Saturday, June 03, 2006

Don't Miss the Train

Climb Aboard the Train

With one sponsor, a small television studio space and a vision; radio jock
Don Cornelius scrapped up the money to produce what would become a Saturday morning staple in millions of African American homes: Soul Train.

Starting out in August 1970 with one sponsor – Sears and Roebuck, in the television studio of Chicago’s WCIU, Soul Train caught the Windy City like a hurricane. Through word of mouth the black community climbed aboard the train five days a week for an hour of peace, love and soul. It was the first time that black folks were depicted on television as young and hip – they wore whatever the latest styles were in the hood. Long Afro’s and bell-bottom jeans, hip huggers, thigh high boots, cornrows, t-shirts worn with multi-colored jeans, and jumpsuits (there was once a line called “The Boogie on Down Suit”) were all on display.

By the time the show went national Johnson and Johnson were sponsors. Commercials hawking the benefits of using Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen were beamed all across the country. And hey why not, we had to have some kind of hair products to keep out fro’s right.

The real highlights of the show were the music and dancing. Those were the days when folks would ‘get loose’. No posing allowed. If you weren’t feeling the funk you weren’t allowed aboard the train. Dances like ‘the stop and go’, ‘the bump’, ‘the hustle’ and ‘the bus stop’ were done with so much energetic soul that you would think the dancers were made out of rubber. Couples danced together – not all over each other, but with each other. Their moves accommodated their partners.

And then there was the infamous Soul Train line that introduced us to Soul Train dancers like Damita Jo Freeman, Big Lou (you couldn’t tell that brother nothin’) Jeffrey Daniels, Fred “Rerun” Berry and later the Puerto Rican chick with the devastating body (and moves to match) Rosie Perez.

At the end of the day the musical performances were what people tuned in for. The immortal Marvin Gaye sang to the crowd like he was one of the gang. Wearing a rolled up beanie cap and sweater to match Marvin sang to the ladies – not performed, but sang. He held hands and looked into their eyes as he sang the lyrics “My body wants ya…”

The untouchable Al Green, with band and all, poured his soul out as he sang ‘Love and Happiness’. And did a moving rendition of “For the Good Times” (Lawd have mercy!).

When the Jackson 5 were on Soul Train it was a done deal. Michael – before he became God’s strangest child, danced like a miniature version of James Brown or Jackie Wilson. The whole place was in a frenzy when they performed ‘ABC’.

But we can’t forget when the Godfather of Soul James Brown performed there. Fuggetaboutit. The Godfather took the whole show over. He’d even go so far as to change the name of the sign from reading “Soul Train’ to it reading ‘The JB’s”. Most people would go on the show and do one or two songs – not James Brown; he broke out his whole revue: Sweet Charles, Lynn Collins, Vicky Anderson all of them got camera time.

The show captured a special time when the community determined what was fly. There was no one trying to sell a lifestyle to anyone. It was what it was. Self-expression. If you look back you’ll see images of musicians who didn’t care what in the hell they were wearing, it wasn’t about that for them. It was about playing the music and being real about it. There were no fashion model artists or dancers – that shit isn’t soulful or real. How real could a drummer be if he’s worrying about his hair while he’s playing? Soul is the essence within – it has nothing to do with the outer person. That is a shell.

Turn on Soul Train today and you’ll see that, like yesterday, it reflects the times were living in now. Nobody dances with reckless abandonment anymore. There are no bands. The music isn’t soulful – even though the theme song is based on the shows original theme, there is something missing, the music doesn’t inspire the dancers like it did back then.

Don’t believe me
check for yourself.

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