All Aboard The Night Train!
Nashville's R&B Television
Following the success of its Black radio programs, Music City produced two extraordinary syndicated R&B TV shows, Night Train and The!!!!Beat. Both featured some of Nashville’s best R&B musicians backing some of the city’s finest singers and out-of-town stars such as Otis Redding and Percy Sledge. R&B singers such as Audrey Bryant and Bobby Hebb were Nashville television pioneers in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until Night Train hit the Saturday midnight slot in 1964 that a music series with an all-Black cast brought the dance beat to living-room screens.
Produced at WLAC-TV in Nashville, Night Train debuted in October 1964, five years before Chicago’s better-known Soul Train. Hosted by WVOL executive Noble Blackwell, Night Train boasted a house band led by musical director Bob Holmes and showcasing the fiery blues licks of guitarist Johnny Jones. Nashville talents such as Jimmy Church, the Spidells, the Hytones, and the Avons were regulars, and Jimi Hendrix appeared on Night Train while he was still just a backing guitarist.
"It was a period of the sixties, you had demonstrations going on in Nashville, but Night Train offered a good . . . entertainment vehicle. We had very good artists, and, of course, it highlighted the local artists who were very talented, and a lot of hard work went into it because we would practice at various community centers in Nashville. The Nashville Housing Authority allowed us to use the community centers where we would practice."- Night Train host Noble Blackwell
This syndication ad for Night Train (left) appeared in the April 4, 1968, issue of Broadcasting magazine. Courtesy of Act IV.
This mid-1960s poster (right) advertised a Tennessee Tech concert by Night Train artist the Spidells (misspelled on the poster), Jimmy Church, and the King Kasuals. The Spidells (Michael Young, Lee Roy Cunningham, James Earl Smith, Nathaniel Shelton, and lead vocalist Billy Lockridge) formed their group as students at Tennessee State University (Tennessee A&I). At various times, the King Kasuals included guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Jones and bassist Billy Cox. Courtesy of Billy Lockridge.
A little over a year after the launch of Night Train, the color TV extravaganza The!!!!Beat made its debut on nationally syndicated television. Hosted by WLAC radio’s Hoss Allen, the show had been conceived by the same business enterprise that backed country music’s The Porter Wagoner Show. Like Night Train, The!!!!Beat featured Nashville-based musicians, with the addition of guitarist-bandleader Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. However, the show was actually taped at WFAA-Dallas to take advantage of the Texas station’s then-rare color capabilities.