Mastermix Label Manager Richard Lee on how to structure a Soul & Motown theme night
Theme nights are one of my favourite type of events as most guests attending are there for that style of music and will go with almost everything you play. As well as the guaranteed ‘bankers’ that you will inevitably play, a theme night allows you to be creative and include other songs that would otherwise not see the light of day at a standard function like a birthday or wedding. If someone requests “a bit of Motown” at a wedding the chances are you will play 5 or 6 of the big floorfillers like Baby Love, Reach Out I’ll Be There and It Takes Two, whilst a theme night allows you the rare luxury of playing a range of alternate classic tracks from that genre that will have the same reaction on the dancefloor as any of the ‘usual suspects’.
Most theme nights often feature a band/DJ combination. If this is the case then it immediately makes the job that little bit easier as the band will take at least one hour of the night away if not more. All you have to be careful of is not to repeat their set list of course! If the night features a DJ only then a little extra music programming is a good idea especially with many Soul & Motown tracks lasting only a couple of minutes each…you wouldn’t want to run out of songs would you?
A little research ahead of your event will help you to structure your playlists and ensure you have enough music to entertain your audience. It sounds obvious but I’ve been caught out myself on a couple of occasions and the last thing you need to be doing is desperately searching for tracks to play when your night is in full swing. A small amount of preparation is usually all that is required and allows you time to really enjoy the night and interact with your audience rather than panicking over what to play next!
I like to think of a theme night as a journey which you are taking your guests on. Each song you play will evoke a different memory for each guest in attendance. From the moment guests arrive in the venue I am setting the scene with an appropriate mix of Soul & Motown tracks. I take time to watch the reaction of guests as each track is played. It’s usually a strong indicator of how the night will go. During the meal or buffet I change things up slightly as the build up to the main part of the night draws closer and when the time arrives for that to happen I unleash the big hits and away we go!
Most events will either have a buffet to break the night up or a meal before the main entertainment begins. If the guests eat at 8:00pm then you will need to provide ambient music as guests arrive and during food service. I take care to programme music for this section that features well-known tracks & artists without using any of my main set songs. Slower BPM tracks played at a reasonable level work really well. As guests arrive and become acclimatised to their surroundings I may decide to take the music level up slightly but more often it’s background music only. Some DJs only concentrate on the main set but for me all parts of the night are equally as important. If the music is too loud when guests arrive it can start the night off on the wrong foot. If the wrong track is played during food service this can also impact on proceedings. Imagine playing Dancing In The Street as guests are tucking into their Prawn Cocktail starter! There are so many songs that could be used and with a little music programming you can create the desired playlists for all parts of the night. Some DJs will disagree and will be happy playing big hits during the early part of the night…and that’s perfectly fine! Music is subjective and what works for one DJ may not for another. This blog is only designed as a guide and it is down to your personal skills to decide what to play and when as part of any theme night you perform at.
So let’s start at the beginning! Assuming the average night runs from 7:30pm – Midnight that means you have to find almost 5 hours of Soul & Motown! A tall order…or is it?
You can choose to create your own background playlists or maybe choose a pre-mixed album to do the work for you freeing you up to mingle with guests or prepare things for later in the night:
If you want to offer a selection of 60s/70s Soul & Motown for your background music then I find the Classic Cuts Early Soul albums perfect for compiling such a playlist.
Classic Cuts Early Soul 4, 15, 43, 61, 77, 94, 98, 113 and 119 feature classic tracks such as:
- Judy Clay & William Bell – Private Number
- Diana Ross & the Supremes – I’m Gonna Make You Love Me
- Isley Brothers – Summer Breeze
- Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine
- Temptations – Papa Was A Rolling Stone
- Detroit Spinners – Rubberband Man
- Al Green – Tired Of Being Alone
- Four Tops – Walk Away Renee
- Tams – Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me
- Sam & Dave – Hold On I’m Coming
All great tracks but more suited to the earlier part of the night. By carefully selecting the tracks from these albums you can build a 2 hour playlist featuring popular Soul & Motown artists/tracks that will be perfect for warm up and during food without using all your best songs that you would want to play later but still keeping your audience interested and building the atmosphere throughout the early part of the evening.
Then you come to your main set. If you are playing with a band then it will probably be an hour before and an hour after their performance…give or take a few mins. If you are on your own then it will be more like a 2-3 hour set. Either way, there really is no need to panic! It’s all down to careful planning and programming of your music.
I always like to kick off a theme night with an appropriate instrumental track that allows me to create the mood whilst making my introductions.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Booker T & the MG’s – Green Onions
- Ramsey Lewis Trio – Wade In The Water
- Love Unlimited Orchestra – Love’s Theme
- Blues Brothers OST – Can’t Turn You Loose
- Just Brothers – Sliced Tomatoes
The first few tracks I play will be absolute bankers in order to get as many people on the dancefloor as quickly as possible before dropping into various sections in order to cover as many tracks & styles of Soul & Motown in the night. You can start the tempo high and continue to build or start slow and build up using tracks like:
- Stevie Wonder – Superstition
- Jackson 5 – I Want You Back
- Stevie Wonder – Sir Duke
- Mary Wells – My Guy
- Martha Reeves & the Vandellas – Jimmy Mack
- Supremes – Baby Love
- Four Tops – I Can’t Help Myself
- Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – Tears Of A Clown
- Isley Brothers – This Old Heart Of Mine
- Supremes – Stop! In The Name Of Love
Before building the set up in pace using tracks such as:
- Four Tops – Reach Out, I’ll Be There
- Michael Jackson – Rockin’ Robin
- Martha Reeves & the Vandellas – Dancing In The Street
- Contours – Do You Love Me?
- Four Tops – It’s The Same Old Song
- Supremes – You Keep Me Hangin’ On
- Temptations – Get Ready
- Stevie Wonder – Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
- Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston – It Takes Two
- Velvelettes – Needle In A Haystack
Experience has taught me to have some sort of a plan in place for the music you intend playing. I group tracks into sections to ensure I maintain the energy on the dancefloor throughout. Creating a few trackslists for key parts of your set can be a useful tool – Starter Tracks, Number Ones, Floorfillers, End Of Night etc.
A solid start to a theme night sets the standard for the rest of the evening and allow you to experiment with tracks & music styles safe in the knowledge that should you need to you can revert to your Floorfillers list and bring out the ‘big guns’!
Any decent Soul night should include a healthy dose of Northern Soul:
- Al Wilson – The Snake
- Frank Wilson – Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)
- Edwin Starr – S.O.S. (Stop Her On Sight)
- Frankie Valli – You’re Ready Now
- R Dean Taylor – There’s A Ghost In My House
- Dobie Gray – Out On The Floor
- Gloria Jones – Tainted Love
- Dean Parish – I’m On My Way
- Wayne Gibson – Under My Thumb
- Frankie Valli – The Night
Tip: During your Northern Soul set try turning a few of your lighting effects off to leave a slight colour wash only in the room. Northern Soul purists in the room will appreciate the touch! Also don’t be too worried if the dancefloor isn’t as busy during this section of music. Some people will use it to have a breather and the dancers will appreciate the extra space as there may be a fair amount of kicks and jumps going on…which looks spectacular when done right!
These tracks will give you a solid selection of 60s Soul & Motown giving you a firm foundation to build on. You can choose to stay with the same style of music or take the theme night into a new direction:
- James Brown – Get Up Offa That Thing
- James Brown – I Got You (I Feel Good)
- Arthur Conley – Sweet Soul Music
- Foundations – Build Me Up Buttercup
- Fontella Bass – Rescue Me
- Eddie Floyd – Knock On Wood
- Wilson Pickett – Mustang Sally
- Sam Cooke – Chain Gang
A little 70s Soul & Disco will compliment the night but be careful not to overplay this as it can quickly change the mood of the night if you play too many Disco tunes:
- Trammps – Hold Back The Night
- Chic – Le Freak
- Tavares – Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel
- Barry White – You’re My First, My Last, My Everything (12”)
- Billy Ocean – Love Really Hurts Without You
- The Tymes – Ms. Grace
- Edwin Starr – Contact
- Jacksons – Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)
- Trammps – Disco Inferno
- Fantastics – Something Old, Something New
You could then go from 70s Soul/Disco into a bit of Philadelphia Soul:
- O’Jays – I Love Music
- Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes – The Love I Lost
- O’Jays – Love Train (12”)
- McFadden & Whitehead – Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now
- Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes – Don’t Leave Me This Way
If any of these sections are working well then you can choose to extend the section by adding tracks from the following albums:
- Classic Cuts 22 – Disco
- Classic Cuts 49 – Disco/Funk
- Classic Cuts 82 – Philadelphia
- Classic Cuts 119 – Soul Sensations
If you are feeling adventurous you could always add some 80s Soul & Motown to your set and include tracks like:
- Four Tops – Don’t Walk Away
- Four Tops – Loco In Acapulco
- Michael Jackson – Billie Jean
- Michael Jackson – Farewell My Summer Love
- Mary J Girls – All Night Long
- Alexander O’Neal – Criticize
- Luther Vandross – Never Too Much
- Mac Band – Roses Are Red
- Rockwell – Somebody’s Watching Me
- Temptations – Treat Her Like A Lady
- Lionel Richie – All Night Long (All Night)
- Diana Ross – I’m Coming Out
- Debarge – Rhythm Of The Night
If you do decide to take this path then be careful not to stay there too long as the overall feel of the night will change making a return to your original music theme a tricky one.
This article features just a small amount of song suggestions but should give you a start in planning a Soul & Motown playlist.
Music is subjective and the tracks suggested are personal choices and yours may differ but by taking the time to set out your playlist and create sections to play throughout the night you can avoid any panic later in the evening when you realise you have played all your best tunes in the first hour.
This same theory can apply to almost any theme night. This is in no way the perfect playlist but it should help you understand how to structure a theme night and help you create exciting playlists for you and your audiences.
As well as individual tracks that are selected with the working DJ in mind, Mastermix also provides a range of tools that DJs can choose to include in their performance.
The 100 Collection
New to the Mastermix range, The 100 Collection: 60s/70s Soul & Motown provides you with 100 carefully chosen tracks, categorised into Warm Up, Main Party & End Of Night sections that offers the right balance of songs for the perfect night.
Add some creative mixing to your Soul & Motown set by using DJ Beats – the classic tracks but with added 8 bar intro and outro beats. The DJ Beats range contains some of the most popular tracks of this genre, including:
Isley Brothers – DJ Beats: This Old Heart Of Mine
Stevie Wonder – DJ Beats: Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
Jackson 5 – DJ Beats: I Want You Back
Drifters – DJ Beats: Saturday Night At The Movies
Al Wilson – DJ Beats: The Snake
To view the whole range of DJ Beats albums click here.
Purists may frown at the thought of playing something other than the original 7” recording but these tracks have been carefully engineered to give you slightly longer versions of classic tracks whilst still maintaining the feel of the original recording:
Elgins – Heaven Must Have Sent You (Extended Floorfiller)
Four Tops – I Can’t Help Myself (Extended Floorfiller)
Jackie Wilson – Higher & Higher (Extended Floorfiller)
Fantastics – Something Old, Something New (Extended Floorfiller)
Detroit Emeralds – Feel The Need In Me (Extended Floorfillers)
To view the whole range of Soul & Motown Extended Floorfillers click here.
These 60 minute megamixes are ideal for early evening warm ups, fulfilling a section of your set, or even just for inspiration for track selection!
Good Groovin’ Grandmasters are a range of 60+ minute mixes that feature a selection of 70s/80s Soul classics and are perfect for use as part of the early evening set as guests arrive or during the meal/buffet. They are great scene-setters and will get your guests in the mood for when the main part of the night starts. Each album features well-known Soul classics without using any of the big hits you my want to play as part of your main set.
Other Soul & Motown themed Grandmasters can be found here.
Mastermix also offers a massive back catalogue of shorter megamixes covering the Soul & Motown era, some featuring a specific artist or decade, all of them guaranteed to fill your dancefloor – perfect for slotting into a section of your evening or even to cover you during a comfort break!
Browse our range of Soul & Motown mixes here.
Need a quick burst of inspiration for the biggest Soul & Motown Floorfillers? Check out our Top Ten!