'Soul Train' to make a return trip to Chicago in new exhibit

July 20, 2011

The summers of my youth were endless; filled with Now-and-Laters and Boston Baked Beans candy. Play-fighting and foot races. Pick-up games of softball in the parking lot of the J.J. Brodsky & Sons Warehouse at 73rd and Kimbark. And playing days that closed when the streetlights flicked on.

Saturdays were special. Fat Albert & the Cosby Kids was the last good cartoon of the morning and after that went off, you went outside. You played some strike-out, or maybe basketball using that de-spoked bicycle rim somebody nailed to the alley side of somebody else's garage for a basket. But by afternoon, you're tired. You run back home for a drink of water or Kool-Aid. You pass by the television on your way to the kitchen. And your sisters are watching this:

For a few moments, the summer of 1974 has to wait.

If you're a certain age, Soul Train represents a cultural milestone. It began its on-air life at time when black people--Julia and Bill Cosby aside--were still a rare thing  to see on TV. The show featured young black people dancing to popular predominantly black music, but underneath it was much more: Soul Train was a forum for African American post-civil rights movement dance, fashion, culture music and advertising. Host and creator Don Cornelius started the show in Chicago in 1970, airing it weekday afternoons on Channel 26 before taking the show to Los Angeles and greater fame the next year.

And looking at the above clip, I can't help but wonder if the exuberant dance was also an expression of freedom--a breaking of societal chains and shackles that were all-too-prevalent just a decade before--in addition to being an appropriate physical response to some supremely funky music.

Soul Train this year celebrates 40 years since it became a nationally-syndicated dance program and a cultural force. And beginning Friday, the city is hosting the first ever Soul Train photography show--a month-long exhibition of 55 rarely-seen photos from the Soul Train archives. Sounds like a stone gas, Honey?  The photo show will be in the first floor gallery space at Expo 72, the city's exhibition space at 72 E. Randolph. The city's Cultural Affairs and Special Events department along with the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture are sponsoring the exhibit, which will run until September 5. The images are a sampling of more than 300,000 photographs taken on the Soul Train set during the show's 1971 to 2006 run. Folks like Sly Stone and Chaka Khan in full regalia, plus shots of folks getting down. Look at Sly:

Look at folks getting down:

It's good to see the Soul Train gets its due. Earlier this year, Soul Train Holdings, LLC--also a partner in the Chicago event--donated a set from the show to the Smithsonian. Graphics from the old set are being recreated on the walls of the Expo 72 space.  The photo exhibit will also feature after-work dance parties each Friday from 4pm to 6pm. Chicago legend Steve "Silk" Hurley will DJ opening night with a rotation of guest DJs taking over afterward.

 

And on a closing note: All this talk of Soul Train reminds me of the relatively unsung aspect of the show's success that one day will be examined more fully, no doubt: The partnership between the show and the black-owned, Chicago-based Johnson Products Company. Owned by George E. Johnson, Johnson Products was a leading sponsor of the Train during its 1970 and 1980s heyday. The company advertised its Afro Sheen hair and skin care products with commercials--many of which aired on Soul Train exclusively--using proud and respectful images of black people.

 

Johnson started the company in the 1950s with $500 and by 1971 Johnson Products was the first black-owned enterprise to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The company's hold on black hair care products slipped when the Revlons and Avons of the world elbowed their way into Johnson's market beginning in the 1980s. The company was sold in 1993 and ultimately became part of L'Oreal, but the company's impact on the 1970s cultural landscape is unforgettable: 

And my favorite: Frederick Douglass coming back from the Great Beyond to tell a young brother to get his 'fro together (note the Jesse Jackson poster on the wall by the door):