Over here in the U.K. we never got to see “Soul Train” on our TVs. There would be an occasional clip on “Top of the Pops” if an act was not coming over to Europe but there has never even been any retrospective compilation of a show which seemed to get all the acts you needed in a very creative period for American black music. I know there was a lot of lip-synching going on & those dancers were all “look at me, look at me” but it looked to be a pretty cool show when we were afforded a glimpse.
The Five Stairsteps, out of Chicago, a family group who were originally arranged in descending order of size & had a kind of Platters deal which was already out-dated. The first single had a Curtis Mayfield written B-side which swung a little more. They tried out a more Motown sound (James Burke did a fair Smokey impression) before hooking up with Curtis again at his label, Curtom. The next singles were R&B hits, produced by Curtis & often covers of Impressions songs. They would sit really well alongside Baby Huey, Sister Love & Major Lance on a Curtom mix which should exist if it already doesn’t.
“Ooh Child” is the Top 10, gold record moment for the Burke family & what a lovely, optimistic song it is. The boys had been down to the Superfly boutique to get some new threads for their TV appearance. Alohe went for the jumper & slacks combo. She looks and sounds as beautiful as her name. Clarence Jr & James do their bit but this is Alohe’s song…wonderful.
At this time the Stairsteps were handing over the title of “first family of soul” to the boys from Gary, Indiana, the Jackson 5. It was of no consequence because the true first family were these guys…
By 1972 the Isley Brothers, Ronald, Kelly & Rudy, had been making records for 15 years. “Shout” & “Twist and Shout” were known to everyone who listened to pop music even if they did not know the original versions. They joined Tamla Motown, made some records that were more popular in the UK than in the US. Man, I hear the intro to “This Old Heart Of Mine”, I am back in that scout-hut youth club & a dancing fool again. Wanting more freedom than Motown would allow they left to write and produce for their own label T-Neck. The first single “It’s Your Thing” cleaned up.
The new sound served them well & 10 more singles used this winning formula. However the brothers were not just listening to James Brown. Covers of songs by Buffalo Springfield, War & Dylan got them airplay outside of the R&B stations. There were some young Isleys around, brothers Ernie & Marvin, brother-in-law Chris Jasper, who were putting the old hands on to these rock tunes. “Pop That Thang” comes from the 1972 LP “Brother, Brother, Brother” the first the new boys played on.
This is a confident performance of the song. The Isleys had made the move from soul to funk and were more popular than ever. They had some new sounds coming & they were ready to shake some action. The next LP “3 + 3” was by the new sextet. It was distributed by Epic & had the weight of major label promotion behind it. The brothers had been around the block & were ready for this new success. In the next 5 years they were one of the biggest black music acts around. I have favourite Isley tracks from all their long career. “Pop That Thang” is da funk with no frills and Ronald’s unmistakable lead vocal…love it…bang, bang, bang !
Gladys Knight, and her Pips, came late to Motown after some success elsewhere. Ms Knight always thought she got the short end of the stick from the label, being given songs that bigger acts had turned down. Her producer, Norman Whitfield, did give her first shake at “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” but it was Marvin who had the worldwide hit 2 years later. Whitfield had, in 1969, taken over production of the Temptations. Looking for a piece of Sly Stone’s action he developed a “psychedelic soul” sound. If “Friendship Train” was rejected by the Tempts then Gladys got lucky this time.
This clip is from episode 1 of the syndicated “Soul Train” . The Pips have hardly pimped their strides but despite the odd leisure wear are as swinging & as dancing as Don Cornelius promises. Gladys is just stunning. The song, obviously linked to “Cloud Nine” & “Papa Was…” benefits from only having the two lead voices & not being over-complicated. The early attempts by Motown at socially conscious lyrics (selling records came first) could be clumsy. By this time they were getting it right. If you want a less pop version of this song check for Whitfield’s extended edition by the Undisputed Truth…suitably nuts.
Gladys brought a country tinge to her music with, among others, a cover of Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It”. It proved commercial, when she left Motown for Buddah she mined a very successful seam & became the star Motown never made her.
You know, maybe “Soul Train” was not always all that. In the UK we had the late night “Old Grey Whistle Test”. There are some great highlights from that show but it could often be flat and worthy. You needed a cup of tea, a fat one & some decent music after too many of the episodes. “Soul Train” is not like that in my imagination & from the clips I love to watch.
In the 80s two friends and myself were having the sort of weekend that only the finest pharmaceutical amphetamine made possible. A Friday night/Saturday morning session, a visit to Upton Park to see the Hammers, topped off with a Nigerian christening party. The living room of the house was dark and was now a dance floor. The room was filled with beautiful African princesses dressed in those sparkling dresses you saw in the market and wondered who wore them. The room was moving as one to the fine, fine music. My bug-eyed friend bobbed towards me with a big smile. He leaned into me & shouted “This is like being on Soul Train !”. I laughed because it was as close as we were ever going to get to it.