How ‘Soul Train’ became the new Apollo for black artists

During the 1970s, when the Apollo was struggling, “Soul Train” was revving its engine and taking the black music — and, of course, dance — experience from the theater to your television.

The Apollo has long been the ultimate destination for black artists. Early on, the iconic Harlem theater launched the careers of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald on its famous Amateur Night, while later becoming the home away from Detroit for Motown greats such as the Supremes and the Jackson 5.

So it’s fitting that another culture-moving institution celebrating black music — the Soul Train Awards — are being held at the Apollo Theater for the first time on Saturday, before airing Nov. 28 on BET. Among the performers who will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Soul Train” on that legendary stage will be Maxwell, Leon Bridges and Silk Sonic (aka Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak).

During the 1970s, when the Apollo was struggling, “Soul Train” was revving its engine and taking the black music — and, of course, dance — experience from the theater to your television.

Legendary black artists such as James Brown (in 1964) played the Apollo before performing on “Soul Train.”

“There was no televised platform specifically for black music,” Brooklyn-born culture critic Nelson George — who wrote the 2014 book “The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style” — told The Post.

He notes that the show came around at just the right time: “When ‘Soul Train’ got big in ’72, ’73, the Apollo wasn’t dead yet but it was on a downward trajectory.

Stevie Wonder, who performed at the Apollo in the ’60s, plays on “Soul Train” in the early ’90s.

After Don Cornelius launched “Soul Train” as a local TV show in Chicago in 1970, it went grooving into national syndication on Oct. 2, 1971, creating a soul-music community where fans across the country could hear the latest jams and learn the newest moves.

Both the Apollo and “Soul Train” were powerful proving — and promotional — grounds for black acts, with legends such as Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Gladys Knight playing both stages. “The Apollo was a stage you had to hit,” said BET’s Connie Orlando, who will oversee the awards as EVP of specials, music programming and music strategy. “ ‘Soul Train’ was another stage that you had to hit, whether you were brand-new or a legacy artist.”

The Apollo, which provided a home for black artists for decades, will host the Soul Train Awards for the first time on Saturday

Beyond the music, both the Apollo and “Soul Train” brought home the importance of “seeing yourself represented,” she added.

And just as the Apollo celebrated black joy in Harlem during the struggle of the civil-rights movement of the ’60s, “Soul Train” was an extension of that on a national level. ” ‘Soul Train’ communicated the joy of the black experience — the music, the dance, the style — and in so doing was also a tool of the civil-rights movement in its own way,” said George.

Aretha Franklin performs on “Soul Train” alongside the show’s creator and host Don Cornelius.

After closing in 1976, briefly reopening from 1978 to 1979, the Apollo staged a grand reopening in 1985 and rebounded, going on to usher in a new era with hip-hop but the same old Amateur Nights. 

Bringing the awards to the Apollo for the first time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the series “made so much sense,” said Orlando. “We were just thinking about how do we make celebrating 50 years super special, and we jumped on the idea right away. There’s gonna be a lot of nods to the history of the Apollo.”

Although George said that Cornelius might wonder if the Apollo was “big enough” for the awards, Orlando believes that he would approve of the move: “I think he would be so excited that it was at one of the most iconic places not just in African-American history but American history.”


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