Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Peace, Love and Soul Train!

Forgive me for not paying closer attention to the date, but ya'll, Soul Train premiered nationally 50 years ago on October 2!!!

The lazy way of acknowledging this major milestone in pop culture history is to point out that I wrote an ode to this show ten years ago, so this piece will refer you back to that one and build on it just a tad. I'm not saying that what I wrote back then was perfect (because Lord knows it wasn't), but a lot of what can be said about Soul Train doesn't need to be re-written. It doesn't need a scholarly re-examination, nor does it require another long-form essay from some Gen X blogger who lives for nostalgia. 

Okay I'm lying...

Because I effin' LOVE Soul Train. Sadly, the reruns haven't been aired on TV for quite some time, so for the most part, I only get to see the clips on YouTube when I make #PlaylistProject updates. In that earlier piece, I was able to include some of those video clips until someone tipped off the lawyers, and my lack of coding knowledge means that I cannot just update that piece with links without possibly losing the content. Therefore, I will update, expound, and opine on a few of my other favorite aspects of the show, not included in that original piece:

1. Al Green performing with a live band and then breaking into a church revival, twice. Clearly this was from the very early days when the emphasis was more on the live performances, because Green took up a full twelve minutes in that first set, then nearly seven in this second segment, and then there was this third song that I did not remember. I might have seen this in real time as a baby in 1974, but once I saw it for real, I assure you that this is one of the most iconic performances EVER. And that is saying a lot since Green was a semi-regular on the show.

2. The Jackson 5 performing Dancing Machine in 1973. There are a lot of reasons to love this clip and this performance, but for me, it is recognizing that Michael was such a boy wonder. It isn't just the voice or the moves, but he had ALL of the charisma, so when the other brothers stand back to watch him do the robot, it is as if they already knew.

3. Kim Fields' performance (1984) is one of my favorites, and I think it is the perfect follow up to that Jackson 5 clip because it speaks to the phenomenon of MJ during that time in the early 80s when he truly was the GOAT. What Fields accomplished was nothing less than extraordinary--she got a fan letter through to him! As someone who wrote plenty of my own, perhaps I love this clip because it was insane to think that Kim Fields, who was still on The Facts of Life, had a fan crush on Jackson like the rest of us. And let's not forget that she had that episode two years earlier where her character had been in love with Jermaine...clearly because MJ was already too big for a mere TV appearance.

An important side note is that Fields' fan letter was a remake of a solo MJ effort of the same name that he had released ten years earlier. While I've known that for some time, I did not know that in 1984, so I guess she was his number 1 fan... 

4. This 1975 Elton John performance has quite an interesting back story according to the dramatization provided on American Soul, the BET original series that offers us a look at the early days of Soul Train. I won't spoil it if you haven't seen that episode, but it certainly proves that host Don Cornelius was a shrewd poker playa because I bet your Grandma can still sing all of the lyrics to "Benny and the Jets".

5. Of all the clips I could have chosen to epitomize the crazy 80s, I cannot believe I chose Pebbles...when I could have gone with this very early appearance from The Deele.

6. I must have been in a rush to finish that piece or something because all I did was mention that ridiculous Scramble Board. Easily the most disposable of segments, we still looked forward to seeing it, if only to see if anyone would ever guess wrong, which no one ever did.

7. As part of the promotion for American Soul, the producers tracked down several of the iconic dancers and talk about a blast! I didn't remember any of the first wave of dancers from the 70s, including the late greats Fred 'ReRun' Berry and Adolfo 'Shabba Doo' Quiñones. However, when the 'Best Of' series aired on Bounce TV a few years ago, I got a chance to see them and quite a few others in action (check out ReRun here at 1:07). My era was the 80s, so of course it was dancers like Cheryl Song and Reggie Thornton that stood out. There were definitely others, like the guy my Dad and I called the Poser and that dude who wore the Foxtails.

Part of the fun of watching those interviews and just remembering individual dancers was learning more about one of the greatest gifts that the show gave the culture, and that is the Soul Train line! It was absolutely one of my favorite parts of the show, and of course no Black dance party is complete without one. Definitely take some time to watch some of those clips, especially one of my faves with The Don himself making a trip down the line with Mary Wilson. 

8. The commercials that aired during Soul Train were just as memorable as the show itself. All of these years later, there are certain commercials we don't necessarily remember seeing in real time, but we knew about them because who could forget that there was an Afro Sheen commercial that starred the ghost of Frederick Douglass?! Or that ST dance alum ReRun and his group the Lockers also starred in a Schlitz Malt Liquor ad? Part of what made thee Billy Dee Williams THEE MAN in the 80s were these Colt 45 malt liquor ads. And because remembering random and obscure pop culture trivia is kind of my thing, I first saw Robin Givens as the Dragon Lady in this anti-smoking public service ad!

But what I did not realize at the time, but so appreciate now is how many celebrities and singers were in those ads. One of ST's main corporate sponsors was a Black-owned Chicago-based hair care company, Johnson Products. That company and its history are deserving of more recognition, and when one of its founders, Joan Johnson, passed away in 2019, I posted a tribute to their commercials on the Busy Black Woman Facebook page. Stay tuned for more about them in a future post.

9. Don Cornelius was supposed to have received his own paragraph in that original piece, so let's give him more than that one sentence. He deserves that and much more for being the visionary who recognized in the years before there was Black Entertainment Television (BET) and Music TeleVision (MTV) that Black music needed an outlet to be heard and seen beyond local radio. Of course, Black artists performed on American Bandstand, the Ed Sullivan Show, and others, but Cornelius gave us our own show. Actually, it was his show, which he created, produced and hosted--almost unheard of at the time.

Almost...because there were several Black owners in media when Cornelius' Train left the station: Berry Gordy and Motown; Al Bell rising through the ranks at Stax; Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at what would become the iconic Philadelphia International label; the Johnson Publishing empire that gave us Ebony and Jet magazines; and countless other local radio stations across the country. While some might argue that Cornelius simply adapted the format of local dance shows and syndicated it for national audiences, my interpretation of what he did was to create a prototype for how music content would be delivered in the decades to follow. 

In that sense, Cornelius was not just a veteran deejay with super suave stage presence, nor was his TV show merely a performance venue for Black entertainers. Behind the scenes, ST was a music label, a production company, and a talent agency. Beyond the TV screen, ST was an unapologetic ambassador of Black culture and promotor of Black business. In addition to the Black actors in every commercial, did anyone else get the not-to-subtle hints from the public service announcements that success and uplift could come from joining the military or going to college? Even the corny Scramble Board trivia was intended to teach us pride in being Black, as several of the questions were about Black historical figures. Once a week for more than 20 years, Don Cornelius was the maître d' of the Blackest hour of television!

10. When I was growing up, in DC Soul Train came on every Saturday at 5pm. It didn't matter what we were doing, but somehow, everybody in the 'hood knew that e-v-e-r-y extraneous activity needed to be completed or suspended in time to watch ST. And for a good deal of its run, those were in the days before we had VCRs, so we couldn't afford to miss any episodes, in whole or in part. 

What fuels my Gen X nostalgia for a show like Soul Train is the realization that it was one of the few shows that we ALL watched, not just as a family, but as a community. Almost nothing has that kind of universal appeal, or involved a full-scale shut down of activity that beckoned us to all crowd around a communal television at a designated time. Of course, that was in a different time and space, since now we have with limitless options and content is accessible on a variety of platforms. And that isn't lost on me as you read this updated piece with YouTube links and GIFs on your phone or laptop, brought here by a link you saw on social media, an email subscription, or just curiosity. 

Thus, I find it surprising that this anniversary came and went without much fanfare given how HUGE an impact Soul Train had. I mean, where was the weekend marathon from the 'Best of' shows on BET (which owns the rights)? Did Vh1 air The Hippest Trip In America and I didn't know? Did y'all pay tribute at the 2020 Soul Train Awards and can I see it online? Or am I supposed to wait for the 2021 Soul Train Awards? I saw that there was a dance party in Detroit, but what about in Chicago where it all began? Is this all you got NPR? What did I miss???

And now here is an abrupt segue with a few of my bonus thoughts and observations (because I told you I was lying earlier):

The aforementioned scripted drama, American Soul, is an interesting project, one that offers a history of the show via dramatizations of past performances with current artists. I hope it will return to production soon. However, as I was binging that show one weekend last summer, the concept felt slightly familiar...kind of like the show American Dreams, which aired 2002-2005 and used that other dance show, American Bandstand, as its backdrop.

So that brings us to the inevitable comparisons of Soul Train and American Bandstand, and more broadly to comparisons of Don Cornelius and Dick Clark. Having said my peace about Cornelius, I don't have anything negative to say about Dick Clark. Although I was not a big fan of AB, I certainly did watch it on occasion. I would categorize it as one of several mainstream music shows that I saw over the years such as America's Top 40 with Casey Kasem and Solid Gold. Unlike Soul Train, none of those other shows left the same indelible impression on me. 

That there was a rivalry between Clark and Cornelius doesn't surprise me. Clark probably did not appreciate the competition and he must have resented the fact that his show had been on for 15 years already. But that's capitalism, and there was a marked difference between the products that each man was selling. If Cornelius presided over the Blackest hour on television, Clark helmed one of the whitest. Clark's show featured Black musical guests pretty regularly and he spoke about the process of integrating the studio audience here. However, the primary goal of his show was to showcase American music, which at various times throughout Bandstand's 37 year run was rock n' roll, some country, easy listening, disco, and dance music. Train was strictly for the culture.

Thus while many of the Black artists that went on ST also appeared on AB, these were not interchangeable platforms. Bandstand was a mainstream show, while Train clearly targeted a niche audience. Most mainstream artists never needed to go on Train to sell records unless they were trying to cultivate a Black fan base (i.e. Elton John, Teena MarieMichael McDonald, Hall & Oates, and The Beastie Boys). Alternatively, the Black artists that went on Bandstand already had some crossover appeal. Of course there were notable exceptions, and perhaps that is a rabbit hole worth exploring at another time. 

For most artists, Soul Train supplemented urban radio airplay with television exposure that made lesser known performers Black-famous such as Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, Angela BofillMidnight Star, and Switch. If you don't know any of these artists then you have never flipped through your Auntie's old vinyl, and you can probably guess why they were profiled on Unsung...

But let's be clear that Black artists, no matter how big they got, never took Soul Train for granted either. For example, before Michael Jackson went supernova, he appeared on the show with his brothers and as a solo artist. I found this clip of his final live appearance in 1979 that came right after he finished filming The Wiz and right before Off the Wall dropped. Other members of his family continued appear on the show, including Jermaine, Rebbie, and Janet who performed Control in 1986. MJ, who was slated to perform at the Soul Train Awards in 1993 did so with an ankle injury while seated on stage. He later performed for the Soul Train Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Special in 1995. When Janet received the Lena Horne Award at the Lady of Soul Awards in 1997, she reflected on how important it was to remember where she began.

And that is a good place to pull this train into the station. We all have dreams and so many of us start with little more than some DIY, some slight-of-hand camera angles, perseverance, and a bucket of fried chicken. That is certainly how this blog got started...but more importantly, it is the vision and the audacity to pursue those dreams. And you can bet your last money on that, honey!

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