In his more than forty years in the business, Dr. Bob Jones has seen dance music trends come and go. Whether he’s selecting music for his worldwide gigs, or an underground radio show, he remains consistent by sticking to one formula: playing soul music of the highest quality.
You hear this level of consistency in the hits he and his business partner Lofty has championed over the years on their well-respected Chilli Funk label. “Earth Is the Place” and “Surprising” by Nathan Haines, “Feel Love” by Ultra Naté and “The Way” by Vanessa Freeman are just a few of the jams that have created many a memory on dancefloors across the world. From his seminal post-production treatment of “The Jones” by the Temptations (a Chicago steppers’ anthem!) to works by Terry Callier, Al Green, Swingout Sister, Darryl Hall and Bobby Womack – these are all acts to whom the Good Doctor has given his soulful touch.
We took a moment to chat with Dr. Bob on his life in music, from his early days as a DJ in the 1960s to his arrival as radio show host on London’s famous pirate radio scene; as a party promoter, music compiler for the legendary “Mastercuts” series and his role as one of the original (and still current) residents at the Southport Weekender.
Please tell us about your beginnings as a music enthusiast and DJ.
I was born the 3rd eldest of four children in 1949 into a working class environment in the South East corner of Britain in a city called Chelmsford, in the county of Essex. We had a piano in the house, which my late father would often play as entertainment for the family in the evenings. My two elder sisters were responsible for my early musical education – out of the eldest sister June’s bedroom I would hear the latest popular music of the day, and growing up in the ’60s this would be mainly split between UK pop music and American Rock’n’Roll. My second eldest sister Linda would play records of American Blues and Rhythm’n’Blues artists. I remember hearing Blues from Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Sonny Terry and Sonny Boy Williamson, and it was these roots of black music that appealed to me whilst growing up as a teenager in ’60s Britain.
I started buying 45 single records at age 13 or 14 (1962 or ’63) – American black music released on UK labels. I was also hearing black music on my fathers radio on a European station called Radio Luxemburg, and via pirate radio stations such as Caroline, Atlanta, 390 and King. By the age of 17, I had a collection of over 100 LPs and about 500 45s. I had my first ever gig as a DJ at my local youth centre in May 1967. I lasted about 15 minutes, as the crowd at the centre wanted to hear pop music.
I persevered and put together some mobile DJ equipment – two Garrard SP25 record decks, housed in a wooden box with a 4 channel mixer, and I also acquired two x 100 watt valve amps and two stacks of speakers. I secured my own weekly residency at a local club in Chelmsford called Dee Jays in May 1971 and would spin tunes every Friday night from 8pm until 2am for around £25.00 ($50.00). But to secure the residency I had to mix popular chart music alongside my collection of Soul and Jazz.
When the early strains of Disco music started coming in around 1973-74, I had a 100% black music playlist at Dee Jays. I was the Friday night resident at the club until late 1978, with a reputation for spinning quality Soul, Funk and Jazz.
Who were some of the artists and or DJ’s that you’ve paid attention to?
My first Soul artists were Otis Redding, Edwin Starr, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Sam Cooke, The Temptations, The Miracles. When Tamla Motown finally got a UK label deal in the early 60’s, it was Tamla Motown from Detroit and Stax Records from Memphis that occupied my early record collection. In mid ’60s I was hearing a raw rhythm that stood out about the smooth arrangements of Motown and the emotional Southern Soul of Stax Records.
In 1973 I bought a record called ‘Rock Your Baby’ by George McCrae (Jay Boy Records UK) – this for me was one of the earliest Disco records that I heard. Then in 1975 another disc took my musical taste into another direction. The tune in question was “Cathedrals” by D.C.Larue, issued on a 12 inch vinyl on Pyramid Records. It wasn’t the first imported record in my collection, but it was the first 12 inch disc that I bought. The arrangement and lengthy mix just blew me way and started me looking for the Disco beat.
The second 12inch bought was probably my most important find of the 1970s, musically speaking. The tune in question was “Ten Percent” by Double Exposure, a mammoth 9 minutes, 15 seconds of pure soulful ecstasy. Its importance in my DJ career is vast, as it introduced me to a person, who for me was one of the pioneers of modern dance music – the late but immensely great Walter Gibbons. Walter with Shep Pettibone, Frankie Knuckles, Tom Moulton and Larry Levan influenced me so much, alongside Tony Humphries and Ron Hardy.
What do you look for in a song or track when you select music to play?
I’m a great lover of songs, yet I find the whole process of actually writing lyrics a rather daunting process. So most of the time I put the backing or rhythm track together, then ask my guest vocalist if they are happy to write the lyrics. But to be able to put pure emotion on vinyl is like a dream come true – I’m very lucky to have achieved this with my recording projects The Interns, True Spirits and East West Connection.
When choosing my playlist I get attracted to tunes that are almost unfinished, tunes that are slightly rough around the edges. The vocals that excite me are again slightly raw, voices that have an edge like Su Su Bobien, Chance, Maxine Innis, Una, Kim English, Ann Nesby, Aretha Franklin among the ladies and Roland Clarke, Robert Owens, Peven Everett, Josh Milan/Alexander Hope, Arnold Jarvis, Michael Watford, Roy Young and Mark Evans for male vocalists.
I’m also attracted more towards small independent labels, and I find more future soul in listening to those labels and artists who make up the underground music scene rather than the bigger more commercial ones. It isn’t an ego thing – it’s just that way. The best sounds are below the surface, but if they happen to rise above the underground and crossover to the mainstream, then I will still support the music. I also like real instrumentation in my music. I think this stems from my love of Jazz and Fusion. The modern dance music of producers such as Osunlade, Jihad Muhammad, Shannon Harris, Anthony Nicholson, Franke Estevez, Karizma, Phil Asher, Quentin Harris, Kenny Carvajal, Glenn Underground, Blaze, Kerri Chandler, DJ Pope, DJ Oji, Dennis Ferrer, Terry Hunter, Esteban, Joe Clausell, Kenny Dope, Louie Vega, Elbert Phillips, Antonio Ocasio, Ron Hall… These guys excite me so much and I cannot wait to purchase their latest productions and mixes.
At what point did your DJ career grow into music production?
I had a radio show on London’s KISS FM in the late ’80s, which at that time was still a pirate (illegal) radio station, but cutting heavy sway with underground black music. In 1990 I was approached by RCA Records UK to remix one of their artists, Gene Rice. This was my first attempt at record production, and the end result was “You’re A Victim”, released as a single in 1991. The same year a friend, Mervyn Anthony who was working as A&R for Motown UK sent me a copy of the studio mix of The Temptations “The Jones” and suggested it would be a great project for me to get involved with. The end result was the Surgery Mixes of “The Jones”, released on Motown in the USA in 1991 and the UK in 1992.
KISS FM went legal in London in September 1990 and the Temptations track was played heavily on the station. I was given my Surgery with Dr Bob Jones radio show on KISS 100FM every Sunday which lasted until January 1999. The success of “The Jones” remix in the UK and Europe opened a lot of doors for me and I went on to produce some of my black music heroes including Al Green, Bobby Womack, Terry Callier and Darryl Hall.
In the mid ’90s, I was asked by DJ friend Lofty to produced a tune for his new record label project, Chilli Funk Records. I recorded a version of Teddy Pendergrass “The More I Get, The More I Want” with Lofty and the production team East West Connection was born. After that, Lofty asked me to join him at Chilli Funk and I became assistant A&R for the label. Since then I’ve gone on to write, produce and record two albums for East West Connection, singles for The Interns and True Spirits and various artists projects for Chilli Funk under “True Spirit” and “Soulful Music For Funky People” (with Lofty).
The Southport Weekender is one of the most anticipated events for music lovers around the world. Please tell us a bit about your involvement as a DJ.
Southport Dance Weekend originally started out as Southport Soul Weekend at a holiday centre in Berwick-on-Tweed in the UK in 1987, by Up North Promotions. Up North Promotions was started by Alex Lowes, whom I knew as DJ. Alex has been a friend of yours truly since the early ’80s and I was resident at another Soul Weekender at the time, called Caister Soul Weekend, which was being run at another holiday centre on the UK’s East Coast. The first Up North Weekender was put on the same weekend in April 1987 as a Caister Soul Weekend, but Alex wanted me on his team of DJs so he asked Caister’s promoter if he could “borrow” Dr Bob to spin at his event. So I played at Caister on Friday night, then was taken to Norwich airport Saturday morning and got a plane to Edinburgh, then a car to Berwick-on-Tweed, which is situated on the Scottish-English border. I then played at Berwick Saturday night, then flew back to Norwich early Sunday morning, then on to Caister in time for the finale on late Sunday afternoon. Crazy trip, but worth all the travel, and Alex showed his gratitude to me by including the good Dr Bob Jones as one of his resident DJs.
Myself alongside Billy Davidson, Bob Jeffries and Simon Mansell have DJed at every event, and are the surviving members of the first Up North Promotions Dance Weekend. It might seem crazy to some of your readers that for 20+ years of our lives, twice a year we’ve made that journey to Pontins Holiday Centre on the North East coast of the UK.
I’m honoured to have played at every Southport and have watched the party grow into the mammoth event we see today with over 5,000 people at each party. I truly believe that this party is very unique and has definitely stood the test of time. It’s retained its soulful roots, yet keeps pushing the music forward. Out of all the residents at the event, I’m the only DJ who has a session in three out of the four rooms. I feel very honoured to be able to do this. Southport Weekender reached 20 years in 2007 – the same year I reached 40 years in the business.
You’ve had a few memorable radio shows, how did they come about?
My radio shows came about due to the fact by the mid ’70s I had gained a rep as a spinner of quality black music in clubs. Toward the end of the ’70s, the only way to listen to underground black music sounds, especially in the area of London, was through pirate, or “illegal” radio stations, which would broadcast on the FM Frequency mainly on weekends. Various stations started up in London in the late ’70s including Radio Invicta (Soul Music), Dread Broadcasting (DBC), which was Reggae-based station, JFM (Jazz Funk Music) and Horizon Radio (Soul) amongst others. I was asked to do shows on JFM and Horizon in the late ’70s. When Horizon changed its name to Solar Radio in the early ’80s I had a regular show, but it was still illegal. I left Solar Radio around ’84/’85 and was asked to join a new station, KISS FM, towards the end of ’86. DJs on KISS included Coldcut, Bobby & Steve, Jazzie B (Soul II Soul) and Norman Jay.
By this time the British Government was getting very concerned by the number of pirate radio stations located mainly in London. Towards the late ’80s London had over 300 illegal radio stations, broadcasting mainly on weekends and covering all aspects of black music including Soul, R&B, Hip Hop/Rap, Disco, Rave, House and Reggae, and there was also a station called K-Jazz which specialist in all genres of Jazz Music and included DJ’s Kev Beadle, Dr Bob Jones and a young Gilles Peterson. So I had two radio shows on the pirates, one for Kiss and the other for K-Jazz.
Around 1988 the UK Government issued some FM licences to try and combat illegal broadcasting. To meet the conditions of obtaining a legal licence, the illegal station had to cease broadcasting for at least 12 months and have financial backing of at least 1 million UK pounds!
On Sept 1, 1990 KISS 100FM switched on legally in London for the first time and I was given a regular Sunday slot, which I called The Surgery with Dr Bob Jones. I stayed at KISS for 8 years, leaving in December 1998. I resigned because I didn’t like the way the station was progressing, musically speaking, and in January 1999 was asked by BBC Radio London to join their specialist DJ team, which included Norman Jay. I stayed at Radio London for a further four years, interviewing King Britt and Blaze amongst others, and presented my Surgery Radio show every Thursday evening. In 2003 Radio London gained a new programmer, who admitted that he didn’t like the specialist music shows and so I was forced to quit. I’ve had a regular show on Soul 24-7 Internet station, which unfortunately pulled the plug in 2005. Now I broadcast a monthly “freestyle” Surgery show on Samurai FM, covering all aspects of my black music upbringing from my ’60s roots through to the present day. You can check the show on www.samurai.fm/drbobjones
Tell us about some of the events and weekly parties you’ve played over the years.
This is a tough one, considering the amount of great parties that I’ve had the pleasure of playing over my 40 years in the business. The original Caister Soul Weekenders (1979 to around 1983) were superb parties, twice a year. The Caister Weekenders were the pre-runners to the Southport Weekender Parties. My own Surgery parties were special, purely because they were a weekly party and also I gained a Best Club and Best Club DJ award from Blues & Soul magazine from co-hosting this weekly event with a good friend, Mr Sav Remzi of Nuphonic Records/Tirk Records fame. Another weekly club I was involved with was Shake It Loose held at London’s Bah Rumba Club every Thursday for over two years during the mid-90s. Large parties, or more like music festivals have been Tribal Gathering (1996), attracting over 30,000 party people! I was headhunted to play in the back room at Hard Times, in Leeds UK. The residency lasted from 1996 to 1998. I was also chosen to DJ at the opening of a new Culture Centre in St Petersburg, Russia in Nov 2001 and returned for the city’s Nu Jazz Festival alongside musician Nathan Haines and his band in 2002. The year 2003 I DJed at The Gijon Soul Festival and also made another return to Tenerife in May for a 3rd successive appearance at the island’s Inspiracion Canaries Festival playing to an audience of over 11,000 black music lovers.
Recent parties have included The Big Chill (UK, 2005), another 25,000+ event; Electric Picnic (Dublin, 2005); and the Isle Of Wight Music Festival (UK 2006). I had a monthly residency at ‘Soul Sides’ in Cork, Ireland for about 2 years in the late 90’s. I recently played at a party in The Hague, Holland with good friend & DJ Keb Darge. This party is a yearly event celebrating Holland’s Queen Beatrice’s birthday. A massive event that caters for nearly 100,000! Over nine outside stages. Keb and I played back-to-back for around 20,000 partygoers. Last New Year was spent in Moscow – an incredible experience playing in a converted restaurant to around 350 people, the atmosphere was electric and the party was superb.
I am at present one of only four resident DJs at The Southport Dance Weekender, held twice a year in the UK (around May and November) and I also play at a few yearly smaller weekenders in the UK.
How has the UK house scene evolved or changed over the years?
UK House evolved from the heady days of Acid House parties in the mid- to late-1980s. This scene was predominantly fuelled by drugs – mainly Ecstasy. The music back then was a more “freestyle” approach to dance, where the odd hip-hop cut and soft rock track would sit alongside “Love Is The Message”.
As the drugs got harder in the early ’90s, the music followed, with dancers wanting music of a less soulful variety and more of a “harder” feel to the floor. Out of this scene came Drum and Bass and Break Beat parties. The real Soul and Inspirational parties were driven completely underground. During the early 2000s, UK dance music became completely mainstream – almost a watered-down commodity compared to its black underground roots of the late ’80s. Music from the US of A was supplemented heavily with European dance music and also the Techno music of Detroit. Nowadays, there’s a real interest in “How did it all start?” with a whole new generation in the UK wanting to know the history of American House Music from New York and Chicago. But most of the large House clubs have folded and the scene has again moved underground with the smaller clubs proving them selves, musically speaking. The “real UK House scene” definitely lies beneath the streets, and that which remains “above” is a poor watered-down copy of a good House Party with very few exceptions.
There’s a real interest in Gospel Dance Music, hence the rise in interest in the inspirational sounds of Baltimore, Washington and also Chicago and parts of Detroit.
Yes, UK House is very healthy at the moment, but apart from the larger parties such as The Southport Dance Weekender, it’s still more of an underground vibe.
Can you recommend any good/great weekly parties in London for those of us on the other side of the pond?
There are various parties around London that are definitely worth a visit. Firstly, for some of the smaller parties, there’s Faith, held at The Lodge in Harlesden (West London). It’s an intimate affair with a superb audience, and pure underground vibes. Faith always attracts DJs from across the pond and is one of Quentin Harris’ favourite places to go if he’s in London.
Two other small, but highly inspirational clubs are Body Music and Soul City, held at various venues around the city on a monthly basis. These two parties are highly inspirational and very soulful in the mix and are more of a word-of-mouth affair, but they always put their parties on the Southport Weekender Forum site. Check southportweekender .co.uk/forum/ for further info.
Larger parties are Defected at the Ministry Of Sound. These are usually a monthly jam, and regularly play host to Timmy Regisford, Frankie Knuckles, MAW, Kerri Chandler, Dennis Ferrer and DJ Spen. If you like your music a little on the hard side then check out Fabric. Fabric has an incredible sound system and hosts two large dance rooms, a capacity of around 1200 in each with a small room that is ideal for smaller parties. I’ve had the pleasure of hosting Chilli Funk parties at Fabric and cannot recommend it enough – a superb venue, staff, etc. and definitely worth a visit on a Saturday night.
Dr. Bob Jones was interviewed by Elbert Phillips