John Grant, one of the UK’s leading black music DJs of the late-‘70s / early-’80s died last month – he was 71. Apart from his family and close friends, his passing went largely unnoticed – his legacy somewhat forgotten. This is because he retired from DJing in 1981, right at what was seemingly the peak of his powers, completely disappearing from sight as he moved to the South coast, as the legend at the time was told, to become a lighthouse keeper, or, in another version, a harbour master (the truth seems to be that he moved to Peacehaven to work for a Hovercraft company).
John moved on just before the scene experienced a radical transformation, with Electro laying the groundwork for the oncoming Hip Hop, House and Techno directions. His abrupt departure left a vacuum, which I’d personally become the major benefactor of, my club nights at Legend in Manchester and Wigan Pier, where the new Electro-Funk direction took root, subsequently replacing his concluding Manchester residencies, The Main Event at Placemate 7 with Mike Shaft and his Saturday nights at Rufus with Colin Curtis, at the cusp of the scene.
John, a British Rail employee, played Soul, Funk, Disco and Jazz-Funk. He cut his teeth in Rochdale as a mobile DJ, whilst his first residency in the town was at Exit 21 Soul Club from 1975-77, where he worked alongside DJs Colin Anderson and Pete Thorpe, playing a mixture of contemporary tracks as well as Northern Soul oldies.
I can’t say I really knew John, apart from sharing a couple of conversations during the few All-Dayers we appeared at together, as well as passing some words when buying records at Spin Inn. To make the All-Dayer line-ups gave a level of your status on the scene, and when I started to catch the attention of the promoters in 1981, getting my first, then minor billings, John, along with Colin Curtis and Piccadilly Radio presenter Mike Shaft, were the headliners.
My personal impression of John was a big somewhat gruff, no-nonsense Northern bloke with large tinted glasses. He was very much an ‘adult’ in my 21 year old eyes, then entering into his mid-‘30s, which, to me the time, seemed to be getting on a bit. Even Colin, just 4 years younger than John, recalled on meeting him that ‘he looked like me dad’.
John would gain a foothold in Manchester via the Painted Wagon pub, where in 1977 it was reported in Blues & Soul that he was playing New York Disco, as it was then termed, and Northern Soul (he also DJ’d at the John Bull). He’d then step up to a whole new sphere of visibility in the city after hooking up with the already legendary Colin Curtis, coming off the back of his Blackpool Mecca fame, to start their long-running Sunday night together at Smarty’s, important in the evolution of the Jazz dance scene in the North as the venue where Birmingham’s crew, clad with black stockings on their heads, first announced themselves in Manchester.
However, it was for their Saturday nights between 1978-81 at another Manchester club, Rafters, on Oxford Street, where John & Colin made their greatest combined impact. Away from its black music history, Rafters is best known as the club where one of its other DJs, Rob Gretton, saw Joy Division play for the first time, before going on to manage them, and later New Order (as well as becoming co-owner of The Haçienda, along with TV personality, Tony Wilson, who was also there that night). Situated underneath the Rock club, ‘Jilly’s, the venue would undergo a series of name changes over the years, eventually becoming The Music Box, home of the Electric Chair, arguably the greatest underground club night of the city’s recent past.
Rafters played a key role in Manchester’s black music scene. Before John & Colin’s time there, Mike Shaft had made his DJ breakthrough as the club’s weekend resident, prior to landing his influential Piccadilly Radio Soul Show, ‘Taking Care Of Business’ (which would later, in 1982/83, showcase my early mixes). In fact, it was the manager of Rafters who bestowed Mike with his DJ name – he remembered being told ‘we need a theme tune for you’ and being handed a copy of Isaac Hayes’ ‘Theme From Shaft’, at which point he was informed ‘from now on we’ll call you Mike Shaft’.
Things would turn sour though. Mike’s nights at Rafters were the first to attract a sizeable black audience to a Manchester city centre nightclub. One Saturday he turned up to find that the club weren’t letting his regular crowd in, the reason they gave him was that ‘we think it’s getting too black’. Unprepared to ‘play less black music’, Mike quit, and the club’s glass door was smashed as a small riot almost ensued at the closure of this seminal night. Mike would re-locate to Rufus where he continued to play the music he loved.
The management must have had a change of heart in hosting John & Colin’s Disco Fungk night, beginning July 1978, for they attracted a similar largely black crowd. Colin’s main previous association with Manchester had been via the Neil Rushton promoted All-Dayers at The Ritz, which, having been initially Northern Soul driven, began to take a Disco / Jazz-Funk direction, adding ever-increasing numbers of black dancers to what was previously a predominantly white audience – these events highlighting the schism in the Northern Soul scene, with the Wigan Casino traditionalists set against the Blackpool Mecca progressives.
The catalyst for the Grant / Curtis partnership was Kev Edwards, who, along with Harry Taylor, managed the all-essential record shop Spin Inn. Having seen John at work, and in the knowledge that Colin was interested in starting a regular night in Manchester, he played matchmaker and, as a result, the duo took over Sunday nights at Smarty’s, conveniently next door to Spin Inn, just ahead of securing their Saturday night slot at Rafters, where John would also play solo on the more commercial Friday night.
In 1979 Blues & Soul’s Northern club correspondent Frank Elson, a big supporter and friend of John’s, would describe Rafters as ‘still the premier Saturday night Disco / Funk scene in the North’. That December, it was a big deal for me when Frank reviewed my then hometown residency, the Golden Guinea in New Brighton, the write-up taking pride of place on the same page as an advert for Rafters – the North’s top Jazz-Funk club announcing its Christmas and New Year events with John & Colin.
With Rafters held in such high esteem, John joined Colin on the All-Dayer circuit, and was quickly promoted to headline billing as the late-‘70s moved into the early-‘80s, playing throughout the North, Midlands and in Scotland. John was very much the organiser, right down to printing up record lists that were distributed at Rafters – something I subsequently picked up on for my own nights. (View here):
For a period his name would be billed as John ‘TNT’ Grant, due to the pyrotechnics he was prone to set off for full theatrical effect. He was undoubtedly of the old school in terms of his DJ style, which was microphone-based, mixing yet to make its breakthrough with all but a small scattering of UK DJs. He certainly made things happen, pushing the scene forward via the club nights and All-Dayers he promoted / appeared at. His emergence as a leading DJ cemented with the ongoing success of Rafters, and along with Colin he led a collective of DJs on the All-Dayer circuit.
Apart from Rafters, Colin’s Friday nights at Cassinelli’s, in Standish near Wigan, were really popular, with Harry Taylor also featuring. Cassinelli’s was owned by Nick Hanley, a relative of Terry Lennon, who’d open Wigan Pier in 1979. Terry was no doubt inspired by Nick when it came to factoring in a Jazz-Funk night of his own at the Pier. Whilst Cassinelli’s Tuesday night, with John joining Harry, never really took off, Wigan Pier’s Tuesday nights would subsequently win the venue Blues & Soul’s North’s Best Club accolade a few years on.
The higher echelons of the black music scene still seemed way out of reach for me at that point, but fate would lend a hand and 12 months later I’d landed my dream job, having taken over the residency at Wigan Pier, and, as the jewel in the crown, become the current custodian of their Tuesday night Jazz-Funk sessions, which had been built-up by the club’s previous residents, Kelly and Nicky Flavell. Neither Kelly nor Nicky, who’d been contracted by international DJ agency, Bacchus, were part of the All-Dayer circuit, so Tuesday night at the Pier then attracted a mainly local Lancashire-based crowd, which left it in something of a bubble at that point, still largely unknown to the wider scene – something they tried to address by hiring John and Colin for their first All-Dayer, in April 1980.
It was during this period that the Northern Soul scene succumbed to the newly-emerged Jazz-Funk movement. Colin Curtis had skilfully negotiated the change, his lauded Blackpool Mecca partnership with Ian Levine now a distant memory as Rafters ruled the roost. Wigan Casino would close in 1981, having failed to recreate its former glory in a new club climate where US-influenced venues like Angels in Burnley, The Warehouse in Leeds and, of course, Wigan Pier had confirmed the shift towards Disco and Jazz-Funk along with the freshly-emerged Alternative / Futurist directions, youth culture in post-Punk flux.
Rafters had closed for redecoration in the spring of 1980, but John and Colin were riding the crest of a wave and in high demand to play at clubs and All-Dayers throughout the North and Midlands. Legendary Twisted Wheel DJ Roger Eagle (the original early-mid ‘60s Brazennose Street resident), his Liverpool club Eric’s having only recently closed, had taken over Saturdays at Rafters, whilst John started a weekly Tuesday night there without Colin (he also did a Wednesday night at Pips around this time with Anton Kay). At the start of 1981 Grant & Curtis came back together, re-launching their Saturday nights at the club, but only a few months later the night came to a close, the duo switching their Saturdays to Rufus.
My Wigan Pier opening had arrived because Nicky Flavell moved to the newly opened Legend in Manchester, owned by the same company, launching their own Wednesday Jazz-Funk night to immediate success. However, following a disagreement regarding the club’s weekend music policy, Nicky left. Paul Rae and Ralph Randell became joint-residents from Thurs-Sat, with John taking over the Wednesday Jazz-Funk sessions in February ’81.
Then, just 4 months later, John abruptly left Legend to join forces with Mike Shaft for a combined Blues & Soul / Piccadilly Radio rival promotion, The Main Event, which was held every Tuesday at Placemate 7, formerly the Whitworth Street location of The Twisted Wheel. With such heavyweight backing, The Main Event hoovered up the bulk of the available midweek audience, whittling away at Legend’s attendance figures until they’d dropped beneath 100 people. It was as a result of this that I, on the back of the continued success of Wigan Pier’s Tuesdays, was brought in to see if I could turn around Legend’s fortunes.
That same month, August 1981, John dropped a bombshell, announcing his imminent DJ retirement and South coast re-location. His farewell gig was a Clouds All-Dayer in Preston on August 31st. Frank Elson wrote of him; ‘in only four short years he’s established a position that I doubt any jock apart from Colin (Curtis) will ever emulate’.
It was all change – Mike Shaft taking over from John at Rufus, whilst Colin filled the filled the gap at The Main Event. Needless to say, John’s departure left a sizeable void, and within 12 months the scene in Manchester would be turned on its head. By May ’82, Legend had rebounded beyond our wildest hopes, hitting capacity, The Main Event closing as a consequence.
The Electro-Funk era was upon us and Legend would be at the cutting edge of things throughout the coming years. Colin would temporarily lose his footing in Manchester, before finding a more intimate venue called Berlin to host his Jazz-led nights in 1983, enhancing his already rich legacy in the process.
When I retired myself, at the end of ’83, John’s example of going out at the top certainly wasn’t lost on my youthful ego. I likened it to the heavyweight champion going out unbeaten, although, in reality, the new direction (record production) that I stepped into was far more insecure and unsure than the solid career move John had made.
In 2015 John re-joined Colin for 2 Rafters Revival nights at Band On The Wall. The duo published a list of classic Rafters tracks, many of which are included here in a Spotify playlist:
There’s a recording of John Grant and Colin Curtis at Rafters on Saturday 4th August 1979, available to stream on Soundcloud:
For further insight and information regarding the late-‘70s / early-‘80s scene in Manchester, the following interviews with Colin Curtis, Mike Shaft and Nicky Flavell are available via Electrofunkroots: