On the March 3, 2001 taping of Soul Train, an unknown 19 year old singer from Harlem graced the stage, with her hair done in beautiful cornrows and a voice that belted out pure soul. Her name was Alicia Keys.
Keys only made one appearance on the Soul Train weekly series, but she made quite an impression on television viewers as well as the studio audience (including myself) present at this taping.
This was only Keys’ third appearance on television. Her first appearance was on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and her second was on BET’s 106 & Park, shortly before taping her appearance on Soul Train.
Host Shemar Moore said in his introduction, “Coming straight out of the Big Apple is a truly gifted lady who flies under the wings of the notorious Clive Davis and his J Records label. Please welcome as fine as she wants to be, Ms. Alicia Keys!”
Keys then performed her first single, the jazzy, seductive and melancholy “Fallin'” which has a feel similar to James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s World.” Sitting at the piano, Keys, along with her background singers, sang each vocal with soulful yearning as her cornrows seemed to flow back and forth each time she played the piano keys. With the onslaught of hip-hop taking full swing, “Fallin'” was a unique kind of song that had not been heard in quite a while. It was a throwback to a time of when soul music was at its best and this song fit right along in that category.
All of the dancers, particularly myself and the other male dancers, were mesmerized not only by Keys’ look, but her sound. She was visually and vocally something new and fresh that was sorely needed in the music world.
After receiving thunderous applause, Shemar Moore came on stage and welcomed Keys to the train with, as he stated, her “fine, sexy and talented self.”
Several of the other guys and I whistled and rooted at Keys during the interview, during which she told us, “I’m feeling all of you, too!”
Keys told Moore that she was classically trained on the piano, having studied for 12 years and attended the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan and majored in music theory, vocals and choir courses.
“You knew you were going to do this from being a young shorty?” Moore asked.
“Absolutely,” Keys replied. “Ever since I was four.”
Moore asked Keys where her influences came from and does it run in her family to which Keys answered, “I just have a love for the music. I feel like it was born in me.” She also cited some of her influences such as Mary J. Blige, Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Beethoven.
Moore noted that he and Keys are both bi-racial and asked if she felt that, because of that fact, she had to pick between sides. Keys responded, “It allowed me to embrace all sides and understand all people and have an understanding of everything.”
She later returned to perform another tune from her album Songs in A-Minor called “Girlfriend,” an uptempo dance number with a hip-hop feel. We Soul Train dancers really danced our butts off on this number.
Although she made only one appearance on Soul Train, she appeared on other Soul Train related specials, including the 7th annual Lady of Soul Awards performing her rendition of Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore,” and received the prestigious Sammy Davis, Jr. Award for Entertainer of the Year on the 16th annual Soul Train Music Awards. She even co-hosted the 18th annual Soul Train Music Awards.
After Keys’ one and only Soul Train appearance, her popularity went into orbit. She was on the cover of many magazines, appeared on all the other major TV shows and was the new “it” girl. Although cornrows were not a new hairstyle, Keys brought that look back and many girls began to cornrow their hair again as a result of her popularity.
Keys also went on to win six Grammys at the 2002 Grammy Awards ceremony.
Keys’ single “Fallin” dominated the charts, soaring to number one on the pop charts for six weeks and number one on the R&B charts for four weeks. It became the most played song in the United States at the time and was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America
Her album Songs in A-Minor debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 charts, selling over 236,000 copies in its first week. It sold over 6.2 million copies in the United States and twelve million copies worldwide. Rolling Stone magazine named Songs in A Minor the second best album of 2001, while ranking it number 95 on its list of the best albums of the 2000s decade. On June 28, 2011, the album was re-released as deluxe and collectors’ editions commemorating the 10th anniversary of the album, featuring previously unreleased material and a documentary
Keys went on to became one of the most celebrated artists in the new millennium and continues to be a driving force in the music industry.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music historian