Life and (Good) times of Norman Jay: ten take-aways from his autobiography

It was a pleasure to read the recently published memoir of Norman Jay MBE, the long-time and much admired DJ, not least because the hardback volume contains a wealth of information and memories. What was especially interesting was the commonalities present: the incidents, events and feelings which any UK resident can relate to if they were a youth in the 70s and 80s on this island (this is, of course, especially true to Black Britons, but football-style-music-dance tribes are all welcome within these pages).

In way of a recommendation, here are my thoughts some days after reading Mr Jay’s Mister Good Times.

1. Man speaks well of the pleasure and pride which comes through work…

…the enjoyment of flinging newspapers from a rickety old Bedford and the elation of a dance going well after hours of planning and assembly. Through a vision and sheer obstinacy, he and his brother Joey were able to first put a soul and reggae sound, Good Times, into Notting Hill Carnival and it’s enjoyable to read of unsuspecting but suspicious rastas sucking teeth as the young Jay throws down funky grooves.

2. There’s plenty of humour to be had here…

…the stink of the poppers at Wigan Casino made the visiting Norman and friends sick for example – but the accounts of police brutality and the ensuing feelings of rage and anger are visceral and more powerful in their depiction. There’s little to nothing about his collection of vintage bikes from the 1970s but instead some rather serious and heavyweight passages from a frequently contemplative man here.

3. The book is especially affecting with its evocative narrative of London from the eyes of a child

Norman hopped on and off buses, making acquaintances all over the city and joining the dots as his old mate Gilles Peterson would say. It can seem like another, dustier and more innocent time as Norman recounts how he first went to White Hart Lane as a young boy, wide-eyed and eager. There’s a love of the city and a real sense of adventure which frequently emerges time after time.

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Outside the old White Hart Lane stadium (photo courtesy of SummerhillRoad.com)

4. The singularity inherent within any one individual was a key part of of Norman’s life

Without his open-mindedness and lack of fear, he would not have so easily crossed back and forth into different communities and thus Good Times would not have been such a welcoming sound every year at Carnival. Without having the balls to frequently cross the Atlantic and use his family connections to enable him to hunt for long-forgotten records, the rare groove scene would not have happened as it did. Putting on a gig headlined by Bobby Byrd and Vicki Anderson, former members of James Brown‘s touring group but established solo artists in their own right, is touching – a vindication of the hard yards he’d already put in to re-establishing the couple’s records through his radio and club work at the end of the 80s, notably at his Shake and Fingerpop nights.

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Bobby Byrd and Vicki Anderson (Photo courtesy of Soulwalking)

5. He’s very funny discussing ‘logs’

This is his term for the Ritzies, the naff clubs which fell far short of the pretensions they proudly proclaimed. He and his mates would be lucky to get into them in the first place, but their lamentable fashion and, more importantly, their music lacked freshness, modernity and soul. As fresh and innovative as a dead piece of wood….

He makes clear – and not for the first time – that the Soul Mafia DJs which dominated southern English clubland in the Seventies and early 80s represented a white male enclave which offered no opportunity for him to advance as a DJ and promoter.

6. Norman is a mod(ernist)

Whether he was staying true to his love of soul, disco and funk whilst around him was a sea of conscious reggae; holding forth about carpenter jeans and plastic shoes when the rest of British yout were clinging to flares and platforms, or trying to describe that quintessential teenage feeling of wanting to carve out a new niche for yourself in the world, the young Jay was intent on following his own blueprint, not the crowd.

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7. There was always a calculated edge to his thinking

He was a born entrepreneur-cum-realist who seemingly knew when a venture was showing worrying signs of being below-par whether it was the Talkin’ Loud record company, former pirate Kiss FM after it went commercial and started to lose its specialist taste in music or GT after many years at the Carnival. As with any true mod eager to experience and open new chapters in his life, Norman always had an eye on what might come next.

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Cassette recording of Kiss FM shows (photo courtesy of Mixcloud)

8. He was often the only black face on the ‘superstar DJ’ circuit in the UK

Sad to say, but it’s important that Norman touches on the fact that that during the relatively recent peak years of spinners earning countless quids with each gig – and several spots each night – he was the only person of colour able to command decent wages and earn headline spots alongside the Sashas and Jeremy Healys of this world. Frankie Knuckles (RIP), Todd Terry and Marshall Jefferson were never short of gigs but black DJs high up on the bill at Cream from this side of the Atlantic? Non-existent.

9. We are family… ….and it’s not just a record

From discussing his Dad unexpectedly giving him cash to buy the latest Trojan sevens to the people he saw year in, year out at the GT double-decker bus, the reader is frequently left with the thought that this is a man with a community; that good times with those whom you love is key to life; that love is indeed the message…

10. The book is worth buying simply to read the First Choice anecdote.

First Choice
Philly soul trio First Choice: Rochelle Fleming, Annette Guest and Wardell Piper

Norman recounts how a block party unfolded when he was visiting family in New York. A classic Salsoul tune is key to this memory with the telling of it acting as a timely reminder how the best DJs – LevanMancuso  tell a story from record to record to record.

They read the crowd then catch and encapsulate a mood, something which is incredibly rare to witness both then and now today. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton have often written about this in their DJ History volumes; it’s an integral and residual part of music appreciation and production which reminds us that a great DJ sees beyond clubbers’ feet, looks past the latest tunes in his or her box to pull off a ‘once in a lifetime’ moment which all who are present are proud to witness.

Mister Good Times is published by Dialogue/Little, Brown and is available in hardback from here. Norman Jay can be heard at these venues.

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