‘Soul Train’ 40 years later: Appealing to Americans on both sides of the track

It was a ritual shared by millions of black folks across the nation: Saturday morning, after breakfast and sometimes while you cleaned the house, the TV was tuned to Soul Train. Remember the animated train, grooving down the track, and that familiar voiceover: ”Soooooul train, the hippest trip in America …”?

This is where folks who looked like the Tyrones and Keishas in the neighborhood – thick, thin, short, tall, straightened hair, nappy crowns – got down. Lithe, dark bodies shimmied across the screen. Brothas and sistas, fabulous in their platforms and skin-tight bell-bottoms, twirled with a grace that rivaled an Alvin Ailey production. Propelled by the propulsive funk often played on the show, the dancers were part tribal, part athletic. They were, as frequent guest Al Green would croon, “simply beautiful.”

During its halcyon years throughout the ‘70s and well into the early ‘90s, Soul Train was an unabashed celebration of blackness. And this year marks the 40th anniversary since we first met the dapper host with the velvet baritone, Soul Train creator Don Cornelius, and those wondrous dancers. But you better believe black folks weren’t the only ones tuning in. Many white boys and girls out in the ‘burbs or in remote places in the Midwest soaked up the music and the dances. For some, the show was probably their only exposure to black folks. Rock star Melissa Etheridge has said she was an undercover Soul Train fan while growing up in Kansas.

In a way, the program was a beacon, beaming raw, uncut, unapologetic black style and swagger into homes around the country. It was an artistic revolution of sorts: Nothing like Soul Train had been on TV before. The black kids on American Bandstand didn’t break it down like the ones on Soul Train. They probably didn’t know how. Also, the show was virtually the only place where you saw and heard a wide array of black acts and sounds.

Sure, the well established, crossover stars – Aretha, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye – all made appearances on Soul Train early on. Most even sang live on the show. But if it weren’t for Soul Train, lesser-known but supremely gifted talents of the day – Roy Ayers, Leroy Hutson, Betty Wright, Evelyn “Champagne” King, even ivory soul queen Teena Marie, who made her national TV debut on the show in 1979 – probably wouldn’t have gotten much exposure. The big hits on black radio were certainly played on the show, but Soul Train programmers also dug deeper, selecting equally hot albums cuts that sent dancers down the line doing the robot and the funky chicken.

As the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, Soul Train kept up with the times. Dancers wore less clothes, more leather and shredded tops, as Afros shrank into greasy Jheri Curls. There were no more live performances. The Soul Train set took on a dark, sleek, industrial look, which, in a way, reflected a change in urban music. As hip-hop started to bubble under the mainstream, Soul Train offered many of its pioneering acts their early national TV exposure. Kurtis Blow, Whodini, Run DMC and a young LL Cool J all lip-synced on the show back in the day. Later, as hip-hop married (uh, corrupted?) R&B in the early ‘90s and called itself “new jack swing,” Soul Train was again at the forefront. Teddy Riley and Guy, SWV, Al B. Sure and a young, scowling Mary J. Blige all graced the Soul Train stage.

But after Don Cornelius stopped hosting the show in 1993, the magic was somehow gone. Several lame guest hosts, including the ever-so-whack comedian Mystro Clark and boring pretty boy Shemar Moore, tried to fill Don’s shiny loafers, but nobody could. And as black expression – the style, the swagger – was co-opted more and more by the mainstream in the mid ‘90s, urban acts didn’t really need the exposure on Soul Train anymore. They were ubiquitous on MTV and everywhere else.

Production of first-run episodes was suspended at the end of the 2005-06 season, the show’s thirty-fifth year. After that, stations started running archived episodes under the title The Best of Soul Train. In May 2008, the rights to the show’s library were purchased by MadVision Entertainment. The price and terms of the deal were not disclosed. In April 2009, MadVision launched a Soul Train channel on YouTube. The company later made a deal with BET to relaunch the Soul Train Music Awards for BET’s new spin-off channel, Centic, which currently broadcasts archived episodes.

Now that mainstream urban music has become, for the most part, an aural wasteland and brothas and sistas don’t really dance together anymore, it’s refreshing to check out the old episodes. The clothes, the moves and some of the music may be dated, but the spirit of it all still charges you. Black folks haven’t been that unfetteredly funky and undeniably beautiful on TV in a long time. Soul Train brilliantly captured it all.