When PBS Had ‘Soul!’

Each week, host Ellis Haizlip turned public TV into a hip, all-black affair with Soul! A new documentary brings the iconic show back to life.

Ellis B. Haizlip (left) with Amiri Baraka. (Courtesy of Melissa Haizlip)
Ellis B. Haizlip (left) with Amiri Baraka. (Courtesy of Melissa Haizlip)

On Jan. 28, 1972, red-hot trumpeter Lee Morgan, finally drug-free after battling a debilitating heroin addiction, took to the stage of the groundbreaking PBS show Soul!, hosted by Washington, D.C., native Ellis B. Haizlip. Three weeks later, his common-law wife marched into an East Village club in New York City, called out Morgan’s name as he stood onstage and shot the 33-year-old trumpeter directly in the heart.

Morgan’s appearance on the show, one of his last documented performances, would be included on his album We Remember You, a compilation of live performances. It remains a seminal performance by a seminal musician.

Morgan was just one of many brilliant musicians featured on Soul!, the brainchild of Haizlip and producer Christopher Lukas. It filmed musicians like Morgan in ways that television hadn’t dared to try before. Musicians were free to experiment live onstage, improvising, as if they were performing in nightclubs.

And they could express themselves freely and honestly with Haizlip, the weekly show’s host — a laid-back hipster, dressed in the colorful clothing of the musicians, artists and poets he invited to join him — on an earthy set that could have doubled as his living room. (Soul! bore no relationship to the seminal Los Angeles-based black music publication of the same name.) 

Haizlip died of lung cancer in 1991 at age 61. Now his niece, Melissa Haizlip, is hard at work preserving her uncle’s legacy, producing and directing, along with director J. Kevin Swain, a documentary about the show. (There will be a screening of the work-in-progress documentary — Mr. Soul! Ellis Haizlip and the Birth of Black Power TV — on Sept. 24 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, at a session during the Congressional Black Caucus Independent Film Series.)

Much of Melissa’s challenge has involved a wild-goose chase to find existing episodes from the first season in 1968, many of which were taped over to save money and space for the station because, as she says, “In the beginning they didn’t know what they had.”  

The Birth of Soul!

There were many firsts on the show — such as the first time B.B. King and Roberta Flack ever appeared on television — and there have been many discoveries by Melissa, including an episode with a then-16-year-old Arsenio Hall performing magic tricks. The show had many powerful moments, including a two-part episode in which guest host Nikki Giovanni interviewed James Baldwin in London. Their conversation was later transcribed into a book, A Dialogue.

The concept for the show was born five months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, in the wake of uprisings and the findings from the Kerner Commission, charged with investigating civil disorders that destroyed cities from 1964 to 1967. In the report, the media were criticized for sensationalizing the riots, not examining their causes and not reporting on them from an insider’s view because of a lack of black representation. The report’s findings: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”