Where do we find our cultural influencers, see examples of who we are and get ideas of who we want to be? Today the answer is everywhere, but before we were bombarded from countless media sources, there was “Soul Train.” In the pre-DVR days of the early ’70s, Saturday afternoons were carefully choreographed around the broadcast of the “hippest trip in America”. The brain child of Chicago reporter Don Cornelius, the show was meant to fulfill his “burning desire to represent black people in a positive way,” a scenario that was sorely absent during the turbulent ’60s when most media images of black people were negative. In this mission the show was a huge success, giving America a more realistic glimpse of black culture and black people a sense of pride at being seen on the cutting edge of pop culture.
While a big draw for the show was the musical talent, the real stars were with dancers, the fashions, and of course the hair. As the red-hot show exploded in popularity, black people, and white people too, got a glimpse of what was considered hip, popular, and cool. Whether the hair was an impossibly huge Afro, braids, or free form, the vibe was decidedly trendy as opposed to political. Kids at home were not just picking up on the dances, they were copying everything about the dancers and seeing themselves.
Particularly in the early years, seeing those Afros bobbing to the music was a revelation. There had never been anything like it before and people were mesmerized. This phenomenon was not lost on George Johnson, the founder and president of Johnson Products. He quickly proposed an advertising partnership with his hair care company that took “Soul Train” toward national syndication. You would be hard pressed to find a black household in the ’70s without Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen products on the shelf. The commercial themselves were legendary, involving everything from a woman fretting about the lack of shine on her afro as she struts by an admirer, to Frederick Douglass visiting a young man in his college dorm room to chastise him for not keeping his afro in tip top shape. The Afro Sheen “blowout” kit, a precursor to today’s texturizers, would take your hair from a fro to a big-a$$ed fro, and if you were wearing a fro, that was your dream.
It wasn’t all about the Afro. A 19-year-old Al Sharpton presented his idol James Brown a “black” gold record coiffed in the same bouffant. Pat Harris, also known as the butterfly lady, became famous for the flowers and butterflies she used to accessorize her hair. The point was, “Soul Train” was a platform to showcase the performers’ and dancers’ unique sense of style and if you saw it there you never felt out of place wearing it yourself.
With a recent documentary on VH1, shows airing on Centric TV, YouTube, a DVD set, and a movie in the works, “Soul Train” is getting a second life. Forums are burning up with appreciation from old fans thrilled to be transported back to that joyful space and from new fans that are stunned to realize that hot pants, tall boots, and big hair are 40 years old.
Jody Watley, a “Soul Train” dancer who went on to fame singing with Shalimar and her own solo career, acknowledges wearing a big, curly, wild, messy afro these days in a recent interview on NPR. So what was once old is becoming new again and judging from the response people are loving it.
Don Cornelius always ended the show by wishing everyone “Love, Peace, and Soul”. I might add to that list “and Fabulous Hair.”