Gary Cee organises regular soul music evenings in Shaftesbury. Gary’s event this Saturday has gained national radio coverage and that’s encouraged people to book tickets and travel from as far away as Scotland.
Alfred met Cann’s own ‘soul man’.
Some young boys spend all of their spare time obsessing about football. Others join the Scouts or the army cadets. When Gary Cee was growing up in South London in the 1970s, he heard his first soul music record and knew he’d found his passion in life. “I remember spending all my pocket money going to the local soul music shop and buying imports and seven-inch singles, and I built up a record collection,” said Gary.
Some of the songs and artists Gary collected on vinyl would be familiar to anybody who lived through the decade. “Tavares and ‘Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel’ is one song. It’s disco-y soul music,” said Gary. “Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Lou Rawls, all that kind of stuff. I remember ‘Top of the Pops’. I would flip through the paper to see if there were any soul artists on that on Thursday’s edition and made sure I didn’t miss it. I was quite into it.”
Being a music fan back then required so much more work than it does today. Now, your favourite artist is available on demand. “It’s on a plate now, isn’t it? You hear a record on the road and then you can go straight to Spotify and you’ve downloaded it in seconds. I had to get on a bus and go to Streatham in South London, to Black Wax record shop, and flick through all the records to try and find it. I used to ask the guy behind the desk to order records for me. I would go back a week later and it would have come in from America. Not like now, where everything’s on a click of a button,” Gary mused.
Gary says that certain parts of the country became known for their love of soul music. “There seemed to be pockets. Essex has always been the home of UK soul music in the 1980s, around Ilford and Romford,” said Gary. “The soul scene was massive. People would travel miles to go to the music. They’d follow DJs like Robbie Vincent, Steve Walsh, Greg Edwards.”
Some of those names went on to wider fame with radio and TV work. Gary decided to follow a career as a club DJ. “I did the different circuits of Rank Leisure and First Leisure. I was working in high street nightclubs, where it wouldn’t particularly be soul music, it will be a cross-section of soul. I progressed and ended up working in the West End at the Hippodrome and Stringfellows.”
As you might expect, Gary has got interesting anecdotes from those days. “Quite a few that I won’t be putting on this interview,” he laughed. I asked him to name some celebrities about whom he has stories. “I did a birthday party for Madonna. I did an after-concert party for Prince. I’ve met a lot of footballers,” said Gary, who joked that he might reveal more over a drink.
Nobody would object to being described positively, so I asked Gary to name the friendliest star he has worked with. “Tom Jones is a really nice guy,” said Gary.
Gary swapped the bright lights of the capital for the rural retreat of Cann. He left the world of music and entertainment behind – until earlier this year, when he started the Shaftesbury club nights. “It’s certainly very different from the West End, but I like it. It’s nice,” smiled Gary.
Gary’s move to the Shaftesbury area wasn’t something he had initially planned. “I came down because my parents weren’t well. My mum was poorly, and she had cancer. I decided that I had to come down and look after her,” said Gary.
Now his mum has beaten her health challenge, Gary decided to put his music and entertainment experience into arranging bi-monthly soul nights at the Shaftesbury Social Club. Soul is a broad term which covers a diverse range of music, from 1960s Aretha Franklin tracks to Luther Vandross’ 1980s dance and today’s new releases.
Gary’s nights tend to focus on the oldies. “The age group tends to be an over-30s and probably an over-40’s age group. We have had younger people there, though. Musically it’s the 70s, 80s and 90s. It’s mainly based around the 80s. There could be Barry White and Sister Sledge played and then the more non-commercial stuff that the soul crowd will know,” said Gary.
Some Alfred readers of a certain age might not understand the attraction of travelling to hear a DJ play their pre-recorded music. Gary says it’s more about celebrating a musical passion and sharing the experience. “People who are into soul just love their music. They’ll go to an event where they know they’re going to hear their music,” said Gary.
Attendees discuss their love of soul with complete strangers who are fellow enthusiasts. “When we first started, there were people coming from different places and they were hooking up on the night. They had never met each other before. They are still talking now. You’ll make friends because everyone’s there for the same reason – for the music and to have a dance,” said Gary.
Gary’s next event, at the Shaftesbury Sports Bar at Shaftesbury FC, runs between 9pm and 1am on Saturday 10th August. “This is the third one we’re doing. It’s gradually getting there,” said Gary, who is pleased that these nights are now drawing soul fans to Shaftesbury from across the UK.
“We have got people coming from Romford, Swindon, Plymouth, Cornwall and one guy is travelling from Scotland, believe it or not! His partner lives in Bournemouth and he heard it advertised on the soul station, Solar Radio. He rang his partner and said, ‘Shaftesbury! That’s near you, isn’t it?’ They bought a couple of tickets and he’s coming down.”
As well as long-distance visitors, Gary says the Shaftesbury nights serve soul fans in Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset. “They have to travel to go to a soul gig. It was a breath of fresh air for them to see something a bit more local.”
Gary chooses DJs who are crowd pullers in their own right. “When we started this back in March, the DJ had won quite a few awards, as ‘The Best Soul DJ’ and stuff like that. As soon as people knew he was coming to Shaftesbury, people bought tickets,” said Gary.
On Saturday, Dennis O’Brien is the guest DJ. He is breakfast presenter on Solar Radio, which broadcasts to a number of cities on DAB radio and also airs nationally on Sky. Dennis has a devoted following. “Obviously, people listen to the show and he’s been telling people he is in Shaftesbury. I am hoping we get more local people coming out as well,” said Gary.
The availability of accommodation for visitors is one of Gary’s greatest challenges. “It’s difficult. I’ve had people sending me messages on Facebook, saying they really want to come but they have nowhere to stay. I’m always compiling either AirBnB or booking.com links of accommodation that is left. If they haven’t got anywhere to stay, they are not going to come all the way from London and drive back on the same night.”
He would like to hear from anyone with AirBnB accommodation, but he accepts that the solution is not for everyone. “Some people just want to stay in a hotel. People who live in a bigger place like London can’t get it in their head that we haven’t got a Premier Inn or Travel Lodge. It’s a bit of a shock for them.” Persimmon has said that they want to build that type of hotel on the employment land south of the A30. If that happens, it might be helpful to Gary’s business.
Not all of the travelling guests or DJ performers have heard of Shaftesbury before, but Gary says that overnight visitors have enjoyed exploring on the day after the event. “They’ve enjoyed it. Some of them have had a lovely time sightseeing and they have not wanted to go back to the smoke,” he said.
Gary hopes to add more of these events in the future if interest is sustained. “We do one every two months. I will play it by ear. Like any business, you need people to support you. What I’d like to do is bring some acts down as well. You can still book artists like The Real Thing. That would be a good night out.”
Tickets for Saturday’s ‘The Way We Were’ soul night are available online at www.skiddle.com or from the Shaftesbury Sports Bar.