LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) – A new documentary which is shortlisted for the 2021 Oscars is giving recognition to a historic variety show which celebrated Black creativity and culture.
On the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, “SOUL!” was the first Black variety show on television.
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It aired on PBS in the late 1960s and early 1970s and featured some of the biggest names in Black entertainment including Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Pattie LaBelle, Nikki Giovanni, “The Last Poets” and “Earth, Wind and Fire.”
Ellis Haizlip was the dynamic host and produce of SOUL!, which showcased stars and launched careers.
His niece, Melissa Haizlip, co-directed and co-produced “Mr. Soul!”, a documentary about her uncle’s creation.
“I tell people it’s the greatest show you’ve never heard of,” Haizlip told CBSLA.
Haizlip said she is lucky to be the custodian of this priceless piece of history.
“It also launched the careers of many of our African-American icons of the 20th century, but somehow because it was at a moment when we weren’t really preserving live television, and at the beginning of color television and live television in 1968, I think it kind of slipped through the cracks before we started documenting that part of history,” Haizlip said.
“It’s hard to imagine that you’re seeing some of these artists for the first time, including a 15- year-old Arsenio Hall, who was doing magic tricks,” she adds.
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The show ran out of funding in the 1970s. Most of the series wasn’t archived. The little that was left sat collecting dust on a shelf.
“Putting together this archive for me was like the combination of a scavenger hunt and a detective story and a wild goose chase, but it was really important to try to assemble some of the most extraordinary footage,” Haizlip said.
So out of 130 episodes that aired over the span of five years, there is now an archive of 42 episodes.
“He would come home after the taping and bring with him some of the most amazing artists who had just been performing on the soul show,” Haizlip said. “So little did I know that I was bouncing on the knee of James Earl Jones, or running under the table with Clifton Davis and Melvin Moore. Ellis Haizlip had such special friendships.”
Melissa’s goal was to introduce her uncle’s genius to a new generation of fans and spark memories in those who watched at home the first time around.
“Some of the most remarkable footage that we have is just amazing, when you see the young Al Green, and he is just absolutely gorgeous, and has so much energy, and you can just see the soul coming out of him,” Haizlip said. “And of course, he is classic soul.”
At a time when Black American were often portrayed as villains or victims of crime, SOUL! celebrated Black accomplishments and creativity.
“I really feel that that resonates today,” Haizlip said. “We are all standing on the shoulders of giants. But just to understand the importance of Ellis Haizlip and all the careers that he touched.”
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The documentary will air at 10 p.m. Monday, Feb. 22 on PBS. It’s also available to watch on the PBS app.