It would be easy to tell the story of Soul Train with facts and figures. It ran for 35 seasons, making it the longest continuously airing first-run syndicated television program. It's been referenced in many song lyrics, films and TV shows. Countless R&B and soul acts performed on the show and credited Soul Train as a crucial element of their success.
But the show's impact on America's collective cultural identity is best described by the people who watched it and let it shape their musical sensibilities. While the show's audience was always primarily African-American, Soul Train was also a cross-cultural hit. Seems we all wanted to check out the latest moves and fashions from that in-studio dance floor.
Watching a new DVD compilation titled The Best of Soul Train, it's hard not to be struck by the time-capsule-like effect of the fashion — an experience similar to looking at photos of our high-school years and cringing at how cool we thought we looked.
Fashion aside, though, music is the star of this show, and there is plenty to appreciate. So pull back the rug in the living room, call some friends and get your own Soul Train Line going, because this DVD contains classic performances by countless favorites in their prime.
We've pulled aside four of our favorite videos here. Please leave us your own Soul Train memories in the comments section below.
Aretha Franklin And Smokey Robinson, "Ooo Baby Baby"
We think of Aretha Franklin and immediately think of her magnificent voice. But her success began only when the producers at Atlantic Records put her behind the piano and let her sing. The rest, as they say, is history.
One cool nugget of that history is this short clip of Franklin and Smokey Robinson performing a duet on one of his songs, "Ooo Baby Baby," with Franklin playing the piano. She starts the song in the slow, almost march-like cadence of African-American gospel piano style. As she lets the first "Ooo" sail out, it's almost as if Robinson doesn't recognize own his song, until he smiles a musician's smile as he recognizes how Franklin worked a familiar song into something unexpected and exciting. She keeps it in the church as those two familiar voices float around each other, caressing Robinson's timeless words asking for forgiveness and redemption, all in under 2:30.
This clip is what music is all about — in the moment, over before you know it, leaving only the chills that accompany a rare opportunity to hear these legends sing in two-part harmony together (with Franklin casually showing her vocal range by taking the upper register).
"We should have been a duo," she says.
Imagine the music that could have come from that partnership. —Felix Contreras
Barry White, "Can't Get Enough Of Your Love"
"The Maestro," Barry White, was the original Notorious B.I.G. Think about it: Neither was all that cute, and both favored blingy, shiny stuff. But none of that stopped women from swooning over them. I didn't understand or properly appreciate White's allure until I saw him in concert during the 1990s, when he performed after Chante Moore and before Earth, Wind & Fire. White worked the crowd and played all his hits, but by the time "Love's Theme" came on, he was winded. He stood to the side of the stage for a few minutes to catch his breath and wipe off a little sweat while the orchestra continued to play. Every few chords or so, he would growl into the mic with his gravelly voice, "yeah" or "sho' you right." That's when I got it. He didn't have to be cute, because he was smooth. He had a pillow-talk voice. And he had so much to give — and was never, ever going to give me up, because I was the first, the last, his everything. —Tanya Ballard Brown
James Brown, "Get Up I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine"
He keeps asking: "Can I get down?" "Can I get down?" "Can I get down?" Is that even a question? For the funky Soul Train dancers, enviable eyewitnesses to the spectacle, there's but one answer. Actually, for all of us soul-brother and soul-sister proxies watching from home, there was no debate anyway. Hell, yeah! There, at the peak of his powers as an entertainer, was James Brown: throwing down as a singer; a dancer; an instigating, grunting, shrieking bandleader, fired up and ready to set the place aflame. "Make-it-fun-ky."
There's something inspiring, even 35 years on, about watching Soul Brother Number One's live appearance on Soul Train, the hippest trip in America. The combination of the performer and that show keeps up an enervating pace that electrifies the teenagers. It holds up well in 2010. No, you won't want to put on the clothes again, but nothing feels as natural as this event. If you look closely at the musicians — the guys seem so disciplined (or is it terrified?) as they fight to keep up with JB's cues: a juke here, a twitch there, a split and a spill. Despite how tight everything looks and sounds, you can almost feel the scariness in the air; it's almost like dread, that fear of being the musician who messes up the funky music on the stage of... Soul Train! Where the call-and-response is flowing and the dancers are doing their thing while giving JB his props and even competing, stealing what he's doing and adding a little bit in their next step. It's a bumping, jumping, twisting earthquake of music, color and movement — kids decked out in five-inch platform shoes, Afro hairstyles, bold and brave and outrageous plaids, impossibly bright colors and perpertual motion. And with wacky side-angle shots of James Brown's signature teetering-on-the-edge-of-disaster funky dance moves. All the while, no matter how rehearsed you think this has to be, it possesses a raw, pure authenticity. "EeeeeeeYOW!" —Walter Ray Watson
Stevie Wonder, "These Three Words (Medley)"
Stevie Wonder — wow, how his voice still makes me tingle from head to toe. At that time in my life, I lived for Soul Train, and would have just killed to be in the crowd surrounding him doing the la-la-las in "My Cherie Amour." And as for "Sir Duke," I don't believe there was a single person on the south side of Chicago who didn't know every single word, and most of us learned to scat from that song. Then there's "I Wish," the soundtrack to many a barbecue, or just accompaniment for a walk down King Drive on the way to the Jewel-Osco — and dancing a little when someone drove by, blasting that tune out of an open car window. His music reminds me of blue skies and the bright smiles of the folks who swayed back and forth to Stevie Wonder no matter what else they were doing. Nothing sums up his greatness, or expresses my appreciation for him, quite like "These Three Words." —Allison Keyes