The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Riding Soul Train in the Seventies
In memory of the late Don Cornelius, we present this snapshot of TV's Soul Train in its mid-'70s pomp. Mick Farren was reporting from L.A. for New Musical Express in January 1975——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
There are three major US TV shows. Don Kirshner's In Concert shows, Midnight Special and Soul Train. Of the three, Soul Train is by far the most dynamic and exciting, although all three make [Britain's] Top of the Pops and Old Grey Whistle Test look stale, tired and amateurish.
Soul Train is the only solid, networked black music TV in the world. It is brought in on a comparatively low budget; far lower, in fact, than that for TOTP. It does, however, seem to have discovered a formula, for instant energy that is rarely duplicated on television.
A lot of it is down to the studio audience of young, immaculately dressed black teenagers who vie for the chance to display their dancing prowess on camera.
The bulk of Soul Train is put together at a live taping that happens every Saturday and Sunday at KTTV studios on L.A.'s Sunset Boulevard. In many ways it resembles the old days of Ready Steady Go. The kids are strictly auditioned for appearance and dancing skills, and the lucky ones get tickets for a maximum of two shows. Although none of the kids are paid for their appearances on the show, the competition is fierce; dancing on Soul Train is the ultimate status symbol among the hip black youth of Los Angeles.
The audience moves into the studio at around ten thirty in the morning and stay until eight or nine at night. A box lunch is served around two in the afternoon, and they are expected to remain alert and enthusiastic during the whole ten-hour session.
Going to Soul Train's own unique go-go is to participate in both a dance contest and a fashion show. The audience are acutely aware that they are going to be seen by literally millions of their peers throughout the country, and this awareness produces some dazzling effects.
An incredibly beautiful, tall slim girl drifts by. She has a huge afro, skin tight Iron Boy overalls, elaborate platforms and pounds of Navajo silver and turquoise jewellery. Her friend is encased in the full Marilyn Monroe black sequined sheath dress drag and a blonde wig that contrasts stunningly with her light brown skin and black lipstick. They stop and chat with an almost executive a looking boy. He wears a collar, tie and very English cut suit, wide lapels, narrow shoulders and a nipped in waist. His whole images is careful except that the suit is a flaming orange, his shirt a pale lemon yellow, and his tie a riot of red William Morris. The profusion of style variations is so fast and intense that it's almost like being taken back to the heady days of high mod in London.