DAVID CASSIDY & THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY MEET RICHARD PRYOR, LOUIS GOSSETT JR, and “THE BLACK PANTHERS” in “SOUL CLUB” (aired January 29, 1971)

Sure, The Partridge Family was a single-camera comedy with a laugh track, mostly aimed at kids, a barely plausible framework on which to hang some flimsy pop songs -- but it never shied away from a variety of social issues, including women's rights and racial justice. My favorite episode was "Soul Club", which first aired in January 1971. It featured one of the show's better songs, "Bandala", and a few other things that merit some additional context. 

"Soul Club” also featured RICHARD PRYOR and LOU GOSSETT (as he was credited)!! It was in fact a back-door pilot intended to kick off a series with the two of them that sadly never came to pass.

Gaze upon Richard and Lou, and think about ABC trying to launch a sitcom for them out of The Partridge Family. Yikes! I’m sorry we never got to see that, but I’m glad we got to see this.

The pair played brothers who had intended to book The Temptations into their inner city Detroit social club (the titular “Soul Club”), only to have the white, white, oh so white, Partridge Family roll up instead.  The Temptations concert had been the brothers’ last hope to save their club. They’d gotten in deep to a loan shark, and were counting on The Temptations to deliver a big payday.

It was immediately apparent that the Partridges weren’t going to be able to help them – ah, until they actually DID help. Heartwarming hilarity ensued as the Partridges played a street fair benefit show. 

Along the way to saving the day (which they did), Danny Partridge is made an honorary member of "The Afro-American Cultural Society,” a thinly-veiled and highly favorable representation of the Black Panthers

In fact, when you look this episode up yourself – and you should – many accounts report that the episode DID feature the Black Panthers. (For a start, try Googling Partridge Family Black Panthers.”)

(Danny Partridge welcomed into “The Afro-American Cultural Society” as Richard Pryor and Louis Gossett Jr look on.)

Even without the actual Black Panthers, a number of scholarly sources have nevertheless cited the “Soul Club” episode as a pivotal moment in American cultural history. That part is absolutely true. This was among the first wholly positive depictions of militant black pride in mainstream media, maybe even the first, and it was A Big Deal. 

After all, these were days when J. Edgar Hoover denounced the Black Panther Free Breakfast Program as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States of America” – not the Black Panthers in general, but free breakfast in particular. 

The Partridge Family, instead, literally normalized the idea of people of color being PEOPLE – parents, kids, volunteer firefighters, musicians – who were politically engaged in improving their communities, a much different picture than the prevailing stereotype of communities of color as bomb-throwers bent on race war.

I didn’t need the perspective of history to tell me that this was a big deal. Watching on that Friday night in 1971, I could FEEL that it was a big deal. 

Don’t forget that Soul Train was still 9 months away from national syndication, and there were few shows on TV at the time featuring any characters of color. There were two black leads on Room 222 airing the same night as The Partridge Family, plus Flip Wilson’s variety show, and on a weekly basis, that was about it for people of color making regularly scheduled appearances on prime time American television in 1971.

As a result, this may have been the largest collection of black people that most of white America had ever seen in one place, and they were dancing. And trying to improve their community, and otherwise, going about their day’s business. Maybe we didn’t need the FBI crawling all over these communities like we’d been told. Maybe, thought white Americans like me, just maybe, it was enough to support them where we could, and otherwise just let them be, because they’re just trying to make a better life for themselves, same as me. Their advancement is certainly not at my expense.This was a radical, radical concept at the time. Kinda still is. Again.

And how’s this for radical? A Black family and a white family sharing a meal. Look, I was living in the South when this aired, and yeah, I do want to emphasize the thing that lots of southerners do, that your image of how racism works in practice there probably needs refinement, but I definitely remembered being shocked when we moved there in the mid-60s and seeing “Whites Only” signs on not just water fountains and restaurants, but public swimming pools, doctors offices, and all kinds of other places.

The signs were gone by 1971, but the side-by-side drinking fountains and other very visible vestiges of the seriously segregated 60s were still standing. There were LOTS of segments of public life that, in practice, were very much segregated. Black and white families eating elbow to elbow at the same table was something that much of America had never seen, much less experienced. And maybe still haven’t experienced.

None of which would matter in the context of a show about a singing musical family if there wasn’t a great song somewhere in there. 

And there is: “Bandala,” one of the best in the show’s entire run.  Kind of a kick – members of the Afro-American Cultural Society are shown serving as the song’s string and horn sections! This might have been the only time in the show’s run that it acknowledged that the plethora of sounds that we’re hearing couldn’t possibly have been coming only from the Partridges themselves. 

(Music nerd note: the actual sounds of The Partridge Family’s instruments provided courtesy of The Wrecking Crew! Most often in the form of Hal Blaine on drums, Joe Osborn on bass, and Larry Knechtel on keyboards, including the glorious harpsichord on the Partridges’ ur-hits “I Think I Love You” and “C’mon Get Happy”.) Wait for Pryor and Gossett to show up around the 2-minute mark in this clip, “giving five” to each other in a variety of creative ways, some involving hip bumps. Yes indeed, friends. Hip bumps.

There are obviously far more than the usual number of nits to pick with an episode like this, but that’s for another time. (Or for your replies. Feel free. It is problematic, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also a cultural watershed of its era.) 

In the meantime, I hope you can enjoy the clip above for what it is, a terrific David Cassidy vocal on a nifty pop tune, with some endearing moments in the episode as a whole, featuring a colossal missed opportunity for Pryor & Gossett, but its very ambitious heart in the right place.