40 Years Of 'Peace, Love And Sooouul'

Called the hippest trip in America, "Soul Train," the iconic dance and music performance program that showcased numerous black artists, put the step in the most popular dances, and showcased fashion that everyone had to have. The institution turns 40 this year and VH1 will commemorate the anniversary with a documentary about the influence and reach of "Soul Train" to urban audiences. Host Michel Martin speaks with the project's director J. Kevin Swain, and 1980s R&B/Pop artist Jody Watley, whom the program boosted to stardom, eventually earning her a Grammy-award winning artist.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

And now for a flashback. You want to unveil the latest moves at the big party, what would you do? Well, after 1970, you could get a tutorial on a show that would change urban culture and music and dance forever. "Soul Train" was the television show to watch for all that was cool, hip and funky.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Soul Train")

Mr. DON CORNELIUS (Host, "Soul Train"): (Singing) Hey, there and welcome aboard. You're right on time for another fun ride on the Soul Train. We'll be getting right back to with a great sound by Cameo(ph) right after these very important messages.

MARTIN: It was produced and hosted by Don Cornelius, whose voice you heard there. How it grew from a local program in Chicago to a national institution is a subject of a new documentary on VH1 Rock Docs called, "Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America."

To talk more about this, we're joined by J. Kevin Swain. He's the director of the documentary. Also with us is R&B star and former member of Shalamar, Jody Watley. Before becoming a star in her own right, she was one of the most popular "Soul Train," dancers. And they're both with us now from NPR West. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. JODY WATLEY (R&B Singer): Thank you for having us.

Mr. J. KEVIN SWAIN (Director, "Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America"): Our pleasure.

MARTIN: I'm dying to know what you're wearing. I was hoping it would be like a big fro or some platform boots, probably...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WATLEY: I actually - I have been, of late, wearing a big, curly, wild, messy afro.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. WATLEY: I do have on my trademark hoops, though smaller today than usual.

MARTIN: Okay. I'm so relieved. And some fabulous platform boots? No?

Ms. WATLEY: No, platforms.

MARTIN: No?

Ms. WATLEY: No.

MARTIN: All right.

Ms. WATLEY: I have on my Louis Vuitton.

MARTIN: Oh, oh, no. Excuse me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Well, Kevin, I won't ask what you're wearing. But, you know...

Mr. SWAIN: Well, you know, I'm chilling.

Ms. WATLEY: Chilling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know, Kevin, you know, on one hand, it occurred to me, this is natural subject for a documentary, but I'm not sure that there had been one before. Had there been one before? What gave you the idea?

Mr. SWAIN: Well, actually, I read about my friend Anthony Max's company acquiring the rights, and right away, I was, like, I need to share this with the world. It's my responsibility to get this out there. And that was it. I was, like, you know, what? It's part of what I've been given in particular by Don Cornelius by working on his "Soul Train" award shows. I think I did, like, 14 of them. It is was like my responsibility to make sure that he gets the proper light on this show when he gave to America and gave to the world.

MARTIN: How did he get the idea?

Mr. SWAIN: He had worked, you know, locally in Chicago as a radio announcer and as a reporter. And he got a chance to work in a TV station. And as the documentary, you know, highlights, he thought he should put a show on that highlighted, you know, black Americans in a positive light that just didn't exist at that time.

So it's really about a need, you know, to give to people, you know, to see these images. And that's, you know, how he came up with the idea.

MARTIN: And as we mentioned, it started as a local program in Chicago. Was it hard for him to persuade people to put the program on? I remember, people will remember "American Bandstand," but there really was nothing else like it that featured African-Americans on a regular basis.

Mr. SWAIN: Actually, he says it wasn't typical at all. I mean, the local show hit immediately. It wasn't a hard sell. And he came to, you know, he got some people behind him to get on the air, you know, nationally. They even - of course it's difficult, but it wasn't as difficult as you may think. I mean, it was instant hot.

MARTIN: Instant hot. Well, what made it instant hot?

Mr. SWAIN: Jody, why don't you speak to that?

Ms. WATLEY: First of all, young black kids seeing themselves dancing and having a good time and looking great, the word spread like a wild fire. And seeing the performers - there was nothing like it. And so, it just - it caught on immediately.

MARTIN: But one of the nuggets for me in the film that I found enjoyable is that even an artist like James Brown, there's a sequence - I'm going to play it - where he really, he did not understand that Don was the boss. I'm just going to play that little sequence, here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Soul Train")

Mr. CORNELIUS: I remember my first meeting with James Brown. He was from an era where you couldn't do anything big unless you had somebody, probably somebody right backing you. He was so impressed as he looked around the studio. He said, brother, who's backing you on this? And I said, well, James, it's just it's just me. And then he'd pass by me again and say, brother, who you win on this? I wanted to say, you just asked me (unintelligible) respect - I would say, James, it's just me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: He sounded a very good humored about it.

Mr. SWAIN: Very much so. He's good humored, you know, man no matter what. That's just who Don is. I'll give you a little nugget here. I made sure that that song, (unintelligible) that segment for Don Cornelius, because that's kind of a guy he is. He is very stern.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SWAIN: Very, you know, he doesn't take (unintelligible) that's why he can control it for so long.

MARTIN: And he did control it for a very long time. The program was on from 1970 until 2006.

Mr. SWAIN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: The show moved from Chicago to Los Angeles when it went national.

Ms. WATLEY: Yes.

Mr. SWAIN: Correct.

MARTIN: And so, Jody, you joined the program in Los Angeles.

Ms. WATLEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Right. What made you want to be on it?

Ms. WATLEY: "Soul Train" was it. "Soul Train" was the most popular show amongst my friends. We all watched it to see what the dancers like Pat Davis, Tyrone Procter and Sharon Hill and so forth, what they were wearing, what they were doing. Everybody lived to see the "Soul Train" line, and you know, the artists, of course, we wanted to see the musical performances. But really for my friends and I, it was about the dancing.

And when my family moved to Los Angeles, it was my, you know, number one goal to get on the show and I was asked by Bobby Washington after an evening church service, a boy I had never met who as it turned out his partner was out of town and he came up to me and asked if I wanted to go on "Soul Train." And I was like so excited and - yes, yes, yes, of course, and that really opened the door for me.

MARTIN: And Jody, for those who don't know, what's the line? What's the "Soul Train" line?

Ms. WATLEY: Well, back then it would be girls and boys mixed on each side and then eventually it would be girls on one side, boys on one side. And it's a couple's - two people would come down the center and it's something that you see at every wedding reception, bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, family picnic, whatnot, it is - even if you don't know what it is, when people line up and there are two people coming down the center - that's the "Soul Train" line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WATLEY: And you bring your A-game.

MARTIN: I can't believe I'm asking this question because, you know, to this day if you walk down the hallway and there are people lined up talking, somebody will say, well, let me go on, you know, and show their moves like down the hallway, right?

Ms. WATLEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Maybe you don't do that, I don't know.

Ms. WATLEY: You're the center of attention at that moment.

MARTIN: Maybe it's just an NPR thing, I don't know; maybe we just do that here. So, Jody, maybe you should tell us a number of other people went on like yourself to go on and have big careers in the entertainment field after being dancers on "Soul Train" - what are some of the names?

Ms. WATLEY: Wow, many people - Rosie Perez, Damita Jo Freeman, who was many years ago in the film "Private Benjamin." I think Walter Payton did a "Soul Train" line or something.

MARTIN: Yes, he did.

Mr. SWAIN: Rerun.

MARTIN: Fred Rerun Barry.

Mr. SWAIN: A lot of dancers went on to be great choreographers and go to Japan as like, you know, stars in their own right. You know, we interviewed them. They're like they still get paid for being "Soul Train" dancers around the world.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with director J. Kevin Swain and artist Jody Watley. We're talking about a new documentary that tracks the rise of the legendary "Soul Train" television program. And we talked about getting paid. Jody, did you get paid?

Ms. WATLEY: No, that's a beauty of it. It was for the love, and it's a such a time of innocence and being a dancer on the show, you just wanted to be on there, be seen, of course. You know, don't get me wrong. Everybody wanted their moment in the spotlight. And you came and you tried to dress up and have your best moves and the whole thing, but it was for free and we got a free cold box of chicken at lunch, and that was it. And we would have done it, you know, gladly even without that.

MARTIN: Without the chicken.

Ms. WATLEY: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That was hard work though, come on, now. That was hard work.

Mr. SWAIN: I think one thing you'll see in the documentary of the dancers particularly in the earlier days, you can tell they're out there for the fun of it, you can tell by their expressions, one another, and just how they're getting down the dance floor. It was a party.

MARTIN: But Kevin, the film makes the point that Don Cornelius was a pretty important businessman, that at one point he's the only African-American to own a nationally syndicated program in the country.

Mr. SWAIN: I don't know if he was the only, but definitely one of the first. Here's a man from Chicago who, you know, basically started a new brand new entertainment, if you will, integrated marketing, things now are just everyday catchphrases and easy to see. But think about, you know, he had SoftSheen products, Afro Sheen, and I think he had Ebony and Jet and later on Essence -that's like that's revolutionary for those times. Now we take it for granted, but here's a guy who, you know, made it hip, you know, to wear fro's, and also buy the product, and then also get a free subscription if you won a scramble board.

MARTIN: I do have to tell the people now what the scramble board is for people who don't know, is there would be at some point during the program that there would be some letters scrambled on the board and a couple would be picked to unscramble it and it would be it would spell out the name of an artist or some prominent figure, and they always figured it out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SWAIN: You're at home watching it too, you want to get it right. You want to say you got it right and be a part of that as well. And that's, you know...

MARTIN: Well, I think it's a small thing. I'm not going - the documentary has a lot of nuggets of knowledge in it, so I don't think it'll hurt us too much to say...

Ms. WATLEY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...that Don Cornelius had the idea that there was so much negativity around African-Americans just in the broader culture that this had to be a positive experience, and he didn't want people to tune in and there'd be a defeat.

Ms. WATLEY: Yes.

MARTIN: So they were going to figure it out. But one of the nuggets for me in the film that I found enjoyable is that Don was a great businessman and, you know, very involved with the issues of the day and all the things that were going on, but later on in the program's history he started having a little trouble with some of the musical styles that were becoming popular. Here's an interview that he did with Kurtis Blow where he talks about the fact that he really doesn't appreciate it so much. Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America")

Mr. CORNELIUS: I mean it doesn't make sense to old guys like me, I mean I don't understand why they love it so much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KURTIS BLOW (Rapper): Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think that Don Cornelius would say what he said. My heart dropped in my feet. It devastated me.

MARTIN: That's was interesting moment Kevin, wasn't it? Just for him to admit that I'm just not sure what this is all about. I was I didn't remember it but it was interesting to see.

Mr. SWAIN: I can tell you, I remember specifically in the beginning of, you know, rap, hip hop, I remember reading an article with Don and what he actually said was he wasn't interested in showcasing music that celebrated hopelessness. Now, when you think of it from that standpoint, a lot of rap had to do with I have money, you don't, class distinction, you know, misogyny, violence, drugs. I think that's what he really had issue with. It wasn't so much musical style per se.

And you think about it from a message standpoint. What were we saying? Here's a show that celebrated the positive image of black people. I don't think you're going to get on his show if all you can talk about is, you know, how I want to do this to you, I want to kill you, I want to maim you, I want to rape you, whatever; you know, rap was crazy like that for a while. I think that's where that came from.

MARTIN: But it's important to point out that "Soul Train" was for a time the place - if you were any kind of artist at all, you wanted to be on "Soul Train."

Ms. WATLEY: Absolutely, absolutely, especially with an older generation; it's like I remember performing on the show for the first time and then also being on the cover of Jet magazine. And my mom, I mean I could be on the cover of People magazine but it really didn't mean anything unless I'd make the cover of Jet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What was it like, Jody? (unintelligible) but what was that like when you're performing..

Ms. WATLEY: It was like the same thing, it was just, you know, you'd arrived when you made "Soul Train," you know, you did - I think Snoop Dog says that in the documentary; that was it, you know...

MARTIN: When you went to school the next day or when you were on the show -what was that like, just walking around the neighborhood, going to the mall or whatever, what was that like?

Ms. WATLEY: You know, my personality is very mellow and at that time because it was all new, it was a little uncomfortable. And still at high school to this day people would say, oh, you know, I love you, blah, blah, blah, but I remember when you were at, I went to Dorsey High School here in Los Angeles and they would saying you were that girl that danced on "Soul Train," but you're always by yourself. With me it has always been kind of that contrast, but I never, you know, never let any of that go to my head and of all the things that I've achieved, I'm still - I'm not that kind of person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Man, you messed up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You could have had your own table in the cafeteria.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SWAIN: Right.

Ms. WATLEY: No, I never worked it. No, I never worked it like that.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness, you could had a Jody Watley line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness. Your own locker.

Ms. WATLEY: No, always stay humble - that's that's me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, Kevin, what do you think the legacy of "Soul Train" is?

Mr. SWAIN: It's interesting you ask that - you know, for me, Don is one of my mentors. There's no two ways about it. You know, I'm a producer and a director. The legacy for me is - here is a man who had a vision and went for it and won. And I'd like to become much like that. When I first worked for Don, like '87, I think, I was so just like, wow, this is where I want to be, I want to do it like this. Own everything I mean come on.

I think now we take for granted somewhat, you know, Diddy has this thing and so does Russell and a lot of the hip hop cats and American business period, but now you think in the 70s, he did a really incredible thing by owning his own rights. So you know, personally my legacy is Don as an example of black entrepreneurship, if you will.

Ms. WATLEY: And from my point of view of when being a dancer on the show and it was something that I never really thought about until seeing the documentary that he also employed black men and black women in key positions. And I thought it's like, wow, everybody on staff, the camera man, the stage manager, the talent coordinator, it was always a sea of color. And I also think that's important to note as well.

MARTIN: How is he, by the way?

Mr. SWAIN: He's great. On a panel discussion he was so just like up and awake and on. He couldn't just stop talking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WATLEY: Overly candid in some areas, but...

MARTIN: Why did the show stop then? Kevin, why did the show go away, even after all the time? It was like 30 some years on the air, why did it go away? Thirty-six years.

Mr. SWAIN: What I think, you know put it this way - it's the longest running show in television syndication history. So, at some point you got to say, okay, I mean let's go home and, you know, let's take it on in.

MARTIN: I think he said in the documentary that at certain point as the host of this music program he just thought, you know, the distance between himself and the audience kept getting greater and greater and he thought why, why not go out on top? He actually did have on more host though. There were subsequent hosts...

Mr. SWAIN: Yeah.

Ms. WATLEY: There were a couple of other hosts.

MARTIN: ...after he stopped, right?

Mr. SWAIN: Yeah.

Ms. WATLEY: Yeah.

Mr. SWAIN: Shemar Moore was probably the biggest of those, but I think "Soul Train" without Don Cornelius was like (unintelligible) without the blue notes

Ms. WATLEY: Yeah.

Mr. SWAIN: You never go platinum, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, can either of you say, I can't the say the way he says it, wishing you - the way he would sign off. Come on, can you do it?

Mr. SWAIN: No one can say it like him.

Ms. WATLEY: No one can say, yeah.

MARTIN: Come on. Come on. Wishing you, love.

Ms. WATLEY: Let's do it.

MARTIN: Come on.

Ms. WATLEY: Wish you love, peace...

MARTIN: Peace...

Ms. WATLEY: ...and soul.

MARTIN: ...and soul.

Mr. SWAIN: ...and soul.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: J. Kevin Swain is the director of the new documentary, "Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America." It premiers on VH1 this Saturday, February 6th. You want to check your local listings. Jody Watley is a former "Soul Train" dancer, member of the group Shalamar, and a Grammy-award winning artist. They were both kind enough to join us from NPR West, and I'll just try it - I'm wishing you both love, peace and soul.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. SWAIN: Thank you.

Ms. WATLEY: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

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