Soul Train Photo Exhibition at Expo 72 | Review
There’s room on the walls for far more than the fifty-some photographs on display from the golden age of Soul Train, at Expo 72 through September 5. And the gallery floor is mostly empty—there are just two table cases. One displays dolls and merchandise, the other photos, press clippings and a letter on WCIU-TV letterhead from Soul Train creator Don Cornelius, dated January 25, 1971, informing Charles Bayliss of 1316 South Kolin Avenue that he and his dancing partner were invited to perform on the show, so long as neither was “over dressed.” (The letter, and other items in the case, are from the personal collection of music writer and TOC contributor Jake Austen. An article by Sun-Times critic Ron Powers for the newspaper’s television listings, calling the show “that soul-shaking, scintillating, ex-CRU-ciating, mighty, mighty vehicle of rhythm and blues,” is a must-read.)
But on July 22, like every Friday evening throughout the exhibit’s run, that empty space was necessary. Guest DJ Steve “Silk” Hurley spun classic platters from 4–6pm; when I left, a dance party was in full swing. A five-year-old was getting down with his dad, and a fifty-something woman, dressed to impress, was owning the line along rails on the floor, painted by Stephen Reynolds in the style of the original Soul Train set.
(Update: Weekly “Friday Night Groove” parties are now scheduled for 6–8pm during the exhibition’s run. See below for details.)
The images themselves erupt with energy and are thoughtfully combined although, while some get detailed air-date and episode-number credits, others are tagged vaguely, such as “Soul Train dancers circa 1973 to 1976.” Kool and the Gang in ’74 is next to Cameo in ’85; Jeffrey Osborne’s bedazzled 1980 outfit is next to Elton John’s bedazzled 1975 outfit. The lone black-and-white image is of Chaka Khan, on episode 128, the day after Valentine’s Day, 1975.
Beverly native Kim Porter Fluellen, director of integrated marketing and development at Soul Train Holdings, LLC in Los Angeles, says that the exhibit is part of a “year of rebirth” for the brand on its 40th anniversary. “Last month, we opened a music-and-dance series at Lincoln Center, we did a large donation to the Smithsonian and events on the National Mall, and now we’re coming here and planting ourselves in Chicago, where it all started.” The photos come from a collection of more than 300,000 images and have never before been released.
Michelle T. Boone, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, spoke with me outside of the gallery, still sounding a little bit disheartened that she wasn’t old enough to be on the show before it left Chicago. Her favorite memory of Soul Train happened during Joe Tex’s performance of his 1972 hit single, “I Gotcha.”
“There was a regular dancer on the show named Damita Jo Freeman, this thin, beautiful, dark black woman with an Afro. And for that song, she got to go up on stage and dance with Joe Tex. I was watching with some friends and we just [Screams quietly]. It was great.”
The Soul Train Photo Exhibition is on display at Expo 72 (72 E Randolph St, 312-744-6630) through September 5. Guest DJs spin during “Friday Night Groove” dance parties in the gallery from 6–8pm, Fridays through September 2. Tonight, July 23, Chicago SummerDance 2011 presents The Platinum Band performing classic Soul Train songs in the Spirit of Music Garden in Grant Park. Dance lessons are from 6–7pm and the floor is open until 9:30pm. Admission is free.