Dance variety shows that targeted younger fans had long been a staple of pop music by the time Chicago DJ and concert promoter Don Cornelius premiered Soul Train in 1970. But with the first howl of "Soooooul Train!" the beloved result irrevocably transformed the heavily whitewashed model of such earlier programs as American Bandstand. The focus on African-American artists and, well, soul music -- Motown, funk, classic R&B, Philly soul, and, later, disco and hip-hop -- made the show a cultural hub for African-American audiences, and brought that culture to the white mainstream, introducing viewers across the United States to new fashions, dances and music.
By the 1974-5 season, the now nationally syndicated Soul Train was a well-established cultural beacon, with kids and young adults alike gathering in living rooms across America to hear new music, watch those dancers seriously shake it, and practice a few moves of their own. The show's guest artists offer a retrospective glimpse into the state of pop culture, music and even politics at the time: as the initial theme song, Gamble and Huff's "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)" (as recorded by MFSB) pointed to the prominence of Philly soul, a path that eventually led to disco's preeminence. Boundaries blurred as '60s R&B and earlier, lighter Motown gave way to funk, grittier '70s Motown, and constantly evolving dance music, all heard in the wide range of artists Cornelius showcased.
And while Soul Train could be slightly musically conservative and was certainly trying to cater to a pop audience, that guest-star curation also spoke to African-American politics of the day, from the soft-hued frustration of Philly soul to Curtis Mayfield's angrier attacks on post-Civil Rights-era reality, as well as the dance-your-cares-away, lose-yourself-in-the-beat dystopianism that came to dominate pop music in the 1970s. So strap on your dancing shoes and your thinking cap, and get ready to bust a move like it was a party in front of the TV at your best friend's house with our Senior Year playlist of 1974-1975 Soul Train guest-stars.