REMINISCENT MONDAY: David Bowie Boards the 'Soul Train'
    • MONDAY, JUNE 19, 2017

    • Posted by: Robert Steiner

    When it comes to artistic transformations, most people can only pull off that sort of thing once and usually to moderate success at best. The rock n' roller writes a classical score, or the rapper goes country for an album, stuff like that. It takes a special kind of artist to build an entire career on starting from scratch on an album-to-album basis, and for many, one particular musician comes to mind. Whether you know him as David Jones, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, or even Jareth the Goblin King, David Bowie was one of music's greatest chameleons, doing exactly what people least expected throughout his 50+ year career. All of his many personas are significant in their own way, but it was during his celebrated "Thin White Duke" era that Bowie appeared on the 1970s TV phenomenon, "The Hippest Trip in America," Soul Train.

    Bowie wasn't the first white artist to appear on the predominantly African-American music show (Elton John beat him to that title), but that didn't take away form the unconventionality of the occasion. Soul Train was a highly popular TV program across the US and rose to prominence as the "Black American Bandstand," giving black artists a level of TV exposure that was hard to come by in the early 1970s. The show prominently featured young, upcoming talents in soul, R&B, funk, and disco, as well as dancers who showed off their moves in the legendary "Soul Train Line." Founder and host Don Cornelius had always intended to cater Soul Train to an African-American audience, simply because there were no other variety shows doing so in 1971, but he was more than willing to book non-black artists is the opportunity presented itself.

    That's exactly what happened by 1975, when David Bowie–then best known for his androgynous space gods Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane–released Young Americans, the first record of his "Thin White Duke" phase and his deepest dive into American soul, a genre he adored as a boy growing up in England. No one expected the lanky, white Englishman who pioneered glam rock just a few years earlier to pull a 180 into funk music and get away with it, but that's pretty much what happened. Songs like the album's groovy lead single "Fame" started getting airtime on African-American radio stations, and it was clear Bowie's fan base was quickly branching beyond the mostly white rock crowd.

    It only made sense that Bowie would find his way to the Soul Train stage, and on November 4, 1975, he got his chance to play the same stage his idols like James Brown once graced. Though he was visibly nervous in his deep blue suit and sleek, bronze hair, and Cornelius accidentally introduced him as "David Boo-ie," the singer still fit right in and didn't miss a step as he strutted through "Fame" and "Golden Years."

    Looking back, Bowie's lip-synching isn't the most convincing at times, and in reality, his career would've been completely fine without that Soul Train appearance. Being pretty much the only show of its kind at the time, Soul Train definitely didn't need Bowie's help, either. But it's a performance still talked about today because back in the 70s, TV was still fairly segregated even though it was never said outright. Up until that point, black artists would typically perform to all-white audiences on TV, but it often wasn't the other way around. You'd be hard-pressed to find white artists appear on a predominantly black show, but Bowie's appearance helped break down that stereotype and showed people that race had nothing to do with the music. If it had a beat and got people dancing, everyone could have a good time no matter who you were.

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