LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - It was the little show that could. Beginning its ride as a local dance show on Chicago's WCIU-TV, "Soul Train" chugged its way to Los Angeles and into pop culture history. The syndicated franchise's impact is chronicled in the 40th-anniversary tribute "Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America."
Coinciding with the start of Black History Month, the documentary airs February 6 (9:30 p.m. ET) on VH1.
Narrated by actor Terrence Howard with an original score by the Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, the 90-minute documentary abounds with performance clips and commentary by former dancers and crew members as well as music executives (Clive Davis, Antonio "L.A." Reid) and major performers who appeared on "Soul Train," including Chaka Khan, Snoop Dogg, Aretha Franklin and Sly Stone. At the helm is "Soul Train" creator/producer/host Don Cornelius.
The special, produced by VH1 Rock Docs and Soul Train Holdings, doubles as entertainment and history lesson. The innovative show's August 17, 1970, debut was bracketed on one side by the civil rights movement and on the other by the emergence of black empowerment.
"This is so much more than a story about a man with a vision for a music dance show," says Kenard Gibbs, a co-principal in Soul Train Holdings with Peter Griffith and Anthony Maddox. "Had it not been for the social and political forces stirring the pot, the show probably wouldn't have been as successful. It empowered African-Americans, showing our culture and creativity in a light not seen on TV. This was reality TV at its best."
After its 1971 move to Los Angeles, "Soul Train" spun off award shows as well as a No. 1 R&B/pop hit in 1974, MFSB's "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia"). The Gamble & Huff-produced single originally was billed as "The Theme From 'Soul Train.'"
Cornelius jokes in the documentary that the hit's title change was his "one mistake." During a recent phone interview, though, he said his fondest memory is the show's early validation by major R&B talent.
"Gladys Knight & the Pips helped us start out, but we didn't know where it would go from there. We were just determined to make this happen, feeling it was the right kind of show for this country at the time," he recalls. "Then one day James Brown walked onto the sound stage. A few months later came the Jackson 5, and then Stevie Wonder. So we're thinking, 'OK, this might work.'"
The show later hosted performances by such pop stars as Elton John and David Bowie.
The "Soul Train" documentary -- which will screen at the Paley Center for Media in New York (January 27) and Los Angeles (January 29) -- is the latest branding venture by Soul Train Holdings, which bought the franchise from Cornelius in 2008. Last year, the company launched a Web site and revived the Soul Train Awards on BET/Centric (returning in 2010). Slated this spring: a DVD boxed set of "Soul Train" episodes, released through Time-Life.