Film / TV

‘american soul’: the story of tv’s hippest trip

February 5, 2019
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A literal child of the 1970s whose single-digit years correlate exactly with the Me Decade, I turned 10 the week before Christmas, 1980. As a child raised in a Bronx household full of vinyl LPs and long car rides with DJs like Frankie Crocker and Norm N. Night, I had no points of reference where time was concerned. I didn’t understand that my father’s classic, tattered Fantastic Four comics from the ’60s were all less than a decade old, or that 10 years wasn’t an eternity. TV syndication was lost on me — The Twilight Zone seemed as brand new as Good Times. And if James Brown dropped “The Payback” when I was 3 and Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” came out when I was 9, both could’ve been released yesterday as far as I was concerned.

So from my childish understanding, Soul Train had always existed and would always exist. I turned out to be partially right. On Tuesday, February 5th BET debuts American Soul, an original scripted series set in the earliest days of TV’s hippest trip in America. The network’s love letter to the iconic music-performance and dance program stars Power’s Sinqua Walls as Soul Train host and creator Don Cornelius; Iantha Richardson (This Is Us) as Soul Train dance coordinator Tessa Lauren; and Kelly Rowland as Gladys Knight. The show uses an aspiring young R&B trio, Encore, as a dramatic device to explore the hopes and dreams of 1970s youth culture in L.A. and Soul Train’s growing place in the zeitgeist from their perspective. Later cameos include K. Michelle as Martha Reeves, Michelle Williams as Diana Ross, The Bobby Brown Story’s Gabrielle Dennis as Tina Turner, and Bobby himself as Rufus Thomas.

What I remember most about Soul Train in its ’70s heyday (the show premiered in October 1971 and stayed on-air until March 2006) comes from my uncle Craig and aunt Juanda in the South Bronx. My twenty-something parents watched too, but they weren’t the target Black teenage audience for whom the Soul Train line and the show’s scramble board were a thing. Craig and Juanda crowded the TV set on the Saturday mornings of every weekend sleepover I spent at my grandma’s apartment. Oreo cookies and Snow Peak cola in hand, they’d mimic all the groundbreaking dance moves, then sit transfixed by the performances from rhythm and blues royalty: Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, the Jacksons, Donna Summer and on and on.

To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish, so goes a Yiddish proverb; and as a kid living through the 1970s, the fashion of the times was just the way people dressed. Bellbottoms, leisure suits, mini miniskirts, applejack caps, tube socks and iron-on T-shirts (“KEEP ON TRUCKIN’,” “I’M WITH STUPID” among the most popular) were everywhere. I could only assume bras had always been optional, that the world naturally sported patchwork denim, colorfully loud patterns and wide neckties, Thelma Evans cornrows and Pam Grier afros. In retrospect, though, Soul Train’s archives make up the world’s greatest time capsule of Black fashion in the post-soul era; at the time, we all looked like that.

Still of Sinqua Walls as Don Cornelius and Michelle Williams as Diana Ross from BET’s “American Soul” episode 104. (Photo: Jace Downs/BET)

As an appointment-TV destination for black America to see ourselves in all our glory, Soul Train retains a unique place in the history of African-American, for-us-by-us pop culture. Turning on the television in the ’70s, searching for black folks meant finding enslaved Africans on Roots, junkyard salesmen on Sanford & Son, or people scratching and surviving in the Chicago projects on Good Times. The Cooley High-inspired sitcom What’s Happening!! featured teenagers recognizable to me, and George Jefferson wore suits like my father did five days a week on The Jeffersons. But identifiable mirrors were rare. Soul Train showed the black community to itself every weekend, along with the black excellence of our greatest musical artists, and it was a breath of fresh air.

By the time I turned the age of the Soul Train demographic, the show didn’t appeal to me overmuch. (If Soul Train was so great, I wondered, why weren’t Prince or an adult Michael Jackson ever on the show? Why so much lip-syncing?) With the 1980s came the music video age of MTV and BET, as well as the mainstreaming of hip-hop culture (hi, Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City) that Soul Train seemed out of step with. As teenagers, a lot of us were far more interested in seeing if Friday Night Videos or New York Hot Tracks would run “Thriller” one more time, than watching the Whispers lip sync on Soul Train. But the show had become an institution by then, and we tuned in whenever our heroes showed up to kiss the ring of Don Cornelius: Vanity 6 and The Time, Public Enemy and LL Cool J, New Edition and Janet Jackson among them.

BET’s American Soul starts off dramatically with the 2012 suicide of Cornelius and proceeds to reveal his infidelity and drug dabbling in ways that refuse to sugarcoat his legacy. (His son, Tony Cornelius, serves as executive producer.) And that legacy is mighty: Through 734 episodes over 35 years, Soul Train outlasted its rival American Bandstand by reflecting the style and aesthetic of Black America. In the social media era, any show becoming a kingmaker in the way of Soul Train circa the 1970s is hard to imagine. But over its 10 episodes, American Soul shows a generation raised on viral videos with the entirety of a record store in its pocket how Black music, culture and style was once all rolled up into 60 minutes of love, peace and soul.