New documentary explores the groundbreaking music show
by Ericka Blount Danois
It’s January 16, 1969, and the soul duo Peaches & Herb are performing a cover of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” on the PBS variety arts show SOUL! on New York’s Channel 13. By 1969, the duo, with their harmonious blend of soprano and tenor, had already been serenading lovers and radio audiences with a platoon of love songs, including “We’re in This Thing Together.” But this would be their first television appearance, and they would make an impression on audiences on this groundbreaking new show.
As Peaches watches and listens to Herb bend note after note, she matches him, crooning with a groundswell of tenderness. As a camera crew snakes around the duo, one cameraman pans over for a closer look and zooms in for a tight close-up on Peaches. While she’s singing, Herb, in an impromptu moment of passion, leans over and starts to blow on her ear. It’s these moments—private and public alike—that are caught live for a television audience—many of whom would not have been able to bear witness to this kind of live musicianship in any other arena.
Today, many of the episodes of SOUL! have been lost or erased since airing on PBS during the show’s run from 1968–1973. Melissa Haizlip, the niece of the show’s creator/executive producer/host, Ellis Haizlip, is hard at work in preserving her uncle’s legacy, producing a documentary along with director J. Kevin Swain about the show and its revolutionary creator. On Wednesday, May 4, at Harlem Stage, there will be a screening of the work-in-progress documentary entitled, Mr. SOUL!, which features never-before-seen clips of icons—Maya Angelou, Louis Farrakhan, Tito Puente, Willie Colón, Harry Belafonte, Muhammad Ali—and many others in music, politics, and the arts.
Clips from the show:
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On a rainy Thursday afternoon, Abiodun Oyewole is sitting down near his desktop computer in his apartment that overlooks the Manhattan skyline. He’s dressed leisurely today—with blue sweatpants, a gray track jacket, and white tennis shoes. A spliff sits by his side. He lifts it to his lips ever so often as he watches a hard-to-find version of the Last Poets’ performance on the October 24, 1968, episode of SOUL!—only the fifth episode of the show—on Melissa’s laptop computer. As the film crew squeezes their equipment around him, they set up, ensuring everything is perfect, and wait for Umar Bin Hassan to arrive from Baltimore. As Oyewole watches the show, he reminisces on the former host, Ellis Haizlip, who died in 1991, how often Jerry Butler served as the host of the show, and the date of that performance—his mother’s birthday.
Bin Hassan arrives wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and a newsboy cap as Oyewole grumbles quietly to him that the film crew is taking too long. Melissa, a renowned Broadway performer and actress, has been working mostly on sweat equity and with the determination to preserve her uncle’s legacy. Part of her journey has been a wild goose chase to find existing episodes. The artists are effusive with their love and respect for her uncle, and she feels overwhelming pressure to “get it right.” Getting it right includes not just directing the film crew on a tight budget, research, and promoting, but to some extent, massaging not just the artists—but the artists’ management. Later in the evening, she’ll be shooting Ashford & Simpson at their restaurant in Manhattan. The duo was largely known as songwriters at the time of their first televised performance on SOUL! on May 13, 1971. But Haizlip urged them to perform, allowing them to sing for the entire episode. With viewer feedback and Haizlip’s urging, the performing duo was born.
There were many other firsts on the show—the first time B. B. King and Roberta Flack ever appeared on television—and many other findings by Haizlip, including a sixteen-year-old Arsenio Hall, actress Anna Horsford, and allowing a young Jesse Jackson a platform.
In the late 1960s, as artists entered the set of Channel 13 on Eighth Avenue, a sweet mix of smells greeted them at the door—marijuana, potato salad, and hair products. Haizlip gave the artists carte blanche to perform what they wanted to perform, and to do what they wanted to do to feel at home. After the show, many of them would party at Aux Puces, a Black-owned antique shop at 70 E. 55th Street near Madison Avenue, a grotto-like space that served as a disco at night. Inside, there were velvet sofas and settees, antique chairs with gold leaves on the arms, and an incredible sound system. The guests from the show—activists, musicians, and actors alike—all got down together until eight o’clock in the morning.
The show was way ahead of its time, or really, it was right on time. The show was born as King’s blood still hadn’t dried, in the wake of the uprisings following his assassination and findings from the Kerner Commission, a report instigated by President Lyndon B. Johnson who appointed a committee led by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner to investigate civil disorders that destroyed cities and dreams from 1964–1968.
The resulting report found, unsurprisingly, that the uprisings were a result of poor living conditions and lack of upward mobility opportunities for Blacks. The media was criticized for sensationalizing the riots, not examining their causes, and not reporting on it from an insider’s view because of a lack of Black representation in the media.
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After the Kerner Commission report came out, many networks looked around at their largely all-White staff and realized they needed a change. Black Journal and SOUL! were two shows born in this era. Black Journal continued as Tony Brown’s Journal, and SOUL!, probably the last show of its kind, by 1970, was carried on seventy-two public television stations.
The show was almost exclusively Black programming—both behind the scenes with cameramen and producers like a young Stan Lathan, and onscreen with guests that ran the gamut from community activists, youth poets, to R&B, jazz, and soul icons. Host, creator, and producer, Ellis Haizlip, with his unique mix of down-home colloquial speech and intellectualism—was wounded but not surprised by its eventual cancellation, as funders pulled the plug for more “diverse” programming despite overwhelming viewer support. He knew one day that the show would go down in history.
SOUL! featured iconic moments like a young, buoyantly beaming Nikki Giovanni interviewing James Baldwin filmed on location in London, an entire episode devoted to African music and Latin soul beat, another taped live in Puerto Rico, an hour-long devotion to a yet-to-be recorded-as-a-duo Ashford & Simpson, an hour long set for Earth, Wind & Fire, Louis Farrakhan being interviewed with an audience full of Nation of Islam members, and Muhammad Ali sounding off on the Vietnam War hosted by Jerry Butler. In one episode, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier sit at a round table with Haizlip discussing Black innovators in show business, and Stevie Wonder performs with Wonderlove playing a ten-minute rendition of “Superstition.” King Curtis provided the theme song for the show with “Soulful 13,” and his five-piece band, the Kingpins, were the house band. “When King Curtis was murdered, at his service, members of the SOUL! band played ‘Soul Serenade,’ and at the part where King’s saxophone solo should be played,” remembers former director Ivan Cury, “the band simply played the background as it was on the record, and let the congregation’s imagination fill in the missing saxophone solo.”
Regular guest hosts added more to the diverse mix, including Jerry Butler, Carla Thomas, Hal Jackson, Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Len Chandler, and Curtis Mayfield.
A young Ashford & Simpson performed on the show two years before they were married and two years before they recorded their first album as a duo, Gimme Something Real. Today, as they sit in the backroom of their restaurant, Sugar Bar, on West 72nd Street in Manhattan, they reminisce as the camera crew pulls out a piece of cardboard to white balance and makes sure the background is perfect.
“He foresaw something that was about to be,” Simpson tells Melissa passionately for the cameras. “Something that we didn’t see in ourselves. So many people wrote into the show and said we should be a duet. The thought had never entered my mind.”
“They brought different types of Black people together when nothing else did,” Oyewole tells Melissa. The Last Poets performed ‘Die Nigger’ in their first television appearance on the show. When Oyewole served time in prison, inmates were allowed one hour of television per night, and they always chose SOUL! on Wednesday night.
“Clayton Riley, Barbara Ann Teer, the Last Poets, and Donny Hathaway—together? That’s not happening now. That was revolutionary,” Oyewole says to the camera.
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