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It's Been 5 Decades Since 'Soul Train' Was First Nationally Syndicated

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

NPR is celebrating its 50th anniversary by looking back at the moments that shaped the year 1971. Now, when "Soul Train" was first nationally broadcast on October 2 of that year, there was nothing like it on TV. NPR's Sam Sanders examines what the show meant then and now and whether a "Soul Train" today would actually work.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: "Soul Train" as a show was a very simple idea - very pretty, cool people, mostly Black, dancing to very good music, also mostly Black, and a very charismatic host with colorful suits and a perfect Afro as your guide.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")

DON CORNELIUS: And welcome aboard. I can guarantee you'll enjoy the ride, especially if you like your soul ice cold because none other than the Ice Man himself is going to be looking you right dead in your eyes after this very important message.

SANDERS: But when Don Cornelius began Soul Train, no one had ever really executed this very simple idea on a national stage before. Before "Soul Train," there were song-and-dance shows with live performances. But they were mostly white.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN BANDSTAND")

DICK CLARK: Welcome aboard a Saturday afternoon "American Bandstand" with a very special salute today.

SANDERS: So when Don Cornelius was pitching the show to stations across the country, he initially got some resistance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORNELIUS: There were a lot of stations that did not feel justified in clearing our program, like "Soul Train," which targeted minorities. And many of those who did clear it did not want to clear it in a, quote-unquote, "good time period."

SANDERS: That was Don Cornelius in an interview with CNN in 1995. But he also said in that interview, the struggle to get "Soul Train" on the air was worth it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORNELIUS: We found a need in the early '70s in our culture, the African American culture, that African Americans could directly and easily relate to, and we served it.

SANDERS: On Soul Train, even the commercials were super Black because Johnson Products was sponsoring the show. There's this one ad that really stands out for me. It's for Afro Sheen, this Black hair care product. And in the ad, the ghost of Frederick Douglass is talking about the way hairstyles are a sign of respectability. It's wild.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Frederick Douglass) Are you going to go out into the world with your hair looking like that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Well, Mr. Douglass, you know, times have changed. We wear the natural now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Frederick Douglass) You call that a natural? That's a mess. I've been watching the progress of our people. And I'm quite familiar with the natural. And I'm also aware that it is worn as an outward expression of pride and dignity.

SANDERS: And I should be clear here, "Soul Train" wasn't only Black. One of the show's most popular dancers was Rosie Perez. And perhaps one of my favorite "Soul Train" performances came from Elton John. He was sitting behind a big piano wearing this green, crushed velvet suit with a big old green, crushed velvet hat looking right at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BENNIE AND THE JETS")

ELTON JOHN: (Singing) B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets.

SANDERS: Something "Soul Train" was also really good at was having artists open up after a live performance. There's this one moment after Marvin Gaye performs on Soul Train, and he's taking questions from the audience. And he's just so cool and laid back and kind of oversharing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")

DWAYNE: Hi, my name is Dwayne. And I'd like to know, what are some of your hobbies, you know, like besides singing because I know you like to sing? And, you know, what else do you like to do besides singing at your spare time?

MARVIN GAYE: Well, I'm...

(LAUGHTER)

GAYE: I'm kind of sensual, you know? And I enjoy...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Aww. They want (unintelligible)...

GAYE: ...(Laughter)...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You know, I just want to let you know (ph)...

GAYE: I enjoy - I like fooling around.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: This was a winning formula, an appointment viewing for many across the country every weekend.

Ericka Blount Danois wrote a book all about "Soul Train." It's called "Love, Peace And Soul." And she remembers how special it was for her every weekend.

ERICKA BLOUNT DANOIS: As an audience member in your own house, you felt like you were a part of this whole, you know, (laughter) party so much that my sister and I would actually get dressed up when we watched the show. We also had a crush on several of the artists. So, you know, (laughter) as a kid, you sort of think, can they see us? I don't know.

SANDERS: Save for those commercials, there wasn't a big message on top of "Soul Train." There was no plot. The only point the show was trying to prove was that Black joy is good TV and that really anyone would love to watch really cool people dance to good songs.

Hanif Abdurraqib wrote about "Soul Train" in his recent book of essays "A Little Devil in America." And he says that was the point.

HANIF ABDURRAQIB: Because it wasn't asking much of me other than, isn't this beautiful? This is - in a way, it was evangelizing for a very simple, joyful aesthetic and not asking much of anyone but, hey, look at this thing; isn't this miraculous?

SANDERS: "Soul Train" was in many ways miraculous. But it didn't last forever. Don Cornelius stopped hosting in 1993. And several hosts that came after him never really recaptured that spark he brought. But even before that, the show had slowly begun to lose its appeal, in part because Cornelius didn't like hip-hop, and channels like BET and MTV, which played music videos all the time, they became big competition. One thing I've noticed ever since "Soul Train" went off the air, there's never been another "Soul Train" since - that Black, that beautiful in its simplicity.

Hanif Abdurraqib noticed that, too.

ABDURRAQIB: The desire to have a capital-M Message is perhaps higher now than it was, for better or worse, sometimes immensely worse, as we know by the execution of some TV shows. And I don't know if "Soul Train" would survive the attention span of people who are looking for more.

SANDERS: The space where a dance really thrives now, online, at least, is TikTok. And those videos aren't even close to an hour long. But you can see old "Soul Train" clips there. Folks have uploaded them. Because of the platform, they aren't really that long - maybe a minute. But there's this one that I love. It's got Don Cornelius introducing a James Brown song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUL TRAIN")

CORNELIUS: "Get Up Offa That Thing."

JAMES BROWN: Do it now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Call it out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Woo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Woo.

SANDERS: And then there's just dancing for that one minute. It's not choreographed. It's all very freestyle. And these aren't dances anyone learned by watching some instructional video. There are no logos, no links to anything. It wasn't made for an algorithm - just music and dance and Black joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET UP OFFA THAT THING")

BROWN: (Singing) Get up offa that thing, and dance till you feel better.

SANDERS: And, you know, even decades later on this platform Don Cornelius could have never imagined, "Soul Train" works.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET UP OFFA THAT THING")

BROWN: (Singing) Get up offa that thing, and try to release that pressure. Get up offa that thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.