‘Soul Train’ rode the express for black culture

DVD release pulls pop icon back into station

On Wednesday, when the Grammy Museum hosts a 40th anniversary tribute to “Soul Train,” Don Cornelius and Smokey Robinson will be on hand just as they were during the show’s heyday.

When the “Soul Train” arrived in the early ’70s, MTV and BET were a decade away, Michael Jackson was still in the Jackson 5 and hip-hop was in its nascent stage. As a showcase for black culture in all of its unadulterated glory, there was nothing quite like it.

“This is the point in time when African-American culture is really emerging from what had been a pretty segregated reality before,” says Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, who has written such books as “The Notorious Ph.D.’s Guide to the Super Fly ’70s” and “Young, Black, Rich, and Famous.” “So what you see in the ’70s is this emergence of an aspect of African-American culture that for the first time is not interested in crossing over or being necessarily embraced by the mainstream.”

Cornelius, “Soul Train” host and creator, “presented black people to and for black people,” says Michael Mitchell, VP of marketing/strategic partnerships for Time Life, which released “The Best of Soul Train” three-DVD set this week. “He didn’t soften it or do anything that the Ed Sullivans and Dick Clarks did, which was make (black music) palatable for white America.”

The compilation focuses on the show’s halcyon days from 1971-79 (it ran for 35 years) and features live performances from the likes of James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone and Aretha Franklin. The collection also includes commercials from the series’ sole sponsor for those first several seasons, Johnson Products Co., makers of Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen. The show and those spots — one of which features tap dancers in white tuxedos a la Cab Calloway — provide a snapshot of the era, when black power was asserting itself, blaxploitation films were at their zenith, and “Soul Train” not only had a lock on the biggest names in black music, but gave a crucial break to emerging acts.

“It was a time when television got more inclusive,” Cornelius tells Daily Variety. “It wasn’t just one culture that was using the media and controlling it.” Now, as Cornelius puts it, “Black artists have unlimited access. It goes from seeing Jay-Z on ‘Letterman’ to Usher on ‘GMA.’ They have achieved a certain benchmark.”

The author and essayist Stanley Crouch wrote recently that “Soul Train” “helped to redefine and, eventually, to kill segregated show business.” In a way, the show became a victim of its own success, paving the way for other outlets to steal its thunder. “By the early ’80s,” says Boyd, “The biggest pop star in America is Michael Jackson, who’s not going to be on ‘Soul Train’ any more because there are other, bigger venues for Michael Jackson.”

Prior to Time Life buying the 1,100 episodes of “Soul Train,” Cornelius would not allow clips to be shown in advertisements or on other TV shows. Bootlegged episodes have been heavily circulated over the years, and a look at the “Best of” package reveals why: There’s Brown, circa 1973, providing a clinic on why he’s the hardest-working man in show business; with a two-drummer band providing the churning drive of a locomotive; there’s Wonder serenading the “Soul Train” dancers with a medley of tunes; and there’s a duet between Robinson and Franklin on “Ooo Baby Baby.” with the Queen of Soul providing accompaniment on piano

Presiding over it all was Cornelius, known for his dapper, if flamboyant, fashion sense, and his velvety baritone. It was nearly possible to determine the time frame of any episode by the size of Cornelius’ afro and the width of his lapels.Although Time Life would not reveal the value of the massive “Soul Train” library purchase, the deal follows its releases of such shows as “Get Smart,” a 25-DVD collection that sold approximately 50,000 units, according to the company, and “The Hee Haw Collection,” which Mitchell says hit the million sales mark. Next up for Time Life is the three-DVD “25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts” set, due Sept. 28.

Although Nielsen figures date back only to the 1991-92 season, when “Soul Train” averaged 2.55 million weekly viewers, the show’s popularity peaked in the early ’80s, according to Mitchell.Part of the reason for the show’s waning influence was Cornelius’ distaste for hip-hop. Boyd points to a 1980 appearance by Kurtis Blow. Cornelius “did not hide his displeasure” when interviewing the rapper, “which indicated that he was sort of out of touch, and the show was out of touch after a while.”