I first became aware of this unexpected number 1 when watching a vintage edition of Top of the Pops a few years ago, and it really stumped me. How did this old-fashioned minor soul track, performed by a bunch of old men in strange outfits, do so well in 1971? Since then, I’ve discovered Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me had first been released in the US in 1964. It topped the charts seven years later thanks to its popularity with the northern soul scene. It is in fact the only number 1 linked with the movement.
The phrase ‘northern soul’ first began to be heard in 1968 in journalist Dave Godin’s Covent Garden record shop Soul City. It went public proper in 1970 thanks to his weekly column in Blues & Soul magazine. He had noticed that football fans from the north who visited his shop while following their team weren’t interested in the developing funk sound and instead still loved the more pop side of soul from the mid-60s.
In the late-60s, soul fans from all over the country flocked to the Twisted Wheel in Manchester to attend all-nighters, but in January 1971, its burgeoning reputation as a drug haven resulted in the venue closing down. Fortunately, the movement had grown across the north by this point. By the time of this number 1, the main two northern soul clubs were the Golden Torch in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent (Peter Stringfellow used to DJ there) and Blackpool Mecca.
The Tams originated in Atlanta, Georgia back in 1960, taking their name from their trademark tam o’shanter hats they would wear on stage. Founder members were the Pope brothers, lead singer Joe, and Charles, plus Robert Lee Smith, Horace Key and Floyd Ashton (who left in 1963).
Their first single of note was Untie Me, a Joe South song, which reached the Billboard R&B chart in 1962. Two years later was the high watermark of their original recording career, with modest US hits including What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am) and Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me, neither of which charted in the UK. Both were written by Ray Whitley.
Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me is built around the song’s title, sung repeatedly by the backing singers, while Joe (who does have a sweet, distinctive voice) tries and fails to convince the listener that he wants no part of this girl, as he’s been warned she’s bad news. He doesn’t want to be added to ‘her list’ of tossed-aside lovers, but, well, she does ‘look so fine’… you get the drift. The main hook does stick around in your head for a while, but this sounds quite old-fashioned even for 1964, and must be up there with the most unlikely number 1s of all time.
It’s likely The Tams’ popularity among northern soul lovers was originally down to Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy, a much better track, that charted in the US in 1968 and on these shores in 1970. Unlike their number 1, here’s a song you can actually dance to, which is what I thought northern soul was primarily about?
Nobody looks more surprised at The Tams appearing on Top of the Pops to promote Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me than the group themselves, as you can see in the clip above. It’s quite endearing watching them sticking out like sore thumbs, with Key in the middle actually looking quite scared. In fact, with about a minute of the performance left to go, he disappears, and they carry on without him!
That was it for The Tams and the UK charts, until 1987. They reached number 21 with… wait for it… There Ain’t Nothing Like Shaggin’! There’s no way of knowing if they were aware of what a ‘shag’ is in the UK (it actually refers to a dance called the Carolina shag) but the lyrics are very funny either way. The BBC understandably banned it, but as is often the case, the notoriety probably helped its sales. It also featured in the 1989 comedy Shag, starring Bridget Fonda. Their last charting single in the UK was 1988’s My Baby Sure Can Shag.
The Tams continue to perform to this day. When Joe died in 1996, Charles took over lead vocals, but he passed away in 2013. Key died in 1995, which leaves Smith as the sole original member.
Northern soul grew in popularity throughout the 70s, with Wigan Casino becoming one of the most notable venues from 1973 onwards. Although the movement waned with its closure in the 80s, it still has a healthy following decades later.
Written by: Ray Whitley
Producer: Bill Lowery
Weeks at number 1: 3 (18 September-8 October)
Set designer Es Devlin – 24 September
Actress Jessie Wallace – 25 September
Actress Liza Walker – 28 September
Actor Mackenzie Crook – 29 September
Conservative Lord Chancellor David Gauke – 8 October
21 September: BBC Two music series The Old Grey Whistle Test, which ran well into the 80s, was transmitted for the first time.
24 September: Following revelations made by a KGB defector, Britain expelled 90 Russian diplomats for spying. 15 were not allowed to return.
1 October: The CAT scan, invented by Godfrey Hounsfield, was used for the first time on a patient at a hospital in Wimbledon.