Wednesday, September 24, 2008

End of the Line

Last stop. Everybody off. The Soul Train has made its final boogy across America.

A victim of changing musical tastes - if you can call the current self destruction of Hip Hop a musical taste - Soul Train ceased production at the end of the 2005-6 season. Since then, stations have been sent "The Best of Soul Train" episodes, which were actually quite fun to watch. The fashions and the music of the '70's and '80's made for some great viewing. Unfortunately, nobody ever made it a priority to promote these shows, and the dead zone time slots the show usually ran in didn't help. Advertisers bailed. Hats off to McDonald's and Proctor and Gamble for sticking with it to the end. Gone were the Afro-Sheen commercials, half the fun of watching "Train" for us middle class white kids in the the burbs.

And that was the beautiful thing about Soul Train. It was accessible. Sure, it was aimed at African Americans, or an "Urban" audience as Black programming was called back in 1970 when Soul Train began on WCIU in Chicago. When the show went into national syndication it broke ground as the first successful national program aimed unabashedly at a black audience. Nat "King" Cole had a network show in the 1950's, but some affiliates in the South refused to air it, and let's face it, Cole's appeal crossed race barriers. Bill Cosby on "I Spy" and Lt. Uhura on "Star Trek" were aimed at all audiences. But from the moment that animated train chugged across the screen and you heard Don Cornelius' voice, you knew this show was Black with a capital "B." And no matter who you were, you just had to watch.

And the music kept you watching. In the early days, performers sang on the show live - most notably Mimi Rippeton, who could prove without a doubt those outta sight high notes were hers. (You know Maria Carey was watching.) I remember The Daz Band performing on The Train, and there was no way to lip sync that. As the years progressed, the bands took a back seat to the disco singers miming to their own records being played on a turntable in the control room. (In master control you can hear the record's surface noise and the "wow" pitch distortion caused by a slightly out-of-center spindle hole.) But in those pre-MTV days, who cared? Black kids watched with pride, seeing their musical heros on a show they could call their own. White kids watched with curiosity and the thrill of taking in a part of something a little forbidden. This is a Black show. My parents will raise the roof if they catch me watching this. Cool.

The rise of cable channels MTV and BET surely took a bite out of Train's audience. After all, Michael Jackson was limited in what he could do in that cramped Los Angeles TV studio compared to the Thriller video. But the Train chugged on through the '80's and 90's. Don Cornelius and his crew insisted on a positive show, eschewing gansta rap and lewd Hip Hop in favor of clean rappers and true soul artists. And sadly, that may be the main reason for the show's demise. Advertisers want the kids to watch, and the kids are watching uncensored rap videos on the Internet.

Also, Don Cornelius isn't a young man anymore, and he's finding it hard to pass the torch. A number of hosts have stepped in to fill his shoes since 1993, but it wasn't the same. It's a sad statement when nobody is able to take the torch from a legend like Cornelius. And the television business hasn't helped. The future of Soul Train was truncated with the announced closing of Tribune Entertainment's syndication division in December of 2007, which left Don Cornelius Productions to seek a new distributor for the program. Cornelius singed a deal with Trifecta Entertainment & Media, who, alas, as it happens with so many other minority programs, dropped the ball and left what stations that were still running Soul Train stranded without a show. Our station didn't get the word until after our operators tried to record the next scheduled satellite feed... and it wasn't there. A sad coda to a great show.

But the times have changed. These days the music is about a series of rappers marking their territories like so many stray dogs whizzing on telephone poles. It's defenders say the music tells it like it is; this is life on the block. Yeah, well, maybe I'm just a geezer, but Marvin Gaye told it like it was, and still is, without excluding anybody. And anybody who thinks social inequities are an excuse for rude and immoral behavior ought to take a listen to The Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself."

I'll just keep an eye out for DVD's of classic Soul Train. Until then, I wish you...

Peace, Love, and Soul.


Anonymous said...

That late 1970's singer's name is spelled Minnie Riperton, and she is the mother of the former SNL comedienne Maya Rudolph.

stevef said...

That would explain Maya's lovely signing abilities. Her rip on the local wannabe doing the national anthem at a baseball game was hilarious. Sorry about the typo.