With all the Michael Jackson reminiscing and tributes that'll continue to pour in long after his children have gone on to have dysfunctional lives of their own, it's easy to forget that the King of Pop's greatest televised moment — moonwalking on the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever special in 1983 — was birthed not in a rehearsal studio by a high-priced choreographer but on Soul Train. The Funky Chicken. The Funky Penguin. The Robot. Locking. Popping. The long-running show popularized nearly every dance craze, still rearing their funky heads in some form or another, in the '70s and '80s. Soul Train taught a two-left-footed, rhythmless nation how to groove. And a new VH1 documentary, Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America, narrated by Oscar-nominated actor Terrence Howard, celebrates 40 years of “love, peace and soul.”
The type of face-to-face interaction on Soul Train and its white Saturday-morning cousin, American Bandstand, went the way of paying for music. Competitive dancing on TV today only leads to reality shows, which beget more reality shows. Factor in the state of the record industry, and Soul Train chugged along until 2006, 13 years after creator Don Cornelius took his last baritone breath as host, and just as many years after the last fad dance — vogueing — swept the country. (The Macarena, unlike tapas and Pedro Almodóvar, was not one of Spain's better exports.) If director J. Kevin Swain's film narrows in on Soul Train's golden age, the '70s, it's only too easy to revel in the moving topiary of hair and fashion, from polyester and platforms to 'fros of every circumference.
In the documentary, Swain not only snags an interview with Cornelius (sadly, Cornelius was not available for us), but also assembles a pretty illustrious roster of superstars to walk with him down memory lane, including Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Chaka Khan, the late Teddy Pendergrass, Snoop Dogg, Clive Davis, L.A. Reid, Gamble and Huff, and the elusive Sly Stone, who calls Cornelius the “first intellectual funkmaster.” “Everyone was glad to do the interview,” says Swain. “One, out of love and respect for Don. Everyone understands what it meant for their careers and what it meant to the culture to be on the show.”
After working as a disc jockey and reporter in Chicago, which included covering the civil rights movement alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, South Side–bred Cornelius decided he wanted to bring predominantly black music to TV. Soul Train debuted in 1970, and early acts included B.B. King, the Staple Singers, the O'Jays and frequent guest and fellow Chicago native Curtis Mayfield. Cornelius was not only the show's executive producer but its owner, becoming one of the first African-Americans to own a television program.
In 1971, production moved to Hollywood, helping to make the local music scene in the early '70s fertile ground for soul, funk and R&B: The Jackson 5 were already nestling in the hills; Motown would set up shop; and Wattstax would be known as the black Woodstock. The show aired on KTTV and was taped at various locations, including the Paramount Lot, Chaplin Studios and Tribune Stage. “Coming here to Los Angeles was a major business decision,” says Swain (“born and raised in South Central”). “There were just more opportunities here for the show to grow. You had more talent to choose from. It was just smart business all around, which is one of the things I really wanted to point out. Yeah, it was a great dance show and a cultural phenomenon, but most importantly, here was a black businessman doing his thing.”
Gladys Knight and the Pips were the show's West Coast incarnation's first guests, and while having the artists lip-synch was cost-effective, the film unearths some of the show's rare live performances by Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Al Green, and Barry White, who had to have a special set constructed to accommodate his 40-piece orchestra. “A black American Bandstand” may have been Cornelius' initial impetus, but Soul Train became such a hit that Dick Clark himself would soon lay down the groovy gauntlet. In 1973, he launched the rival Soul Unlimited, lasting only two months. Non-R&B acts were also jumping onboard, including the show's first white performer, Canadian Gino Vanelli, followed by Elton John and David Bowie; watching Bowie fumble the lyrics to his own “Fame” is a hoot, even by lip-synching standards.
Other little-known facts: Yes, Cornelius did once make it down the Soul Train line at the behest of the Supremes' Mary Wilson. And yes, the Scramble Board, where dancers put together names of important African-American figures, was fixed. Perhaps the film's funniest piece of footage is a commercial by Afro Sheen, owned by Soul Train sponsor Johnson Products, in which the ghost of Frederick Douglass appears in a boy's bedroom and chastises him for having nappy hair.
The performers weren't the show's only stars. Talent Coordinator Pam Brown recalls scouting at parks and recreation centers in and around South Central. It was there she found dancers who would go on to become not only dance pioneers but choreographers and actors: The supreme Damita Jo Freeman, actress on Private Benjamin; Don Campbell, creator of locking and founder of The Lockers, which included a young Toni Basil; and the late Fred Berry, aka Rerun on What's Happening!! Swain managed to reunite other stars who've boogied past your screen over the years, including Rosie Perez, Jeffrey Daniel and Cheryl Song — think lone Asian lady with the waist-length hair. Daniel talks about premiering the “backslide” in 1979, years later teaching the move, rechristened the moonwalk, to M.J. (He would work with Jackson for years to come.) Jody Watley, Daniel's bandmate in the group Shalamar, signed with Cornelius' Soul Train records, and was by far the show's biggest success story.
Watley, another Chicago native, was invited to dance by a bit of “fortuitous destiny.” She was only 14. “Though I had been invited the first time,” Watley says, “it took several months for me to become a regular. I'd get kicked out, ride the bus home, cry, and the next month I'd go back and try it again. And it payed off.
“One of my favorites would probably be Labelle,” says Watley when asked about watching some of the show's greatest performances. “They were so flamboyant. The word fierce is tossed around kind of cheaply today. But Labelle was genuinely fierce. We hadn't see anything like that before. It was futuristic. It was gospel. It was funk. It was dance. It was disco. I just remember the excitement and the buzz that day. The second that comes to mind would be David Bowie. I got kicked out of that taping because I wasn't invited and I snuck in.”
After launching a successful solo career and winning a Grammy in the '80s, Watley returned to sing on Soul Train seven times. “I recall crying in my dressing room because I remembered being a teenager and just wanting to get on the show and dance,” Watley says. “I'd wanted to be a singer all my life and it was realizing a dream come true. It really meant so much to me. Perseverance and determination count for something.”
Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America airs on VH1 on February 5 and screens at the Paley Center on January 29, followed by a discussion with Don Cornelius, Jody Watley and other guests.