Home Entertainment How ‘Soul Train’ immortalized an exuberant era of Black style and culture

How ‘Soul Train’ immortalized an exuberant era of Black style and culture

The Jackson Five perform "Dancing Machine" on an October 1973 episode of "Soul Train." (Photo: Soul Train/Getty Images)

By Brooklyn White-Grier, CNN

(CNN) — You’ve seen the early episodes. Teeth gleaming, hips grooving, and oil-misted ‘fros bouncing to the beat. This was “Soul Train,” the music television series that served as Blackness’ binoculars. It featured popular cuts and performances by a variety of acts, not to mention the liveliest studio audience you’d ever seen. Decades before MTV’s “TRL,” BET’s “106 & Park” or NPR’s “Tiny Desk,” to name just a few, “Soul Train” was chugga-chugging along, shaping ideas of cool across dance, fashion and culture.

Debuting in August 1970 on Chicago’s WCIU-TV, the Saturday morning entertainment show was a look at carefree, yet politically alert, Black Americans. In the middle of the Black Power era and feeding from the civil rights movement, “Soul Train” provided a fresh opportunity for Black people to see and celebrate themselves. It was the most prominent stage displaying the mingling of sociocultural and political progress — and an imagining of life unencumbered by white supremacy. And it quickly became a hit, resonating with Black families across the county; to this day, it holds the crown as the longest first-run syndicated television series in broadcast history.

“It was appointment television — you knew what time it was coming on and you cleared your schedule, whatever you were doing, to watch ‘Soul Train,’” radio and music industry veteran Dyana Williams told CNN. “You could see your favorite artist, your favorite dancers.”

A teenager when the program first aired, Williams saw first-hand the way it imprinted instantly on music, fashion and culture. “Let me send you my Afro picture,” Williams recalled of how the show helped shape her generation’s beauty and sartorial choices. “(We wore) all the regalia.”

In the early 1970s, beauty industry tycoon George E. Johnson generated millions of dollars in revenue for Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen. The products, a grease and hairspray, respectively, were for at-home use and perfect for maintaining the afro, as well as other natural hairstyles like braids. These styles were swelling in popularity among an impressionable and growing demographic with the expansion of the Black Power and Black Is Beautiful movements. Johnson soon became a co-sponsor of “Soul Train,” advertising the hair goods throughout the program. This, along with performances from natural-haired singers like Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Sly Stone encouraged even more Black people to embrace natural styles.

At the same time, a new style of dress was emerging too.

“The fashion was fly,” Williams said. “It was a combination of kind of boho hippie meets Black nationalism… ‘Soul Train’ set a tone for young people at that time to wear their hair natural, to wear vests, the platform shoes, the bell bottoms, the long maxi dresses. So our fashion taste, the cultivation clearly came from ‘Soul Train’ and then the rest of the media that we saw.”

The show’s appeal was dualistic — it was both a mirror of fashion trends and a catalyst for them. Seventies ensembles ranged from leisure suits to a Superman costume to anything cuffed. There were contrasting separates, like fitted clothing and loose garments and an array of earth tones and electric hues, that gave the show’s fashion its iconic, confident flavor. The vibe was simply the fact that dancers and celebrity talent alike wore what made them feel fabulous, whether it was a tip-toe away from cocktail attire or a tight tee and flared jeans. The most accurate descriptor for the dress code was “cool.”

In Nelson George’s “The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style,” designer Todd Oldham highlights in particular the fashion-forward matching looks often worn by couples and paired-up performers. “People were there together,” Oldham says in the book. “That’s what made it work. It kind of magnified the moves when your outfits are the same, and it wasn’t exactly androgynous dressing, even though they’re the same clothes.” These correlating looks were likely the result of the unisex fashion craze (and broader unfolding movements around feminism and gender roles) and the basic idea that two is better — certainly more eye-catching — than one.

Among the show’s greatest cultural contribution is the “Soul Train” line. Its format was both accessible and aspirational: Two buzzing rows of giddy dancers would face each other, with either one or two of the head of the lines eagerly showing off their dance moves down the middle. It’s now crucial to Black gatherings, predating line dances like the Electric Slide, the Cha-Cha Slide and the Cupid Shuffle.

In her late teens, Williams was hosting concerts in Washington, DC, and witnessed the dance’s impact on the streets. “We wouldn’t have a house party or at a club where we weren’t doing the ‘Soul Train’ line,” she said. In February 2012, less than two weeks after the death of the show’s long-running resident conductor, Don Cornelius, Williams set the Guinness World Record for the longest “Soul Train” line. She was looking to honor the legacy of a man she says was “kind, lovely, warm, and respectful” with her but “stern” as well. (Williams’ ex-husband is Kenneth Gamble, half of music duo Gamble & Huff, who wrote and produced “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” the theme song for “Soul Train.”)

Music journalist Naima Cochrane believes the show’s most pivotal fashion era was its earliest one. It’s certainly the most replicated. “Honestly the best era of ‘Soul Train’ was that first decade,” she says. “Those were the fits and the looks and the moves where I think ‘Soul Train’ probably had its biggest influence.”

Still, Cochrane, a Gen X-er, says that her era of the “Soul Train” — and the “Soul Train” line — moved with the times. It “progressed to being a little more kind of that ’80s glam look instead of the ‘70s pop locking,” she said. “That was the ‘80s hair-shaking and doing the little pump with your hands, with your chest.”

Multihyphenates like Rosie Perez, who went on to star in films like “Do the Right Thing” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” got their start on the “Soul Train” dance floor. Many more cultural phenomena, including Patrice Rushen, Shalamar, Fred Berry, Vivica A. Fox, and Cheryl Song (the show’s first non-Black dancer), also enjoyed career success after appearing on the show.

Perez’s time on the show, in particular, was so signature that, in 2020, TikTok user @terriarcelia amassed nearly one million views for emulating her dance moves; some 50 years after the show’s debut, “Soul Train” can still enrapture the masses. “Nobody was trying to be anything else. Nobody was trying to look like anything else,” Cochrane said. “It was just Black. And that to me is ‘Soul Train’’s biggest gift.”

“It’s the foundation of any other music shows that came after because the only one we knew prior to was ‘American Bandstand,’” Williams noted. “But it was on ‘Soul Train’ that we got to see our favorite artist, hear our beloved songs, get our style trends and language. And at a time where we did not see ourselves on television, it was great to be seen, heard, and to impact culture for generations to come. Forever.”