Soul Train: The Hippest Nostalgia Trip in America

Soul Train was more than entertainment for black America. It was inspiration and validation. Questlove gives us another ride.

Questlove recently planted this sloppy kiss on the cheek of a favorite touchstone:

I was born the same year the show went national, and I watched it from the minute I could sit up on my own. Over the course of my life, I have repeatedly returned to episodes I already know by heart to interpret the dialogue, locate little grace notes and accidents, spot background events that escaped me the first time, or the fifth or the tenth. I am stunned by the dancing, astonished by the fashions, analyzed set changes, and stolen some tricks to use in my own live performances with the Roots and as a DJ. Even in writing this book, there were moments when the light bulb went off and I jumped out of my seat. Some people learned everything they really needed to know in kindergarten. Good for them. I learned everything I really need to know from Soul Train, long before kindergarten. I boarded the train and never got off, and that’s why I continue to go to the ends of the earth to find rare footage and lost episodes.

And Ericka Blount Danois had this to say:

When I began to think about writing about Soul Train, it was a result of a culmination of many things – a reverence for a childhood spent sitting on my deejay father’s lap listening to his hefty record collection with earphones that I had to hold to keep on my tiny ears…it was spending countless Saturday afternoons in front of our broken-down black-and-white television set (with the hanger in place of an antenna and a pair of pliers used to turn the knob) watching Soul Train with my sister. In the ‘70s, Soul Train was “appointment television” – a cultural bonding necessity.

Their comments are, in their own ways, not all that far removed from something I noted in the first installment of this extended musing on race, pop and history “TV, Validation, and the Three Sistas”, ten years ago:

Once upon a time, black folks couldn’t get enough of themselves on TV. There were no complaints about being portrayed as criminals on the news; we simply didn’t exist on the air, save for a few sitcoms or the occasional movie rerun. In his memoir Colored People, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. recalled the excitement that rushed through the Piedmont, West Virginia of his ‘50s youth at the merest rumor of a black sighting:

“Lord knows, we weren’t going to learn how to be colored by watching television. Seeing somebody colored was an event…“‘Colored, colored, on Channel Two,’ you’d hear someone shout. Somebody else would run to the phone, while yet another hit the front porch, telling all the neighbors where to see it…”

Questlove’s and Danois’ reminiscing happened a world away, in more ways than one, from Gates’ childhood. They were city kids, born in the wake of events the good folks of Piedmont could barely have imagined – the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power era, to name just two. By the dawn of the ‘70s, blacks in some big cities had actual political power. Ebony and Jet were still around, but there was also Essence, a new magazine by and targeted to black women, and Black Enterprise for the business-minded. Pro football had already seen its first black quarterbacks, big league baseball its first black umpire, and the National Basketball Association its first black coach. It was even a little less of a novelty to see black folks on TV, as stars and hosts of their own shows – Bill Cosby had a sitcom (after his run co-starring on I Spy), Flip Wilson had a variety show, Diahann Carroll starred in a light-hearted drama about a single mom.

Yet Soul Train served for its audience the same purpose that the coloreds on Channel 2 served for Gates’ Piedmont. It was more than entertainment. It was education, putting faces to the names spinning on the family turntable. It was acculturation, introducing them to the sounds and styles of the moment (and some from the past, on occasion). It was inspiration, giving them the rush of imagining themselves decked out like that. And it was validation, showing them a world in which people who looked like them could be stars.

Few considered the potential cultural impact of Soul Train when it debuted on local TV in Chicago in 1970, and in national syndication (if “national” can be defined as seven additional markets, none of which was New York City) a year later. It’s a bit amazing, considering the hustle, ingenuity and pluck it took to make the show even happen, that it had a cultural impact at all, let alone one that continues to resonate.

But Soul Train filled a niche, scratched an itch, that the other music shows of its kind did not. American Bandstand (like Soul Train, a local phenomenon that blew up bigtime when it went national) seemed to belong to another era, even when black acts were on it. Shows like Hullaballoo and Upbeat were closer to the moment in the late ‘60s (the latter might be best remembered for Otis Redding’s last performance before that fateful plane crash in 1967), but they didn’t quite have what Soul Train did. Even seeing Motown acts on The Ed Sullivan Show, while powerful and uplifting, didn’t carry the same weight.

Soul Train was different in that it was black from top to bottom. It was produced by black people. Its creator and host, Don Cornelius, was a smooth-talking, dapper black man who embodied black cool. The music it featured was black, the people dancing to it were black, the dances they were dancing were black. Even the commercials were black – Johnson Products Company, a leader in black hair care products, sponsored the Chicago version, and continued when the show went national. Soul Train was an oasis of unabashed blackness within, even with the aforementioned examples and more, an essentially white cultural mainstream.

Its proper historical place is not completely within the American Bandstand music show lineage. Soul Train extended the legacy of black-owned media and cultural properties: Oscar Micheaux’s self-produced, -directed and -distributed race movies in the ‘20s; the black press from the heyday of the Chicago Defender; John H. Johnson’s publishing empire (and let’s not forget the place of the Ebony Fashion Fair within that empire); Motown, Vee-Jay and the other black-owned record labels of the ‘60s. Those and other enterprises understood that speaking to black audiences in a culturally authentic way (and, at least in the case of Motown, pivoting that authenticity enough to attract white audiences too) would have artistic, social and economic – and lasting – significance.

Cornelius parlayed a series of chance encounters in his life – the key one coming when, while working as a Chicago cop, he gave the news director of Chicago’s leading black radio station a ticket, and the unfortunate driver was taken by Cornelius’ rich voice – into a position of importance as a cultural entrepreneur. Had he not stuck to his vision, assembled his partners well, and worked his butt off, there would not have been legions of young black people charged to do their own things by the artistry in front of the camera and/or the moxie behind it.

Nor would Cornelius’ suicide in 2012, long after his baby’s run had ended (the show chugged down the tracks for another 13 years after he stopped hosting it in 1993) and after battling personal and physical demons, have hit so many people so hard.

As with many things about black pop, it took a while for formal appreciation of Soul Train to catch up with the love its fans had long shown. When Christopher P. Lehman wrote A Critical History of Soul Train on Television (McFarland) in 2008, he had to rely only on newspaper articles, plus interviews and correspondence with a few principals (not Cornelius, who became notoriously reticent in his later years). The research resulted in a still-sturdy text on the facts of both the show and the brand (for example, there’s more to the Soul Train Music Awards saga than meets the eye, and that includes its front-row seat for some of hip-hop’s ugliness in the ‘90s).

Lehman concluded his book by noting that, aside from some licensed best-of CDs, there had been no major effort to repackage the Soul Train legacy. Fans (like Questlove) resorted to circulating tapes of reruns that had been broadcast in Japan, of all places, as well as those from a short-lived UK spin-off. All that changed, or at least seemed like it could change, around the time his book was published, when Kenard Gibbs, Peter Griffith and Anthony Maddoxx of MadVision Entertainment purchased the Soul Train library from Cornelius; they now operate the brand as Soul Train Holdings, LLC.

What they’ve done to date with that legacy doesn’t seem to amount to much. Official DVD releases of the archives would stand to be a licensing nightmare, involving any number of labels, publishing companies, and lawyers. At least the website soultrain.com does have a few clips of classic performances. However, that’s the only nod to the brand’s history the website offers. The site’s About page bears no reference to Cornelius’ role as the show’s (and brand’s) creator. Instead, soultrain.com is happy to share lots of current entertainment news, and some pics from the 2013 Soul Train Awards event.

It’s as if the flame keepers want Soul Train to mean the same thing in 2014 as it did 40 years ago – the place to go see what’s hot in the world of black pop music and entertainment. But they didn’t have cable and the internet back then and no other entity bothered to care, so Cornelius had that market to himself, which is a major reason why his show meant so much to so many for so long. Nowadays, there are many more players in the black pop field, and most of them don’t have to compete with their brand’s legendary history to make a new name for themselves.

Lehman also noted that by the ‘90s, even with Soul Train still producing new episodes, younger audiences were already beginning to consider the show as something embraced mostly by an elder crowd; it wasn’t where they themselves turned to stay hip and cool. By then, some of those elders were looking back fondly at their wild styles of yore, as did Spike Lee by including some Soul Train clips in his 1994 childhood remembrance Crooklyn. Soul Train, the knowing big sibling to Questlove and Danois, had become the perplexing, dated uncle to the next generation, in the cycle of all things pop.

All of that points to one place – repackaging the archival content as nostalgia and selling it all over again. Goodness knows it worked for Motown; witness the success of the Motown-driven soundtrack to the 1983 hit movie The Big Chill. Getting people to buy a slice of their youth 20 or 30 years after the fact is an old trick among legacy brands and franchises, and it’s a much easier sell than trying to convince folks who weren’t around back in the day to tap into another generation’s memories.

But how could the current Soul Train guardians do that short of making old episodes available? The simplest solutions are always the best: the archives they purchased from Cornelius included photographs from the show. Tons of them, I’d wager. Truckloads of shots of performers, dancers and behind-the-scenes moments. Why not put some of them together in a book, get somebody with name recognition to write a few words, add water and stir?

Questlove, a self-proclaimed Soul Train obsessive, brings his trademarkably geeky thoroughness to the text of Soul Train: The Music, Dance and Style of a Generation (HarperDesign). More than 350 photos do the rest of the talking. Significantly, there are none from the black-and-white days in Chicago (do any exist?), and no mention at all of the show’s post-Cornelius years. But what’s here is a glorious time capsule of black sass, accompanied by Questlove’s deeply researched (and deeply felt) breakdowns of the key moments and performances, plus interviews with some of the dancers and other players.

This attractive coffee-table valentine to the show’s glory days serves a few purposes. It gives people who weren’t around then a visual idea of what made Soul Train so significant. It gives those of us who were around a tangible reminder of how much fun it all was. And it honors Cornelius’ vision and work with the same style and panache he brought to the work itself.

But honoring Cornelius is one thing, explaining him is another. That job falls to the rest of this current boomlet in Soul Traininterest. Danois updates Lehman’s basic history by interviewing many of Cornelius’ associates about the man himself, especially the post-show years, in Love, Peace, and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train: Classic Moments (Backbeat, 2013). Coming down the tracks this spring is cultural critic Nelson George’s The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style (William Morrow), featuring interviews with music legends who appeared on the show and beloved dancers like Rosie Perez and Jody Watley.

It’s important that a major cultural product like Soul Train and a major cultural figure like Cornelius get their hardbound propers and historical respect. It’s equally hard to imagine something like Soul Train having a similar impact today. The black presence in pop culture is now a given. You don’t need a TV set with rabbit ears – or a TV set at all – to find it anymore. Black cultural entrepreneurs, from Oprah, Tyler Perry and Jay Z on down, are much less of an anomaly. Heck, we even have a black president these days.

But there are still segments of our nation’s cultural life so starved for diversity that any black breakthrough into them is noteworthy. Much of black America – especially the female populace – has been all over the prime-time TV potboiler Scandal since day one, not because they’re political junkies fascinated by Beltway melodrama but because a sista, portrayed by Kerry Washington, is at the center of it all (not to mention the show’s creator, Shonda Rhymes). While we’re there, congratulations to Sasheer Zamata on becoming the first sista in the cast of Saturday Night Live since like forever, a rather glaring lack few cared about until Washington hosted the show in November, and did triple duty spoofing herself, Michelle Obama and Beyoncé.

Elsewhere, film critics tried to puzzle out if 2013 was the latest Year of the Black Movie, simply because there was more than one good one that non-black people heard about (12 Years a Slave, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Fruitvale Station for starters). And if any black athlete wins a medal or two at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, it’ll be news throughout the black media landscape (not that it’s never happened before, but it seems to always be surprising to see black folk excel at sports played in the cold).

Soul Train meant something to black America – and still does – that American Bandstand could never mean to its audience. Those kids had constant reminders of how it looked and felt, countless cues on how to do so, because all the people on TV and in movies looked like them. For black folk, especially those who came along in the years soon after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X had been killed, Soul Train was less a TV show and more a weekly pilgrimage to something of a sepia Promised Land.

For all the success stories black people have seen and lived through, for all the gains we’ve made, there is still a longing within us to see our people – and, by extension, ourselves – in the spotlight. We still get a bit of a rush when folks who look like us are the stars. To this day, decades after Gates’ Piedmont youth, black folk still crave that moment of seeing ourselves in all our glory, that giddy combination of education, acculturation, inspiration and validation.

And when it happens, we tweet @ColoredOnChannel2.