Chris Rizik: "Unsung" becomes the Soul Train generation's Must See TV

Saturdays in my house and the houses of millions of others in the 70s and 80s included two constants: chores in the morning and Soul Train on television in the afternoon.  Every week teens and pre-teens were glued to the iconic television show to see the artists, the dancing and the clothes. And, as exciting as watching on Saturday was, talking about the show on Monday morning may have been even more fun.

For most of us, it has been awhile since a music show elicited that same level of anticipation and group enthusiasm.  But here we are, on the heels of the fifth season of the excellent music biography series, Unsung, and one can't help but feel some of the same community excitement that Don Cornelius and company brought us a quarter century ago.

Saturdays in my house and the houses of millions of others in the 70s and 80s included two constants: chores in the morning and Soul Train on television in the afternoon.  Every week teens and pre-teens were glued to the iconic television show to see the artists, the dancing and the clothes. And, as exciting as watching on Saturday was, talking about the show on Monday morning may have been even more fun.

For most of us, it has been awhile since a music show elicited that same level of anticipation and group enthusiasm.  But here we are, on the heels of the fifth season of the excellent music biography series, Unsung, and one can't help but feel some of the same community excitement that Don Cornelius and company brought us a quarter century ago.

For the uninitiated, Unsung, the signature show on the fledgling TV One network, is a weekly one hour documentary series that combines music history, interviews, a little gossip and a lot of memorable songs. It is a simple yet surprisingly powerful package that has clearly resonated with those of us of a certain age.  The show's strong production values help, but what really makes Unsung compelling is that it appears to be completely authentic: a musical biography show made by music lovers for music lovers. And its premise -- that major media will always cover the megastars like Marvin and Michael, but there are also great stories about talented artists who never achieved superstardom -- fits right in with that aura of authenticity. USA Today may have long ago forgotten such once chart-topping acts as Atlantic Starr, Evelyn "Champagne" King and Zapp, but music fans haven't. And Unsung provides a sort of rough justice, giving these stars the kind of high profile feature that their accomplishments have merited but which otherwise wouldn't have happened. 

The effect that Unsung has had on adult music fans is palpable. For the first time in years, soul music fans are abuzz -- in person and on social media -- about a weekly television show. It begins with the anticipatory discussions on the weekend and climaxes in the 24 hours after the Monday night airing. And those fans are equally passionate about who hasn't yet been Unsung-ed, with lobbying all over the web by posters who feel their favorite underrated artist should be covered in the next batch of episodes.

There are certainly complainers, too, particularly those who feel that Unsung feeds on the common gripe that music "was better back in the day." But from where I sit, that complaint is misguided.  The fact is, Unsung has people talking about music, and that is a very good thing for artists new and old. Traffic on SoulTracks goes up substantially during weeks when a new Unsung episode airs, benefitting everyone we cover. Following Unsung, folks may be logging in to read about Bobby Womack or Gerald Levert, but while they're here they're also checking out talented young artists such as Michael Lynche or Nayanna Holley -- artists they may have never discovered otherwise. And I'm guessing music stores experience the same thing.

Back in the 80s, NBC labeled its Thursday night lineup as "Must See TV," but for soul music lovers that label hasn't applied for a long, long time...until Unsung.  So it is both surprising and absolutely exciting to see us as a community huddled around our sets on Monday nights to be entertained and moved by a weekly series.  And as in our teenage years, we're all talking about music on television again. 

By Chris Rizik

 

 
SoulTracks Choice Cut - Toni Redd - "Underneath My Skin"
Song of the Month - Stokley - "Level"
CD of the Month - Phil Perry - Breathless
Sneak Peek - Raul Midon - Bad Ass and Blind

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