As we look at the last few days of #BlackMusicMonth, Ericka Blount speaks with some of music’s finest to talk about PBS’s Soul! and its impact on black music.
Nick Ashford, holding a microphone and wearing an orange bodysuit with a sequin beige belt and a matching maxi coat, is standing beside Valerie Simpson who’s wearing a pretty multi-colored dress. It’s 1972 and the duo are singing “Keep It Coming” surrounded by an enthusiastic audience on a psychedelic colored circular stage. This is the first time the duo has performed on television. And it’s a live nearly 60-minute set featuring the full range of their repertoire of black music; gospel, spirituals, R&B, soul and funk. By the end of the set, they are both in a sweat, as is the audience. It’s maybe the most unfiltered musical performance you’ll ever see on television.
The set is the stage of the PBS show, Soul!, which aired on Channel 13 in New York City and the enigmatic host Ellis Haizlip, a laid-back hipster with his finger always on the pulse, has encouraged the then-Motown label songwriters Ashford and Simpson to try their chops for the first time on live television as performers. By the late ‘60s the duo had already written hits for groups like The Fifth Dimension and for singers like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye. With Ellis’s urging Ashford and Simpson would explode as a performing duo.
“It always amazes me when people see something you don’t see in yourself,” Valerie Simpson says by phone. “Ellis had faith and let us come up with our own program. It was clear that he loved us. We were something he was going to show the world. It was like we were a secret only he knew.”
At the Tribeca Film Festival Ellis’s niece, Melissa Haizlip, let out her own secret with an ode to her underappreciated uncle with a screening of Mr. Soul!, a documentary she wrote, directed and produced. She will be screening the film again this Thursday at 7:30 pm at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland during the Color of Conversation Film Series from the directors of the Martha’s Vineyard Film series. The film highlights the show’s forward-thinking host and the profound cultural impact of the show itself. At the premiere for Mr. Soul! at Tribeca in April, Robert Glasper, the composer for the film, and Lalah Hathaway, who sings the film’s final song, both performed live—showing the complete range of unfiltered black cultural experience—and bringing that same theme from the original show full circle.
Soul! aired its first episode on September 1968. On the heels of the uprisings and the Kerner Commission report that illuminated the woeful lack of black representation in media, the show was the only one of its kind in the history of television to showcase and celebrate black artists, musicians, writers, dancers and thinkers unfiltered, undiluted and with breadth. Take for instance a two-hour special where poet Nikki Giovanni interviews author James Baldwin in London.
Or Ellis, who was openly gay, interviewing Minister Louis Farrakhan about homophobia in the Nation of Islam. Or a 15-year-old Arsenio Hall performing magic tricks. Or Stevie Wonder performing, orbiting into a trance into a performance that lasted long after the cameras had shut off for the end of the taping.
Host Ellis Haizlip allowed musicians to be free to experiment live onstage, improvising, giving both the live studio and television audience the intimate feeling that they were watching a jam session or a performance in a nightclub. This was highly unusual on national television where the costs of retakes was prohibitive. But Ellis didn’t care about mistakes. In fact, he embraced them. On one of the first episodes, the revolutionary and revelatory group The Last Poets performed and Ellis introduced them: “We will have the Last Poets doing ‘Die N*gger,’” Ellis announces before he gets a cue off camera and eases out a sheepish grin. “First goof on live television,” he laughs and corrects himself with an expression that says he is having just as good time as the artists. “We will have the Last Poets doing ‘Waking Waters.’”
Ellis attended Dunbar High School in the District and majored in theater at Howard University acting with the world renowned student group, The Howard Players. He would become the perfect host for a program showcasing black arts, in part because his own roots in black performance took hold in the Third Street Church of God in Washington as a child. His love for the arts, his affable, revolutionary spirit, and a quiet fearlessness led him to make the program, Soul!, a multicultural home for black artists, poets, athletes, actors, musicians and singers in a time period when then-President Nixon was wary of liberal media being critical of his policies and was on a mission to cut public affairs programming.
Ellis’s creative magic showed itself in the musicians he chose to be on the show and the ways in which he empowered their voices. Musicians doubled as hosts: Joe Tex hosted two episodes, Curtis Mayfield for three episodes, along with Jerry Butler and Carla Thomas, among other musicians he allowed to take the helm. And there were many firsts: the first time Ashford and Simpson, Earth Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang (singing ‘Who’s Gonna Take the Weight’ and ‘Chocolate Buttermilk’), B.B. King, Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles and Roberta Flack ever appear on television.
“When Al Green appeared on Soul!, it was his first appearance on television and he was so hungry and raw,” said Melissa, who has worked diligently for over a decade to make this documentary. “When he sings ‘Tired of Being Alone’ it’s just so pure and transcendent.”
Melissa talks about the initial airing of Green on Soul!: “Al Green showed up at 10:00 a.m. for sound check and Stan Lathan (who directed the show) said, ‘This kid comes in there and it looked like he hadn’t been home.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if he had just come straight from the club,” Melissa laughs.
There were plenty of artists of color representing from the diaspora, like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. There were two 60-minute episodes devoted entirely to Latin music featuring Tito Puente, Willie Colón and Hector Lavoe accompanied by their orchestras.
“I told Ellis, ‘I’d love to do a Latin show,’ and he said, “Well then baby boy, do it,” remembers Felipé Luciano, one of the original Last Poets, who hosted the episodes.
“Ellis took an element of black culture—performing live—and put it on television,” said Luciano. “It’s part of our cultural DNA. We love performing in front of people. It comes out of the church tradition. The call-and-response thing.”
On other episodes there were performances by The Voices of East Harlem, Taj Mahal, and a spirited performance by Rahsaan Roland Kirk where he played three instruments at the same time and battered a chair when the spirit caught hold of him, all as a live studio audience watched in delight. Donny Hathaway performed “The Ghetto” live on Soul!, in one of his few television appearances.
In between live musical sets, there were interviews with artists and thinkers like a young Toni Morrison about her first novel, The Bluest Eye, and performances with poets like Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka and Anna Horsford. Actors like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte sat with Ellis in discussion on being black actors in Hollywood and treading new pathways their ancestors had laid down. Comedians like Redd Foxx performed. Activists like Betty Shabazz and Jesse Jackson talked about issues of the day.
Melissa creates something new in the narrative and visually from the old footage, contextualizing the show that emerged on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement and making it clear what a feat it was for Ellis to accomplish all that he did in the time period that he did. The film subtly looks forward, as Ellis would, to the cast of soul children that will be televised anew in today’s times. When the network inevitably pulled the plug on the show, despite widespread viewer support, Ellis didn’t fight it. He responded like Zora Neale Hurston who famously said: “Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” Ellis understood that if the network didn’t see the beauty of what he had created, it was their loss, not his. After a five-year run on the last episode in 1973, he declared, talking in subdued tones with his neatly tapered Afro, that “‘Soul!’ was only the beginning of the route of documenting our own history.”
And that it was. With Melissa’s documentation of her uncle’s documentation the beat goes on. And the music still lives. The soundtrack to Mr. Soul! is composed by Robert Glasper and features songwriting and vocals by Muhammad Ayers (cousin to Roy Ayers) and Lalah Hathaway (daughter to Donny Hathaway). The documentary is scored by Glasper featuring music like Nina Simone’s “Backlash Blues” which plays over horrific images of the war in Vietnam as Muhammad Ali explains to Jerry Butler who is interviewing him on Soul! that no Vietnamese person ever called him a n*gger.
“We probably wrote 30 songs in two days for the score,” said Glasper by phone. “I would go in and say we need to sound like a 1945 jazz trio and the musicians got it immediately. They are all versed in different styles of music. I would be like, I need you to sound like a 1978 disco at a gay club and they got it. You need some J Dilla shit? Got it. You need us to sound like we’re backing up Marvin Gaye? Mahalia Jackson? Ok, cool.”
Questlove in interviews for the documentary talks about how The Roots band studied episodes of Soul! and incorporated some of the tricks from artists into their own routines: “Literally every trick I’ve ever learned in our show, I took from there…that New Birth performance of “I Can Understand It,” like that’s in our set, verbatim.”
In the ending montage sequence, the song “Show Me Your Soul” written and sung by Muhammad Ayers and sung by Lalah Hathaway plays as we witness images of modern day black excellence from everyone from Beyoncé to Ta-Nehesi Coates to Serena Williams.
As we look back at clips of Nick Ashford performing the spiritual “Steal Away” with Valerie Simpson on the piano, Ralph MacDonald on the congas and background singers from White Rock Baptist church singing in the forefront, it’s easy to see what Ellis means that Soul! was just the beginning. And that there’s more to come.
“It was for us, by us,” says Lalah Hathaway by phone. “I would love to host a show like that now. Interview Melissa. Ava. Issa. Colin Kaepernick. I see that happening.”
On July 24th, Lincoln Center, in association with Okayplayer, will kick off the annual Out of Doors season with a concert honoring Ellis Haizlip and Soul! The concert, called Soul at the Center, will be headlined by Grammy Award–winner Lalah Hathaway, who will perform songs from her father, Donny Hathaway. Underneath Hathaway will be The Illustrious Blacks, R&B singer Baby Rose, gospel singer Roosevelt André Credit, and hip-hop forefathers The Last Poets.
Right after the concert, we will be hosting The Afters: Soul at the Center, a party that will feature a night of soul, funk, house, and pop, all courtesy of The Illustrious Blacks, who will be on the ones and twos.
Ericka Blount is a journalist, professor, and author from Baltimore, Maryland. Her book ‘Love, Peace, and Soul: Behind the Scenes of Soul Train’ is available on Amazon. Please follow her (and us!) on Twitter @ErickaBlount.