris could earn some extra money renting the place out to grotty Italian film companies trying to capture some genuine atmosphere for their equally grotty films.
When the night is in full swing though. you don't see any of the floor. Only people enjoying their music and dancing their own little dance. And you feel this... this atmosphere There's really no other word for it.
Long may the Torch lead the way for Britain's soul folk. Long may it be the focal point where brothers and sisters can meet and talk about their music. dance to it and do all of these things in comparative safety -- without the constant fear of fights, drunks and handbag snatchers.