February 25th, 2013 | Interviews

nathan morse

It was one of the coolest, most honest, most music-mad shows of the 20th century: SOUL!, a program that made itself a movement as much as a TV vehicle for artists, intellectuals, and agitators—including a 16-year-old Arsenio doing magic tricks. Created by Ellis Haizlip and a coterie of folks who knew America was impoverished without a platform for black joy and rage, SOUL! pushed the whole country forward and delivered classic weekly performances from the most mind-blowing musicians of the 60s and 70s. The guest list was simply ridiculous: Al Green, the Last Poets, Stevie Wonder, Pharoah Sanders, Curtis Mayfield (hosting!), Wilson Pickett (also hosting!), Donnie Hathaway, Kool and the Gang, Bill Withers, and on and on. Haizlip’s niece and L.A.-based filmmaker, Melissa Haizlip, has been digging up lost footage and booking amazing interviews for a long-overdue doc called Mr. SOUL! Ellis Haizlip and the Birth of Black Power TV. Here, she talks Ashford and Simpson, Panthers and poets, social upheaval, and James Earl Jones pinching cheeks. This interview by Rin Kelly.

What was SOUL! and when did it start?
Melissa Haizlip: SOUL! started in 1968—from 1968 to 1973. It was a groundbreaking, Emmy Award-winning, nationally broadcast PBS television series that was both revolutionary and entertaining. It was hosted and produced by my uncle, Ellis Haizlip. It was on PBS in New York, on WNET, which was Channel 13. It was really incredible—it was really a series of firsts. The first television show with an African-American host that was also a talk show targeting the black community. It was also the first television show to present a really broad spectrum of black entertainers and politicians. And Panthers, revolutionaries, regular people, people of promise in the communities, sports figures, poets, dancers. It was really an all-encompassing mirror, and a truthful representation of black culture at a time when that hadn’t been possible.
How did it actually get started?
Well, think about 1968. It was a time of tremendous turmoil for America. There were riots, there were just so many issues and a lot of conflict in America. Martin Luther King was assassinated—it was just an extremely turbulent time. There was no reflection of the diversity of our culture and our community. People felt that it was time. It was a real clear moment in time where television needed to reflect more of what America was made of. The Kerner Commission decided that the country was split between black and white and it was time to put more blacks on television, both behind the camera and in front of the camera. PBS took up the mantle and decided to give more opportunities. My uncle was chosen because he was also a producer in his field in the arts—and he had his finger on the pulse of the arts of the black community. So he was chosen to create this unprecedented show that was a very eclectic mix for its time.
He wasn’t the original host, right? He was a creator and then he stepped in?
The very first host was an academic, a professor from Harvard: Dr. Alvin Poussaint. It was co-hosted by Dr. Loretta Long, who went on to become Susan on Sesame Street and has been playing Susan ever since. Forty-some years!
Growing up were you exposed to all these artists and thinkers who were on SOUL! and who Ellis—as a theater producer who’d put on shows with James Baldwin and Langston Hughes and Marlene Dietrich and just about everybody—hung out with?
I sure was. It was an extraordinary opportunity for me even though I was young, because Ellis was living with us at the time. Even though he had his own apartment on Fifth Avenue, he decided he wanted to live with us. He was very close with my father and so he would bring home many of the guest artists after the tapings. They would just hang out in the kitchen. I remember being very young and always mesmerized by these very special people that he would bring home. I didn’t quite understand who they were but I knew that they were magical. They would sit up at night eating strawberries and oatmeal at midnight. I would sit under the table or bounce on the lap of Clifton Davis and Melba Moore. James Earl Jones would pinch my cheek. Of course, I didn’t know [who they were] at the time! I just knew that they were pretty magical.
Is SOUL! something people know about or is it a bit of lost history?
No, they had no idea! That’s one of our goals—not only are we making this film obviously for historical significance, it’s also for the relevance to today’s youth. We’re trying to bridge a history gap for African-American youth. So many of them just don’t know their history and they don’t really understand the importance of reintroducing this fascinating moment in black history. It’s still relevant today because it created a ripple effect that’s still evident in today’s entertainment. So we hope that Mr. SOUL! the film will basically bridge the gap created by time and technology, and allow this to become a multi-generational experience—and encourage us to connect and cross boundaries. To understand the world beyond where we’re from. Forty years isn’t really that long ago. We want to bring the history into the present.
I was really surprised that I knew so little about what’s got to be one of the coolest TV shows of the 20th century.
I think just because it got lost in that little pocket of time before Soul Train, before the 70s, when blacks started entering the mainstream—people don’t know it. It just sort of fits in that little moment before our technology had really kicked in—before the VCR, before all of that. The episodes themselves have been sitting in a vault for 40 years.
It’s just extraordinary in its sweep in culture and also the amount of amazing music. I cannot believe the dancers and the musicians who were on this show regularly. It’s this list of everybody you’d ever want to see perform on television.
It’s a little crazy, especially when you remember that they were performing live. That was a big thing. You have people not only performing live but performing for the first time. Up until that point, in terms of music and especially black music—which was limited by not just racism at the time but by just not having access—people weren’t seen, they were heard. You might hear black music or soul music if you were lucky enough to live in New York City and go to the Apollo; if you were experiencing music on the Chitlin’ Circuit, you might see these bands. But you would never actually see them on television nationwide. Television was still new, there weren’t many channels, there weren’t many things to watch. We had The Tonight Show, we had the Smothers Brothers, The Ed Sullivan Show. That was the model America knew, so if you think about the context and then being able to see somebody like Al Green for the first time—hungry, young, with a cold, barely squeaking out his voice. Or Earth, Wind and Fire for the first time. There were just so many people that we take for granted now that are household names. And some more obscure artists as well—it was pretty spectacular.
Were there musicians you discovered for the first time while making this movie? People you’d never actually seen perform?
Oh absolutely. We’re still trying to find some of the tapes. A lot of the tapes from the first couple of years—from the first seasons, from 1968 and 1969—have either been lost or they’re missing. So there’s some really key performances that I’d like to see. There’s some early performances by Herbie Hancock and his Mwandishi band. That particular lineup is fascinating to me. There were the early versions of the Manhattans, and Maxine Brown. The first year—Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, she was on the show singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ It’s pretty amazing to think of her in September 1968. There were many, many bands: Junior Walker and the All Stars, Archie Bell and the Drells, the Precisions, the Five Stairsteps, Bobby Hebb, Carmen De Lavallade—she was a dancer. The Three Degrees, the Staple Singers, Whit- ney Houston’s mother, Cissy Houston, was on the show. Kool and the Gang! I can’t wait to interview them. Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
I saw in your extended trailer that they say there would be no Ashford and Simpson if it weren’t for this show.
It’s very true. They weren’t together as a singing duo—they were writers, and they wrote for everyone else. Berry Gordy had hired them specifically on as a writing team tor Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye. They also wrote a tremendous amount of music for the Supremes, Diana Ross, all the songs that are so famous: ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ and ‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing’ and ‘Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).’ But it was Ellis Haizlip who said to them, ‘You don’t realize how powerful the image is of a man and a woman writing the music and singing it for themselves. You should do that. I’m going to give you an entire show and showcase you, just like that. For an hour, no commercials.’ Well, it was that very show that made people fall in love with them, and after that they recorded an album together, they got married, and the rest is history. But they really believed that it was Ellis Haizlip who saw their future—and he did that for a lot of people. He was a visionary in that way. He had Arsenio Hall on the show for the very first time. I can’t wait to interview Arsenio. He was 16 years old and doing magic tricks.
Was 16-year-old Arsenio good at magic?
Apparently he was good enough, because he was flown in from Cleveland to do it. His nickname was ‘Magic’ and then Magic Johnson stole it from him.
Is there one single performance or one single interview that through all of this amazing content is your absolute, blown-mind favorite?
There’s a remarkable interview that I can’t wait to try to reconstruct—it’s the entire episode, and in fact it’s so long that it was split into two episodes. This was on December 15, 1971, and then the following week, December 22, 1971. It was an interview where Nikki Giovanni is hosting and interviewing James Baldwin. It was a time when he wasn’t even living in America, and they shot it in London. Now, we know how difficult it is to do anything—this is the 70s. The logistics of this are fascinating to me, that they were able to do this. I don’t know if they did this at the BBC or what. Nikki Giovanni’s already agreed to an interview, so we’re going to talk to her about it. It’s a remarkable interview because it’s very candid, it’s very powerful, and it’s a high-water mark for women, for poetry, and for gays because it was a very poignant and open discussion about all of these things.
Do you have a favorite musical performance?
Wow. There’s some pretty spectacular footage of early Al Green, before he was even on Soul Train. That’s pretty remarkable. It’s hard to pick—there are some amazing performances in there and I hate to play favorites. There’s a Stevie Wonder clip that is phenomenal. I’m trying to get my hands on a clip of him singing ‘Superstition.’ It went on for ten minutes. He’d never actually played it on television before and the audience went wild. They ran out of tape but they didn’t want to tell him to stop because it was such a phenomenal performance. Just little moments like that, real gems.
There’s a great moment in your trailer where Miriam Makeba does this amazing thing with her butt. I watched it over and over again. She had quite a butt.
That was pretty special. She came over to America with the help of Harry Belafonte, who had discovered her. She also happened to be married to Stokely Carmichael, who later became Kwame Ture. It was Harry who said, ‘This is a voice of our generation.’ But to be in exile is very difficult. He also brought over some other phenomenal poets like Keorapetse Kgositsile, the father of the African National Congress. To have him on the show is pretty remarkable, and you’re never going to believe who he’s the father of.
Who is he the father of?
It’s going to blow your mind. You know Tyler, The Creator? What’s the name of that band, that whole collective?
Odd Future!
Thank you. Earl Sweatshirt.
Earl Sweatshirt’s dad was a father of the ANC?
Earl Sweatshirt! Which is really kind of cool when you think about it, because his father is this extraordinary poet, and to think that here he is, he’s sort of this modern-day version. An American rapper, songwriter, producer, and member of this collective, and his father was doing that in his own generation. I actually got to meet Kgositsile. He was here in L.A. at the Hammer Museum, and I went up to him. He had a new book of poetry out, and I went up to him and I just wanted to shake his hand. I said, ‘I know that you probably won’t know who I am, but that’s not important—I just want you to know that my uncle was Ellis Haizlip and you were on his show at a very important moment in time.’ His eyes lit up and teared up, and he said, ‘Oh my goodness. I will never forget that; I will never forget being on SOUL!’’ And he started talking about having an opportunity like that, to be a South African. Ellis had Letta Mbulu on the show as well. It was just a remarkable opportunity, because this kind of thing didn’t happen. He was also always making room for remarkable people that people maybe wouldn’t know. Of course now we know, because we have this legacy. People like Odetta; and Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X; Reverend Farrakhan, the spokesman for the Nation of Islam at the time. Another South African he had on at the time was Hugh Masekela, the trumpeter. He had a band at the time called the Union of South Africa. This was completely unheard of, especially because of the political unrest in South Africa and people who were in exile. So it was really exciting. But it was just this vision that he had, importance of understanding who we are across this sort of trans-African diaspora. Not just what was happening in the streets or in the hood or in the suburbs or in the city, but what it meant to be black universally. That was what was so unusual about the show. He would put Reverend Louis Farrakhan on there and then turn around and have the Spinners. Take the Main Ingredient and juxtapose that with Bill Withers or one of the Black Panthers. He never made a distinction about what was important, because everything was equally important whether it was someone talking about the black struggle in schools or talking about the revolution in the Latin context. He would have Latin music on, with Felipe Luciano from the Last Poets introducing Tito Puente and Willie Colón, and salsa singers, because he said there was soul in Latin music too. SOUL! was not just limited to the black culture. It really was about soul as a concept, as a genre.
Were Muhammad Ali’s famous comments about the Viet Cong said first on SOUL!?
That was a very candid moment, and very alarming for many people to see that because they’re not used to seeing people speak that way. That was the thing about SOUL!—it was not just a vehicle for African-American artistry, it was a platform for political expression and the fight for social justice. So this was kind of a trifecta that kind of existed. People weren’t used to hearing artists and hearing them play extended sets, but they also weren’t used to people expressing themselves so freely. Here you have someone who’s expected to be a sports icon, and he’s talking about the controversy of not wanting to go to Vietnam. That was pretty remarkable for the time. I don’t think our socio-political climate would necessarily allow a show like this to happen right now.
Were there conflicts with PBS? People just spoke truth in its own language on the show—how did it end, or why did it end?
That’s a really good question, and we will be exploring it in the film. There are many different theories as to why this show was not funded in the end. It relied heavily on funding from the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other nonprofit organizations. By 1973 the political climate had changed, there were issues with Nixon and PBS. I hesitate right now to expound upon this cuz we’re still developing it, we’re still reasearching it, but there were many reasons. Many people felt that the show needed to be integrated, ironically—in 1973—that race wasn’t an issue anymore. But Ellis always felt completely the opposite of that. He would say, ‘Are you kidding me? We are the ones who are integrating television!’ But slowly after that, from the 70s on, black television changed. The sitcom emerged. From What’s Happening to That’s My Mama and Sanford and Son, the landscape began to change. So there were many reasons why the show went off the air. It was controversial, and it was also completely undiluted and in your face. That was its value and also its undoing.
Have you found a lot of new footage for the documentary?
Oh yeah. We’re looking for a lot of footage that will complement the era and that hasn’t been seen. I recently found a photographer who covered SOUL! in 1971. I haven’t seen him since I was 4 years old, which was quite a few years ago. He was on assignment. There’s a lot out there—it just needs a lot of patience and a lot of diligence. Obviously it’s not just going to be talking heads and archival, historical clips and footage. We really want to flesh out the whole film and put it into the context of the time, and then show contemporary interviews with people who were on the show, reflecting on its importance.
Where are you guys at with the film and the fundraising?
Mr. SOUL! is currently raising funds to support production costs. We just had a really fantastic fundraising campaign on Kickstarter. We raised 48 thousand dollars in 30 days.