(CNN) — You have seen the first episodes. Teeth gleaming, hips bobbing and oil-smoked fros bouncing to the beat. It was “Soul Train,” the musical television series that served as Blackness’ twins. It featured popular cuts and performances from a variety of acts, not to mention the liveliest studio audience you’ve ever seen. Decades before MTV’s “TRL,” BET’s “106 & Park,” or NPR’s “Tiny Desk,” to name a few, “Soul Train” was making noise, shaping ideas of cool across the dance, fashion and culture.
Launched 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 midst of the Black Power era and feeding off the civil rights movement, “Soul Train” provided a new opportunity for black people to see and celebrate each other. It was the most important scene showing the mix of socio-cultural and political progress – and an imagination of life unencumbered by white supremacy. And it quickly became a hit, resonating with black families across the county; to date, it holds the crown as the longest-running first-run syndicated television series in broadcast history.
“It was date TV — you knew what time it was coming and you cleared your schedule, whatever you were doing, to watch ‘Soul Train’,” said veteran Dyana Williams. radio and music industry at CNN. “You could see your favorite artist, your favorite dancers.”
As a teenager when the program first aired, Williams saw firsthand how it immediately imprinted itself 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 clothing choices. “(We wore) all the badges.”
In the early 1970s, beauty industry mogul George E. Johnson generated millions of dollars in revenue for Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen. The products, a grease and a hairspray respectively, were intended for home use and perfect for maintaining the afro, as well as other natural hairstyles like braids. These styles were gaining popularity among an impressionable and growing population with the expansion of the Black Power and Black Is Beautiful movements. Johnson soon became a co-sponsor of “Soul Train”, advertising the hair products throughout the program. This, along with performances by singers with natural hair 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 also emerging.
“The fashion was on the fly,” Williams said. “It was a combination of bohemian hippie and black nationalism… ‘Soul Train’ set the tone for young people of the time to wear their hair natural, to wear waistcoats, platform shoes, eph-legged stockings, maxi-long dresses. So our taste for fashion, culture clearly came from ‘Soul Train’ and then from the rest of the media that we’ve seen.
The show’s appeal was dualistic – it was both a mirror of fashion trends and a catalyst for them. ’70s ensembles ranged from leisure suits to Superman suits to anything handcuffed. There were contrasting separates, like form-fitting and loose-fitting and a range of earth tones and electric hues, which gave the show’s fashion its iconic, confident flavor. The vibe was simply the fact that dancers and celebrities wore what made them feel fabulous, whether it was tiptoeing away from cocktail attire or a skintight t-shirt and flared jeans. The most accurate descriptor of 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 particularly highlights the fashion-forward matching looks often worn by couples and twin performers. “People were there together,” Oldham says in the book. “That’s what made it work. It sort of amplified the movements when your outfits are the same, and it wasn’t really an androgynous outfit, even though it’s the same clothes. These correlated looks were likely the result of the unisex fashion craze (and broader movements around feminism and gender roles) and the basic idea that two are better – certainly more eye-catching – than one.
One of the biggest cultural contributions of the show is the “Soul Train” line. Its format was both accessible and ambitious: two buzzing rows of giddy dancers faced each other, with one or two of the leaders eagerly showing off their dance moves in the middle. It is now crucial for black gatherings, which predate line dances like the Electric Slide, Cha-Cha Slide and Cupid Shuffle.
By her late teens, Williams was hosting gigs in Washington, DC, and witnessed the impact of dancing in the streets. “We wouldn’t have a house or club party 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 longtime resident bandleader Don Cornelius, Williams set the Guinness World Record for the longest “Soul Train” line. She was looking to honor the legacy of a man who she said was “kind, lovely, warm and respectful” to her but also “stern”. (Williams’ ex-husband is Kenneth Gamble, one half of the music duo Gamble & Huff, who wrote and produced “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” the theme song to “Soul Train.”)
Music journalist Naima Cochrane thinks the show’s most pivotal fashion era was the oldest. It is certainly the most reproduced. “Honestly, the best time of ‘Soul Train’ was that first decade,” she says. “It’s the cuts and looks and moves where I think ‘Soul Train’ probably had its biggest influence.”
Still, Cochrane, a Gen X-er, says her era of the “Soul Train” — and the “Soul Train” line — moved with the times. It “evolved into being a bit more of the 80s glamor genre instead of the 70s pop lockdown,” she said. “It was the 80s shaking your hair and doing the little push-up with your hands, with your chest.”
Multi-hyphenates like Rosie Perez, who went on to star in films like “Do the Right Thing” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” made their “Soul Train” debut. dancefloor. Many other cultural phenoms, including Patrice Rushen, Shalamar, Fred Berry, Vivica A. Fox, and Cheryl Song (the show’s first non-black female dancer), also achieved professional success after appearing on the show.
Perez’s time on the show, in particular, was so notable that in 2020, TikTok user @terriarcelia amassed nearly a million views for imitating his dance moves; Some 50 years after the series debut, “Soul Train” can still thrill 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 for me is the greatest gift of ‘Soul Train’.
“It’s the basis for all the other music shows that followed because the only one we knew before was ‘American Bandstand,'” Williams noted. “But it was on ‘Soul Train’ that we got to see our favorite artist, hear our favorite songs, learn about our style tendencies and our language. And in a time when we didn’t see ourselves on television, that was great to be seen, heard and to impact the culture for generations to come. Forever.”
Editor’s note: The next episode of the CNN original series “See It Loud: The History of Black Television” explores the reality series and talk shows that showcased black talent and shaped culture. It airs Sunday, July 30 at 9 p.m. ET.