On the set of SOUL! with Ellis Haizlip interviewing Melvin Van Peebles [Credit: Chester Higgins]
The Legacy of SOUL!

How SOUL! Helped Pave the Way for Black Cultural Programming

February 09, 2021 by Independent Lens in Beyond the Films

By Ade D. Adeniji


Mr. SOUL! explores America’s first Black variety television show SOUL!, which ran from 1968 to 1973, and was steered by pioneering Black producer and host Ellis Haizlip. Many have likely seen the pristine sets of SOUL! and not even know it. The series featured legendary black musicians, artists, athlete-activists, and thinkers including Muhammed Ali, Stokely Carmichael, Earth Wind and Fire, and The Spinners, as well as this famous James Baldwin conversation with poet and Black Arts Movement luminary Nikki Giovanni.

But as striking as seeing Black luminaries (or soon to be luminaries) in their heyday, it’s also impressive to see the diversity of Black talent Haizlip brought into the fold and made space for.

Obscure groups like The Johnson Girls from south of the Mason-Dixon had their time under the bright lights in New York City. And Haizlip, a gay Black man, even interviewed Louis Farrakhan, performing the sleight of hand of challenging the Nation of Islam leader on homophobia while still honoring his allure and influence. Ultimately, the beauty of SOUL! is that it allowed a range of Black cultural figures to come together all under one roof, paving the way for other cultural shows and events through the years. 

While SOUL! was still running, another pioneering program, Soul Train, emerged. The brainchild of showman Chicago radio announcer, Don Cornelius, the American music variety television show was broadcast nationally from 1971 to 2006—one of the longest-running syndicated programs in American television history. Soul Train made hay by featuring big-name R&B, soul, and funk acts of the 1970s including The Temptations, Ike and Tina Turner, and Smokey Robinson. Program sponsor Johnson Products Company provided ample advertising of their signature Afro Sheen hair products, the perfect totem for the “Black is Beautiful” movement.

Soul Train is mostly remembered for its high-profile music and dance acts, but like Haizlip, Cornelius also found other figures who were shaping culture and highlighted them, even if briefly. Black Time magazine journalist Wallace Terry, who made a name for himself covering Vietnam, hitched a ride on Soul Train to talk about Motown-produced Guess Who’s Coming Home: Black Fighting Men Recorded Live in Vietnam, the first recorded history of Black soldiers in any war. Another one of Terry’s works, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War, inspired two pieces of Black cinema—Dead Presidents and Spike Lee’s joint Da 5 Bloods.

Soul Train also had interludes like “Soul Train Scramble Board,” where contestants were given 60 seconds to unscramble a set of letters to form the name of that episode’s performer or notable figure in Black history, though Cornelius usually made sure everyone came out a winner lest the culture be set back.

Cornelius (second from right) with The Staple Singers during production of a 1974 episode of Soul Train.
Don Cornelius (second from right) with The Staple Singers during production of a 1974 episode of Soul Train. [Public domain]
In the late 1980s, Soul Train launched the Soul Train Music Awards, which honor the top performances in R&B, hip hop, and gospel music (and, in its earlier years, jazz music). The awards continue to this day, years after Cornelius’ death in 2012.

Black Journal

Talk show Black Journal, and its successor Tony Brown’s Journal, ran from 1968 to 2008. Unlike SOUL! and Soul Train, Black Journal did not bring much in the way of song and dance, instead delivering sweeping news segments about Black issues. A famous debate between Afrocentrist psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing and American physicist William Shockley, the author of a theory of Black genetic inferiority, aired on Tony Brown’s Journal in 1974 [see below]. 

Host Tony Brown also spent time doing an investigative report on the now-infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, including interviewing whistleblower Peter Buxtun, a former United States Public Health Service employee. This vital coverage reverberates even today as leaders struggle to curb vaccine hesitancy among African Americans, at once rightfully distrustful of the medical establishment, and yet more likely to face poor COVID-19 outcomes that would be curbed by these vital lifelines. 

(“Black Journal; No. 505; Can You Dig It?,” 1975-01-22, is archived in the American Archive of Public Broadcasting; GBH and the Library of Congress.)

But even Black Journal hit lighter notes at times. A full game show episode called “Can You Dig It?,” featured trivia questions about Black history with a quirky astrological twist, including a funky game show wheel with all 12 signs of the Zodiac. Contestants took home prizes like handmade fans from a Ghanaian market, evoking the homemade cultural gifts emphasized during Kwanzaa.

Oh, and each round began with a prediction of which contestant would win, though certainly not so as to conflate astrology and science, Brown hedged.   

Unsung

BET competitor TV One launched Unsung in 2008, an hour-long music documentary program about the rise and fall of R&B and soul music artists, bands, or groups. At times the show takes the form of Shakespearian tragedy as it explores the lives of musicians like the falsetto Debarge family, gospel choir member turned hip hop crooner Nate Dogg, and New Jack Swing star Al B. Sure.

The show follows a successful formula, beginning with the pre-success struggles of an artist, their peak, their fall, and then a new normal. But Unsung also provides surprising perspectives from a musician’s extended family and friends, complicating our memory of these towering figures who at the end of the day are only human.

ESSENCE Music Festival

ESSENCE Music Festival, an annual gathering established in New Orleans by Essence Magazine, offers a variety of events aimed toward African American women. The so-called “party with a purpose” has brought in the likes of Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu. The event also provides seminars on topics ranging from starting a new business to personal issues, offering an important platform for artists, craftsmen, and writers. 

With the shifting demography of the Big Easy on the heels of Katrina and gentrification, Essence Music Festival is still a critical event, and enjoying newfound interest in the wake of Girls Trip, the groundbreaking comedy about the misadventures of four Black women who reunite at the festival.

Other events like NBA All-Star Weekend bring together a range of Black athletes, artists, and celebrities, though when veteran Black sports reporters David Aldridge and Michael Wilbon went as far as to dub the annual February event “Black Thanksgiving,” they received pushback—revealing that while these cultural spaces still might feel rare, Black Americans will always be conscious of how we define ourselves.  

In the wake of a broader swath of Americans and corporations finally rallying to recognize Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the emancipation of the formerly enslaved, new cultural programming will likely emerge in the coming years. Hopefully, these spaces will be as valuable as SOUL! and keep in mind Ellis Haizlip’s first directive of simply wanting to share in the Black experience. 


Ade Adeniji is a Staff Writer for Inside Philanthropy and an approved Rotten Tomatoes critic. He’s also written for outlets like Mic, and The Rumpus, and blogs about film, television, and the majestic NBA on his own website, adeadeniji.com. He holds degrees from Pomona College and American Film Institute Conservatory. 

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