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The Independent Obituary

Dave Godin
Esperanto-speaking vegan who became an apostle of soul

By Phil Johnson
Wednesday October 20, 2004
The Independent

David Godin, music journalist and CD compiler: born London 21 June 1936; died Rotherham, South Yorkshire 15 October 2004.

Dave Godin was one of the world's leading authorities on soul music, who as a journalist, compiler of records and CDs, and general ideologue for what he saw as the cause of black American music, helped to transform popular culture in Britain.

In a long career in which he was also engaged in a whole range of political and ethical activities involving anarchism, Esperanto, vegetarianism and later veganism, animal liberation and film censorship (on which he was also a world authority), Godin was, among other things, responsible for the creation of a dedicated Tamla-Motown label in the UK, the co-owner of the first specialist black music record shop in Europe (Soul City, in Deptford and later Covent Garden), and the first person to give a name to the phenomenon of "Northern Soul".

His series of compilation albums for the Kent label, Dave Godin's Deep Soul Treasures, the fourth volume of which appeared only a month before his death from lung cancer last week, is one of the great achievements of popular music scholarship, raising his beloved rhythm and blues and soul to the status of grand opera, the only art-form he thought capable of achieving the same level of emotional intensity. Until his retirement through ill-health, Godin also ran the Anvil Film Theatre in Sheffield, a civic cinema that he, as Senior Film Officer, had helped to create. Here, his rigorous approach to programming ("Dictatorship in the arts, democracy in everything else" was his credo) enriched the arts scene of his adoptive South Yorkshire, where he was a well-known figure, often appearing on local radio.

Godin's personal discovery of black American music occurred in an emblematically English moment of epiphany, in an ice-cream parlour in Bexleyheath in 1953. Some builders were playing records on a brand new American jukebox, and, struck by the shockingly new sound, the 16-year-old Godin tried to swivel his eyes along with the spinning record in order to read the label and see what it was:

I was trying to read it as it went round and this bloke saw that I was interested, and pointed it out on the list: Ruth Brown, "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean". I'd never heard a record like that before.

It was so earthy, so real, and the words were so adult. This young man - I wish I could go back and thank him because it changed my life - gave me about five sixpences and said, if you like this, you'll probably also like this, and this and this. It's called rhythm and blues, black American music.

Dave Godin, whose father worked as a milkman, was born in Lambeth, south London, in 1936. He spent his early childhood in Peckham before bombing forced the family to move to suburban Bexleyheath, in Kent, where he won a scholarship to Dartford Grammar School. "And it was at Dartford Grammar School, of course, that I met Mick Jagger and introduced him to black music, I'm ashamed to say," Godin told the writer Jon Savage in a 1997 interview. "It's ironic that as a result of meeting me he's where he is today."

Godin encouraged the younger Jagger in his interests in American R&B, and played a minor role in the early jam sessions out of which the group who later became the Rolling Stones emerged. He later took a Pyrrhic revenge on Jagger, whom he resented for what he saw as the Rolling Stones' exploitation of black music. At a recording of Ready Steady Go! in 1964, the already famous Jagger asked Godin to introduce him to the Tamla-Motown singer Marvin Gaye, whom Godin, by now Tamla's representative in the UK, was with. "I told him to fuck off and introduce himself," Godin recalled.

Following the encounter with Ruth Brown in the ice-cream parlour, Godin became an enthusiastic collector of American R&B, which in the UK at that time was a kind of underground, samizdat pursuit, as records weren't normally released here or played by the BBC. At around the same time, he also became a vegetarian, discovering an equivalent sense of solidarity when meeting fellow enthusiasts for either activity.

After leaving Dartford Grammar, Godin worked briefly in an advertising agency and travelled around the United States with a schoolfriend (where he experienced R&B concerts at first hand) before claiming Conscientious Objector status for his National Service. At the tribunal, at which he registered his objection not, as was usual, on religious grounds but because, as he said, "I didn't want to learn how to murder people", the committee congratulated him on the rigour with which he had presented his case, and he spent his two service years working as a hospital porter.

The most extraordinary episode in Godin's career is probably his role in the story of Tamla-Motown in the UK. In 1963, after setting up the Tamla- Motown Appreciation Society, and experiencing a lack of interest from Oriole, the various Tamla labels' parent label in the UK, Godin wrote directly to Motown in Detroit. He was shocked to receive a five-page telegram in reply from the founder Berry Gordy, inviting him to visit the company's headquarters forthwith. A plane ticket followed and Godin arrived in Detroit to be met by various Motown stars and taken to a banquet in his honour at which he couldn't eat any of the food because he was vegetarian.

On his visit, Gordy would casually ask his opinion on which new Supremes or Martha and the Vandellas single he should release next in the UK, and by the time he returned home Godin - whose bearded anarchist's countenance made him an unusual presence in the Motown milieu - had become a paid promotional consultant for the company. As such, he helped secure airplay on the new pirate radio stations, and encouraged EMI (who had taken over the Tamla labels' distribution from Oriole) to create a proprietary Tamla-Motown label, which Godin wished to promote on the basis of the overall Motown sound, rather than individual artists. The result was the greatest success story in the history of black music in the UK.

After later losing some of his credit with Berry Gordy by advising against going ahead with a Motown package tour of the UK, which ended up playing to half-empty houses, Godin set up the Soul City record shop in Deptford in 1967 (later moving to 17 Monmouth Street in Covent Garden), and began writing an influential column in the magazine Blues & Soul, also established in 1967. It was in a Blues & Soul column, in June 1970, that Godin made another significant cultural intervention, when he gave the name "Northern Soul" to the new soul scene emerging in clubs in Blackpool, Stoke and Manchester, whose fans would come into the Soul City shop at weekends looking for fast-tempo dance records notably different from those favoured in the south.

As a writer, Godin could be idiosyncratic - he took it as a compliment when a critic said he wrote as if translating from the German - and also combative, but his taste in soul music was unimpeachable. Shortly after the Soul City shop, and its associated record labels, Soul City and Deep Soul, went bust in 1971, Godin moved out of London in search of cheaper housing, first to Lincolnshire and then, in 1978, to Sheffield. At Sheffield Polytechnic, he enrolled on a new degree course in the History of Art, Design and Film, which led in turn to his appointment as a Film Officer and the creation of the Anvil Film Theatre.

Godin became an indefatigable campaigner against cruelty to animals in film-making, whose efforts succeeded in stamping out many abuses, as well as campaigning against all forms of film censorship. Although a lifelong atheist, in his later years Godin also became a proponent of the Jain religion.

In a life full of passionately held beliefs about all sorts of things, Dave Godin's identification of the concept of deep soul, and the four magnificent albums devoted to it that he compiled between 1997 and 2004, will stand as a permanent achievement. By bringing together obscure and neglected records whose unapologetic emotionalism did not suit all tastes in the soul spectrum, he created one of the towering monuments in the history of black music.

That it took an Esperanto-speaking vegan from Bexleyheath to do it is all the more poignant.