12 Mind-Blowing 'Soul Train' Performances - Rolling Stone
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12 Mind-Blowing ‘Soul Train’ Performances

The iconic show became an institution, and these are its best musical moments

don cornelius soul train

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Over the course of 35 years and more than a thousand episodes, Soul Train proved itself to be one of television's greatest ever showcases for music. Every week, the show featured hip young Los Angelenos dancing to the records and the performances of whoever was hot in R&B – and it ran long enough to chronicle the evolution of soul music into disco, funk, and hip-hop. Sadly, it went off the air in 2006, but it's not forgotten. Last year, Soul Train superfan Questlove wrote an amazing book (Soul Train: The Music, Dance, and Style of a Generation) jammed full of archival photos, and the third Soul Train Cruise (featuring the Isley Brothers and the Commodores) disembarks from Fort Lauderdale on February 23rd.

Click through to watch 12 of our favorite performances, with an emphasis on the show's Seventies glory days. – Gavin Edwards

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The Jackson 5, ‘Dancing Machine’ (1973)

Sometimes performers played live on Soul Train, or did live vocals over a backing track, but the default mode was lip-syncing. In this appearance with the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson showed just how exciting a lip-sync performance could be, rocking the crowd and dancing up a storm – even doing the robot!

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Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson, ‘Ooo Baby Baby’ (1979)

Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson sat at a piano together, talking about knowing each other when they grew up on the north side of Detroit and harmonizing on a heavenly duet of the Miracles' "Ooo Baby Baby." (Although they made a big deal of their age difference here, Robinson was only two years older than Franklin – they were 39 and 37 when this was filmed.)

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Rufus, ‘Tell Me Something Good’ (1974)

Rufus's singer was a shockingly young Chaka Khan, seen here in a sparkly purple tube top, looking shy but visibly gaining confidence as the performance builds up steam and her band makes some classic funk.

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James Brown, ‘The Payback’ (1974)

Wearing bell bottoms, sporting a mustache and not caring that his shirtless gut is poking out over his waistline, James Brown whipped up a hot medley of "Cold Sweat," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," and "I Can't Stand It." But that was just a warm-up for his new single, "The Payback," where he brought the funk to a rolling boil for over four minutes, clearly having the time of his life.

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Labelle, ‘Lady Marmalade’ (1974)

In which Labelle reinvented the girl group as extraterrestrial invaders, wearing the outfits David Bowie rejected as being a bit much for Ziggy Stardust. Patti LaBelle led the invasion with an amazing live vocal.

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Marvin Gaye, ‘Let’s Get It On’ (1974)

Marvin Gaye, looking badass in a green knit cap and plaid pants, did "Let's Get It On," mixing it up with the dancers. During the interview segment, when asked if he has any non-musical hobbies, he stammered this reply: "Well, I um, I'm um, uh, uh, I'm um, I am, I'm kind of sensual, you know, and I enjoy, I enjoy, I enjoy, I enjoy, you know, I enjoy people, I enjoy. I like fooling around."

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Grandmaster Flash, ‘The Message’ (1983)

One of the earliest rap performances on Soul Train was this classic. The insane stage costumes (metallic fringe, cowboy hats) clashed with the song's gritty lyrics, but made it even more riveting.

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Stevie Wonder, ‘Superstition’ (1973)

Stevie Wonder answered questions from host Don Cornelius and the dancers (explaining that he doesn't sign autographs very well), lip-synced "Superstition" (starting at 3:26) while dancers did the bump and concluded (at 9:03) with a live performance of his freshly composed Soul Train theme song ("where all the brothers and sisters get together").

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Joe Tex, ‘I Gotcha’ (1972)

Damita Jo Freeman wasn't the most famous Soul Train dancer ever – Rosie Perez and Jody Watley were also regulars on the show – but she was one of the first to break out of the crowd. When Joe Tex pulled her onstage during a performance of his Number Two hit "I Gotcha," she strutted and posed so memorably, she made everybody forget that Tex appeared to be wearing modified lederhosen.

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LL Cool J, ‘I Can’t Live Without My Radio’ (1986)

At age 18, long before he became a TV cop and awards-show host, LL ruled Soul Train. Wearing a white track suit and gray Kangol hat, he stalked from one end of the stage to another, with energy that seemed like it might bust out of the TV set: the crowd jumped up and down and chanted along with his rap.

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Elton John, ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ (1975)

As the popularity of Soul Train grew, white rock stars clamored to appear: David Bowie came on to do "Fame" and "Golden Years," for example. Elton John showed up with a plexiglass piano and a (relatively restrained) feathered hat – pointing into the camera, he gave his all to his own Philly soul anthem.

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Al Green, ‘Take Me to the River’ (1975)

If you never saw a whole episode of Soul Train, this is (most of) a great one from April 1975, including the Soul Train Scramble (a timed word puzzle), the Soul Train Line (the weekly dance showcase), and four astonishing live performances from a sweaty, impassioned Al Green and a killer band: "Sha-La-La (Makes Me Happy)," "L-O-V-E (Love)" (check out the crazy drum solo!), "God Blessed Our Love," and an extended "Take Me to the River." (If you just want Green's songs, the first one starts around 5:30.)

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