Forty years ago, kids in Chicago first turned on their TVs to watch "Soul Train." It quickly became a national go-to source for the latest music, fashion and dance moves.

The show's been off the air now for a few years, but as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, a new TV documentary is getting ready to school a whole new generation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: For years, millions of kids across the country didn't need a calendar to know this: If it was Saturday morning, it was time for "Soul Train."

(Soundbite of television program, "Soul Train")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�DON CORNELIUS (Host): The hippest trip in America, 60 nonstop minutes across the tracks of your mind into the exciting world of soul.

BATES: Host Don Cornelius brought some of the country's hottest black recording artists into the nation's living rooms every week.

(Soundbite of television program, "Soul Train")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�CORNELIUS: We're back with the godfather, James Brown okay, we're back now with Ike and Tina Turner Marvin Gaye - Barry White. I understand your name is Chaka Khan, right?

Ms.�CHAKA KHAN (Musician): That's what they call me.

Mr.�CORNELIUS: He's the closest the music world has come to having its own messiah, Al Green.

(Soundbite of applause)

BATES: And soul icon Smokey Robinson says Don Cornelius didn't have to beg.

Mr.�SMOKEY ROBINSON (Musician): Everybody who was anybody in the entertainment world, as far as the artists went, wanted to be on "Soul Train."

BATES: That's what made the idea of a documentary on "Soul Train's" history irresistible to director Kevin Swain. He knew there was a whole group of powerful black artists younger generations needed to hear, even if they had to be told who those people were.

Mr.�KEVIN SWAIN (Director, "Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America"): Much of my crew hadn't really heard about Green.

(Soundbite of song, "Here I Am, Come and Take Me")

Mr.�AL GREEN (Musician): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BATES: So I picked a live version of "Here I Am, Come and Take Me."

(Soundbite of song, "Here I Am, Come and Take Me")

Mr.�GREEN: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BATES: I made sure we showed the part where he went to church. And so I have to explain what that meant.

BATES: Swain had to school them that this was the same call and response many black folks were used to hearing every Sunday morning in church.

(Soundbite of song, "Here I Am, Come and Take Me")

BATES: And Swain's staff got religion about a number of other performers, too, like the Spinners.

(Soundbite of music)

THE SPINNERS (Music Group): (Singing) Could it be I'm falling in love? Could it be I'm falling in love.

BATES: And the bass gorgeousness that was Barry White.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�BARRY WHITE (Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BATES: Backed by a live orchestra.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�WHITE: (Singing) (Unintelligible). Can't get enough of your love.

BATES: Back in the day, "Soul Train" gave white kids who didn't know or live near anyone black an opportunity to see young black culture up close. For black kids who didn't see themselves reflected in the mainstream media, "Soul Train" was a revelation. Musician Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson of The Roots and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."

Mr.�AHMIR ?UESTLOVE THOMPSON (Musician): The show is very important because, historically, it's one of the first shows that sold us afro-centricity.

BATES: Don Cornelius, a Chicago radio personality with a potent set of pipes, was the show's creator.

Mr.�CORNELIUS: After a short time in radio, the first thing I began to really notice is that there was no black television, that television was just white this, white that, general market this, white that, no TV that targeted our culture.

BATES: He found a sponsor for a TV show based on traveling sock-hops he put on with local soul performers like Curtis Mayfield(ph), Jerry Butler(ph) and the Chi-Lites.

Mr. CORNELIUS: It gave me a sense of a train traveling from school to school.

(Soundbite of song, "Soul Train")

Unidentified Women: (Singing) (Unintelligible) soul train.

BATES: And "Soul Train" was born. In the beginning, it was a hometown show, but when it took off, Cornelius moved the whole operation to Los Angeles and added a feature that became essential to everyone who watched it.

(Soundbite of song, "Soul Train")

Mr.�CORNELIUS: Right now, we'd like to (unintelligible) to the soul train line. It gives everybody a chance to kind of style awhile and something you might want to get into on your own at parties to dance to.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: The "Soul Train" dancers showed off the latest moves and the latest fashions. Dancer Jody Watley(ph) thanks soul train for her successful career as a singer and producer.

Ms.�JODY WATLEY (Singer): Seventies, '80s, it's really a core nucleus of music and fashion in many ways.

BATES: "Soul Train" ended in 2006 but is set to return in a boxed DVD set in March. Meanwhile, for 60 minutes on Saturday night, viewers can enjoy the best parts of the hippest trip in America, courtesy of VH1 Documentary.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.