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Soul!

Interview: Director Stan Lathan

Stan Lathan started his career at WGBH Boston, working on Say Brother. In 1969 he moved to New York and worked on a number of projects for WNET, including Black Journal, Soul! and Sesame Street. Since, he’s worked prolifically in public and commercial television, and currently runs a TV/film production company with hip hop mogul Russell Simmons. He’s also the father of actress Sanaa Lathan.

For the run of Soul!, directing duties were split between Ivan Cury and Lathan; Lathan handled more episodes during the last few years of the show. Arnee Nocks also directed at least one episode.

Interview, January 2009:

How did you come on board with Soul!?

I didn’t even come into the picture until the second, maybe even third, season. I started in 1969 or 1970 directing the show, and I was one of the few black television directors around; I was doing Say Brother in Boston. In fact, the reason I came to New York was because Black Journal, which was produced by WNET, came to Boston and recruited me to come direct and produce documentaries for them. But my real love was live television, and I immediately got a job with Sesame Street directing segments – I was going between Black Journal and Sesame Street. I finally met Ellis Haizlip (Soul!’s producer/host) because I was at WNET, and he offered me the directing job on Soul! –  it worked out because Soul! was shot on weekends. So I was able to produce and direct for Black Journal at the same time that I was directing Soul!.

So you directed Black Journal during the week?

I produced documentary films with Black Journal; during the week I did more prep work, then I would go out in the field and direct the documentaries. I did about a dozen or so documentaries over those two years.

Did you realize from the beginning what a huge fan following Soul! was going to have?

Yes. First of all, it was a huge step for me, because Ellis had a name for himself in the entertainment community. I was really interested in music, performance, dance and so forth — more interested than I was at the time in directing documentaries. The kind of acts that Eliis was putting on the show were very popular, but not being seen anywhere else. So we realized we had something that was really very special.

We knew we had something that was going to be very popular and that was going to draw a loyal audience. We knew that all along.  When we were doing the show, it was the hottest ticket in town to be in the audience for Soul!. And it was free, of course. But every week, it was a huge deal to get into the studio audience, and we would never be able to get in more than 150 or 200 people at the MOST. And because we changed the set so often, sometimes there would only be room for 50-70 people.

Stan Lathan at WNET in 1974

Stan Lathan at WNET in 1974

There were a couple of people that were responsible for putting together the audience on a week to week basis — one of them was Anna Horsford — and they would get certain groups to come in, student groups and so forth.

I don’t know exactly what it took to get on the list, but on Saturday night there would always be a bunch of people just trying to bum-rush the place. And a lot of times they were successful, because security wasn’t a big deal.

We used to jam ‘em in there. The Stevie Wonder show, that was an example of how you just squeezed twice as many people into a studio than you should.

Did you see the series evolve between when you started and 1973?

Evolve? Well, it was always a performance series. I think that what evolved was the quality of the guests. The guests got bigger and bigger—it became a show that performing groups wanted to do.

On a regular basis we would get groups that were just in town performing, and as a result we had one of the first television performances of Al Green. He was this giant young kid who had a hot hit tune called “I’m Still In Love With You.” He was performing at the Apollo, and we got him to come down and do a set for us. It was amazing, and we were there remarking how this guy looks like he’s gonna go somewhere. Earth, Wind & Fire was another group that performed on Soul! and did a set that just blew the roof off the place—before they blew up.

Even Stevie [Wonder] was there.  He was big, but this was before he really emerged as the brilliant hit machine that he became in the eighties.

We gave the groups a chance to actually do a full set and not have to worry about commercials or any kind of control by us. We just wanted them to do what they do. And so we got some great performances.

As far as audience is concerned, yes, for me it was the first time for me that I realized that I was actually getting exposure to a national audience. When I would travel doing documentaries I would end up in other cities, and I became aware of the fact that Soul! was HUGE outside of NYC. Maybe even more so… because folks outside of New York had the chance to see some of these groups. There was certainly nobody else on television that was airing these people. We did shows with Tito Puente and Willie Colon, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, and folks like that. Now, groups like The Spinners and all the groups from Philadelphia International – Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes and so forth—you’d see them on American Bandstand, lipsynching to their records, but on Soul! they got to perform their sets full out, live in front of an audience. That way you really got a sense of the brilliance of these performers live.

Was this something that black audiences we not getting elsewhere in television at the time?

Absolutely. They were not getting it. There were shows that capitalized on the pop music of the day. But, once again, those shows were revues. There was Hullabaloo, Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and those were shows that came on late Saturday night — after midnight on the networks. But on those shows, acts would step up and do only one song in a line-up. And then of course there was American Bandstand, where the groups would stand up and lip-synch a hit single. So Soul! provided an opportunity for the groups to really bring it.

So they really got to stretch out, rather than like on Letterman or Conan O’Brian where musicians only do one song.

Yeah! They’d do a full set. Sometimes, like in the case of Earth, Wind & Fire, we did a full hour set. And we shot the whole thing with multi cameras. Maybe we’d shoot an interview — Ellis Haizlip would interview the artist — and later we’d go back and cut the interview into the performance. But for the most part our objective was to show the artist’s set in an unadulterated way, one that was as close as possible to the real live experience.

What was your reaction to the series ending in 1973?

Everybody was very very disappointed. They thought that the series could go on forever. Certainly it was the evolution of the music business… we just thought that it was a signature show for Channel Thirteen and was not an expensive show by any means. No one got paid anything extraordinary, the acts got scale, and they were thrilled to do it.

We shot each episode in one day: we’d put the set up the day before, shoot the show, and then the set came down. I fought for extending it — its cancellation was really unfortunate. The show should still be on.

Ellis [Haizlip] was never afraid to deal with political and social issues, especially as they related to the African American community. We had political artists like Miriam Makeba who was a very political performer… when she was married to Stokely Carmichael. I think it was more the politics of the show that rubbed against the channel’s administration, affected their feelings about whether they should keep the show on.

Can you go into specifics about what those politics were that rubbed them the wrong way?

Ellis was just a very socially and politically conscious artist himself. He certainly was someone who was very active in African American causes. He was outspoken. And he was unflappable.

Did you receive any criticism for that it was more of a performance show than anything else? That it was portraying black people in a certain way… as just entertainers or…?

No no no… no. Ellis was very political. Anyone who wanted to see representative African American and black images and content… they applauded this show. Absolutely. If anything, there were those who thought it was too black and exclusive of a crossover audience. But you know what? Ellis was also a pioneer in hiring and employing black folks; his staff, percentage-wise, had more African Americans than any other staff that I worked with in those days, and pretty much since — except for the staff that I have now of course. There’s no way anyone could complain or criticize the politics of the show, unless of course they were criticizing the fact that it was too radical in dealing with black issues.

How do you think the series changed the presence of black people on television?

I don’t know what effect it had on the rest of the television world. I think that in spite of its popularity, it still had a pretty small audience compared to the networks. I don’t believe that the show set a trend that anybody felt they needed to follow. During that period we both became close friends with Don Cornelius, who as a radio DJ in Chicago who came up with a show called Soul Train….

Ellis and Don got to know each other, and I’m sure Ellis helped encourage Don in the days when he took Soul Train from a local show to a syndicated national show that ran for 30 years. But I don’t know how much affect it had on other television. Certainly it exposed a lot of the artists to audiences that had been listening to their records, or gave fans who heard these people on the radio a chance to see them closer to ‘live’. People were always grateful for that. I’d hear “I’ve been listening to Earth, Wind and Fire– I got all their album–but never imagined how amazing they were in a set and how versatile, how they danced on stage…” etc.

Looking back, are you pleased with the series? Would you have done anything differently?

I was very pleased with the series. When I look back I think it was a perfect situation. For me it was a huge learning experience. I believe that it had a major effect on my career,  dealing with Ellis and his professionalism and perfectionism. I also met and established relationships with so many artists that last to this day, like Stevie Wonder and many others–I went on to do work with him later.

And as far as the the show itself, there’s a show called Soundstage, which is a PBS show shot in Chicago. And then there’s Austin City Limits, where they just let a group do their thing for a whole show. But Soul! was one of the first and that’s the way to do it.

Do you think there have been any shows since that are comparable to the Soul! series?

There have been live performance shows. But I think part of what made Soul! great was Ellis’ consciousness. His intent was to put black American culture out there, and for an audience to see themselves and see their heroes. In that respect, there are whole networks that are trying to do that, or at least they say they are, like BET and TV1. I think that Ellis was a pioneer in that aspect.

What would be your thoughts if, let’s say PBS or another station, brought back a similar show today?

I don’t think it’s a bad idea. But without Ellis Haizlip, I don’t think it would ever be the same show. There’s a lot of great music out there, but nowadays the TV industry measures audiences and demographics down to a science. It’s hard to put something on TV that’s judged only for its aesthetic effect.

Interviewed by Elyse Eisenberg, January 2009.

More about Stan Lathan:

* Bio from The Historymakers PBS series
* His company with Russell Simmons, Simmons*Lathan
* Wiki page
* IMDB entry