TV Recap: American Soul – You Could Sell Water To A Whale …

American Soul
“Man Is First Destiny” and “Continuous Revolution in Progress” (Episodes 101 and 102)
February 52019

American Soul is the true story of Don Cornelius, developer of the Soul Train show, which rose to national acclaim in the 1970s. Read on to see our deep dive recap of the two episode series premiere.

Photo: BET

“Man Is First Destiny” (Episode 101)

An aged Don Cornelius (Sinqua Walls) watching a vintage episode of Soul Train with Gladys Knight (Kelly Rowland) performing. Tears are streaming down his face. He takes a revolver to his temple and fade to black.

Historical Side Note: American Soul is based on true events. Spoilers, but in real life, Don committed suicide on February 1, 2012. It is believed he was in the early stages of dementia, possibly Alzheimer’s, according to his son.

Chicago, Summer 1971. Don Cornelius learns his local Chicago show, Soul Train, will be in national syndication in 14 cities if a Top Ten act signs on to perform. Soul Train’s production is occurring in the background. 

Still of Sinqua Walls as Don Cornelius from BET’s “American Soul” episode 101. (Annette Brown/BET)

Kendall Clarke (Jelani Winston) is reading his Selective Service System (while Selective Service Registration is still a thing today, requiring males to register when they turn 18, in 1971, this was service that put you in the system for being drafted during the Vietnam war) orders to report for service with his adorable son in the car next to him. They go into an auditorium where a high school musical rehearsal of Grease is being rehearsed. Simone Clarke (Katlyn Nichol) is onstage and killing it during The One That I Want. Tessa (Iantha Richardson), Don’s jack-of-all-trades-lady, is looking for dancers. 

JT Tucker (Christopher Jefferson) congratulates Simone on the rehearsal. She has a Soul Train flier in her hand. JT’s reluctant to do a PDA cuz she seems “to forget her Daddy carries a gun,” and technically she’s jailbait. Kendall, Simone’s brother, breaks up the scene, telling her she needs to go home to cook dinner.

Brothers, amiright? <insert eye roll>

Don, elated, tells his wife, Delores Cornelius (Perri Camper) about the national syndication. She cuts the celebration short when Don mentions he needs to dip into their emergency services fund. She tells him it’s off limits and he promises to find another way. The celebration resumes but there’s definitely some underlying tension here. 

Kendall meets Sandra Jacobs (Gina LaPiana). She’s advising him on his Selective Service notice. He can get a medical exemption for $15,000 but who’s got that kind of cash lying around? He wants to find a legit way to not go to Vietnam to die. His father is currently serving in the Army in Vietnam. He doesn’t want to tarnish his father’s name. She tells him he could be exempt if he marries his son’s mother and becomes head of household. That seems … complicated. 

Los Angeles. Two cops sitting in their car see Don do a quasi stop at a stop sign.

FYI: I call these California rolls lol.

They pull Don over and the older, stereotypical white cop (David Alexander) is belligerent from the word go, asking Don if he can sing to get out of trouble to just humiliate him. We also learn that Don was a police officer in a former life.  The cops are redirected by an incoming call of a shooting nearby. Ahhh LAPD at their finest. Welcome to the City of Angels, Don! 

Commercials. 

Tessa is handling the auditions for Soul Train Dancers as well as the logistics for the building of the set. Don isn’t happy with their caliber and pushes her to do better. He’s got a vision he wants her to deliver, but his delivery leaves a lot to be desired.

JT, Kendall and Simone are at an audition for Club 100 Proof. The do an incredible cover of Smiling Faces Sometimes by the Temptations. (Reality check: Their audition has an awful lot of production- backing vocals, a hint of auto tune and drums, but I ain’t mad. It totally rocks.) They’re hired and fired in a minute when the club owner, Gerald Aims (Jason Dirden) questions Simone’s age; 16 isn’t worth his liquor license. They’re defeated, but Simone shows the Soul Train flyer and thinks that might be a way for them to build their name. 

Still of Katlyn Nichol as Simone Clarke and Christopher Jefferson as Jeffrey “JT” Tucker from BET’s “American Soul” episode 101. (Annette Brown/BET)

At Club 100 Proof, Don shows up to a planned meeting with James Brown. He’s intercepted by Brown’s management entourage who’s laying on some steep terms to have James Brown come on Soul Train. Undeterred, Don pushes through but is going to get his ass kicked if he goes through the entourage. Gerald comes in and diffuses the situation. Taking Don to the bar, they get their drink and blow on, and shoot the shit. Gerald schools Don about perspective. Because he couldn’t book James Brown doesn’t mean that he’s the only game in town; there are 9 other top ten acts to book.

“I ain’t that good with words but I know what I’m talking about and I’m going to help you out. Now will Gladys Knight work for you?” 

Ever the business man, Gerald sees the opportunity to book those acts in his club if they come in weekly for Soul Train.

Commercials.

The following morning Don is at Gerald’s pad, with Alka-Seltzer for his post-party hangover. He makes plans with Delores via telephone for his meeting with Gladys Knight to set her up as an act on Soul Train. He’s flying home to Chicago for the meeting. He wants Delores to be there. 

The Gladys Knight Meeting. Holy crap, Kelly Rowland REALLY looks like Gladys Knight. She even nailed her sound and sweet persona. She’s upset she’s Don’s second choice and won’t do the show. He levels with her: he refuses to be a failure so in a display of vulnerability to bring her in, he shares his vision for Soul Train: showcasing black talent and black creative influence. She’s swayed by his salesmanship and trustworthiness; Don is thrilled.

“If my Daddy was here, he’d say that you could sell water to a whale, but I choose the songs and nothing we’ve ever recorded.”

Still of Sinqua Walls as Don Cornelius and Kelly Rowland as Gladys Knight from BET’s “American Soul” episode 101. (Annette Brown/BET)

Tessa is home ranting and raving about Don, his management style, and his belittling of her talents. Her husband, Patrick Lorraine (Phillip Mullings Jr.), is supportive of anything she wants to do. 

Don is partying with the Pips at the nightclub following his meeting with Gladys. Delores walks in just as one of the party girls kisses him. 

Rut roh.

Delores leaves without being seen or saying anything to Don. Unfortunately, she leaves before she can see Don push the party girl away.

“As much as I’d like to, I’m good.”

Commercials.

There’s a split scene duet happening between JT and Simone. JT is at work, on a break playing his guitar and Ma Mable overhears him. She implores him to not waste his talent bussing tables, but also, for him to get back to bussing tables. You know, tough love.

Still of Christopher Jefferson as Jeffrey “JT” Tucker from BET’s “American Soul” episode 101. (Photo: Jace Downs/BET)

JT’s Apartment. The landlord, Mr. Willard (Keith Arthur Bolden) is pounding on JT’s door looking for rent because the check bounced. Through the door, we can hear JT’s baby sister screaming from the crib. JT puts off the landlord promising the money soon. Inside, he finds his mother passed out on the floor, a tourniquet around her arm and a needle next to her prone body. Lovely example of motherhood, but seriously I worry for the baby sister. She’s like a year and a half old and JT’s too young to be responsible for her if something happens to Momma. 

Joseph Clarke (Joseph Lee Anderson) calls home to talk to his family. Momma Clarke, Brianne (Kelly Price), is being pestered to come to Simone’s show. Daddy says Momma should go to Simone’s show because he went to all of Brianne’s shows back in the day. I wanna hear Brianne sing now, cuz her kiddies have some pipes. I really like the dynamic in this family so far. You can tell they have a lot of affection and support for each other. 

Still of Kelly Price as Brianne Clarke and Katlyn Nichol as Simone Clarke from BET’s “American Soul” episode 101. (Annette Brown/BET)

Don comes home to Delores. He’s excited as he tells her he booked Gladys Knight and the Pips. He gives her Amtrak tickets so she can come out to see the show in LA. She’s furious that he dipped into their emergency savings, especially after they explicitly said he wouldn’t. She refuses to uproot her and her kids’ lives to LA but understands he needs to go. Delores wants Don to come home every week to keep him straight and their family together. He’s upset she doesn’t trust him, but they’re willing to try to realize his dream. The desperation he shows is raw; he wants to finally be a success. Delores sees the corruption that LA will bring. 

The episode ends the same as it started with Don Cornelius finishing the episode of Soul Train with Gladys, tears streaming down his face, sitting on his couch. This time, we hear the gun fire, blowing his brains all over the back of his living room. 

End scene.

“Continuous Revolution in Progress” (Episode 102)

Don meets Brooks Donald (James Devoti), an ad man, in the Fall of 1971 at the Sanford & Son screening. Brooks is onboard for Soul Train. He knows that a syndication sponsor is looking to drop and will help out in mitigating that in order to show his loyalty. Somehow Brooks corrects himself from saying coloreds to Negro and that’s okay? I guess it’s the 1970s?

Tessa is planning to quit Soul Train; she’s had it. She goes to the office and types up her letter of resignation. She gets mad at Don when he berates her and flings it on his desk. He leaves without looking at it. 

Don and Gladys in Club 100 Proof. Gerald pops up with his pithy lines to add to the story line.

“But the pain of success hurts most often at the outset of one’s journey.”

Don is slapped with a cease and desist order from Gladys’ attorney, Ilsa Dejarnette (Shannon Kane), that no unapproved songs will be played on-air by Gladys Knight or they’ll block all their label’s acts from appearing on Soul Train. Gladys doesn’t seem pleased with Ilsa’s presence and interference by demanding to be present at the screening.

Still of Jason Dirden as Gerald Aims and Kelly Rowland as Gladys Knight from BET’s “American Soul” episode 102. (Photo: Daniel McFadden/BET)

Commercials

JT at the diner runs into an old acquaintance, Reggie (Simeon Daise). Reggie bums a ride off him. JT drops off Reggie, who gives JT a load of money for gas money as a way to entice for what he can really offer JT. Reggie tells him there is a “Continuous Revolution in Progress,” which  sounds an awful lot like CRIP to me. JT is cash-strapped with his mother’s rent checks bouncing (heroin is expensive), so this seems like a kinda win-win. At least he seems conflicted about the criminality. 

There was a soldier shot in an earlier scene in heavy gunfire in Vietnam.  He wakes up in a bunk and meets Sgt. Clarke, who’s tour is ending that night. He tries to comfort the injured soldier. Sgt. Clarke is all packed and saying his farewells.

Kendall and Simone are at the Soul Train taping and JT is hung up at home because his Momma is shacking up with Mr. Willard, working off her rent money. Tessa’s impressed by Kendall and Simone’s moves and wants them front and center with new choreography for each week. 

Still from BET’s “American Soul” episode 102. (Annette Brown/BET)

Don heads to Tahoe with Brooks to meet with the exec, Leland Mills (Ron Clinton), planning to pull his syndication. Don sends in his Diahann Carroll and Marilyn Monroe celebrity look-alike ladies to persuade Leland and agrees to resume the meeting in an hour or 2. Let’s just say Leland won’t be dropping the show anytime soon. As Don and Brooks leave, Don tells Brooks the secret to his success.

“You know money and I know men. And knowing their weaknesses and desires is more valuable than gold. Let’s go get a drink. [laughs] We have time to kill.”

Commercials

Don opens up the syndication taping with a classic Don-ism.

“If the sight and sound of soul is your pleasure, then what’s your treasure?”

Still of Sinqua Walls as Don Cornelius from BET’s “American Soul” episode 102. (Photo: Jace Downs/BET)

Flo Davis (India McGee), one of the dancers, gives Simone some style tips in the dressing room right before airing. Flo aims to take Simone’s and Kendall’s top spot on the “Scramble Board,” which features the show’s best dancers. Honey Cone is performing “Want Ads.” (I’m LOVING the music in this show). Brooks brings the white advertisers to see the production and confirms they’re signing on; they see the potential. 

Gladys and the Pips take the stage and sing Friendship Train. Don is taking in the moment: things are finally falling into place. 

Still of Kelly Rowland as Gladys Knight from BET’s “American Soul” episode 102. (Photo: Jace Downs/BET)

Commercials

Post-production wrap, Tessa fishes the resignation letter off Don’s desk. She knows something magical just took place. Don complements her on the dancers and the production.

Still of Sinqua Walls as Don Cornelius and Iantha Richardson as Tessa Lorraine from BET’s “American Soul” episode 102. (Photo: Jace Downs/BET)

The Clarke homecoming party is underway. Kendall takes a moment to tell his mother that his draft notice came in. She’s not happy, but she’s confident her husband will handle it when he gets home. 

JT’s driving Reggie to a spot in the diamond district and he’s set up as the getaway driver. Reggie and his partner, Jamie, aka Latch (Tyrin Niles) break into a jewelry store. 

Don and Gladys are celebrating the show’s success. He asks her to sing for him the song she really wanted to sing. He’s perceptive enough to know that song choice was not her’s.

Still of Sinqua Walls as Don Cornelius from BET’s “American Soul” episode 102. (Photo: Daniel McFadden/BET)

Two patrol cops stop and approach JT sitting in the car, when they spot Reggie and his partner leaving the store. They trade gunfire. Reggie’s partner, Latch, is shot and one of the cops, Officer McMartin (Aaron Strand), is fatally wounded, gurgling blood on the street. He looks a lot like the second cop from Don’s earlier traffic stop. 

Commercials

Patrick Lorraine is awoken in the middle of the night by the phone ringing. He tells Tessa that an officer was shot and he’s been assigned the case. He’s a detective for the LAPD.

Gladys performs Midnight Train to Houston for Don. She took some artistic liberties to suit her style better. And we get a beautifully mesmerizing version of Midnight Train to Georgia. Don sheds the same tears we saw in the opening and finish to episode one when he was on his couch. 

Still of Kelly Rowland as Gladys Knight from BET’s “American Soul” episode 102. (Photo: Daniel McFadden/BET)

As the song continues,  JT races home from his getaway gone bad. Don calls home to Delores who is in bed crying and refuses to take his call. Definitely some trouble on the home front there. 

The home-coming party is underway when messengers from the Army bring a telegram to Mrs. Clarke that her husband was killed. It’s such a gut-wrenching scene. 

Still of Kelly Price as Brianne Clarke from BET’s “American Soul” episode 102. (Annette Brown/BET)

Don is leaving for the night and he’s on the Soul Train set as the lights are switched off. He soaks up the moment.  

And scene.

***

Thoughts. 

I was a kid in the 1980s and I remember Soul Train was on after Saturday morning cartoons ended on WPIX in NY. It was such an iconic, vibrant show. The hair, the clothes, all the colors, the dance moves and the music; it influenced pop culture in many ways with its reach. It was the first regularly scheduled show for black entertainment that reached a majority of American living rooms. As we dive into the origins of the story, we see that the intent of the show was in line with a lot of the contemporary movements around the black community. This is in the post-Civil Rights era and within the timeframe of the Black Power Movement, which emphasized a greater control over black institutions and culture. 

American Soul tells a great story and is providing a lot of content and character presentation in the small snippets, sometimes as short as a minute. The story telling backdrop does get a little disjointed at times; it’s hard to keep things straight in the beginning because you have to really pay attention, otherwise you’ll miss a quip or a moment of dialogue. I can push that aside and keep coming back for more. 

I gotta take a moment and heap some praise on Kelly Rowland. OMG. She TRANSFORMED into Gladys Knight. I found an article from October 2016 where Gladys Knight would have handed picked Kelly Rowland to play her if her biopic was ever to be made. Well, this may not be a biopic, but man, does Kelly play a perfect Gladys.

And because I’m me: The music. We heard songs from James Brown, Honey Cone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Tempatations, The Bagdads, and Isaac Hayes. The cover the production did of “Smiling Faces Sometimes” is just amazing. I hope there is a soundtrack released for the music produced for the show. The throwback songs, clothes and style are spot on. I’m a sucker for a good period piece, provided the details are right and so far American Soul delivers. 

I’ll be tuning in to see how Don’s double-sided coin of smooth and salty evolve to bring soul to American Soul. And as always in parting, we wish you Love, Peace and Soul. 

American Soul airs on BET on Tuesdays at 9 pm EST. Join me on Twitter as I live tweet the next episode, @SheilsMcGangsta, and you can bet your last money, it’s gonna be a stone gas, honey!

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