onnie Simpson admits that he hesitated to host Video Soul before it debuted 42 years ago on BET.
“I’ve always been very cautious of the things that I get involved in because all I have to sell is image,” Simpson tells Rated R&B over a video call. “I’m very protective of that image and feel you can only get involved in top-shelf things. BET, in its infancy, wasn’t a pretty baby.”
BET, founded by Robert L. Johnson and his wife, Sheila Johnson, was less than a year old at the time.
Simpson didn’t consider joining BET as a step up. He had worked with NBC as an on-air talent and program director for WKYS-FM (then WRC-FM) in Washington, D.C. He also worked as a backup weekend sports anchor for WRC-TV.
Moreover, Simpson didn’t want to take on the role of Video Soul host because he noticed that record labels were not investing as much in music videos for Black artists to be featured on MTV as they were for white artists.
After thinking it over for two days, he ultimately changed his mind. “[It] came down to this: This our first Black television network. If you have something to offer, you have to do it. No question. Decision made. I’m so glad I did this. I really am. It’s been a phenomenal ride.”
On June 26, 1981, Video Soul premiered on BET and its host, Simpson, quickly became a fan favorite with his friendly and approachable nature, coupled with a contagious smile. Over the years, guests have included some of the hottest and most well-known musicians, such as Tina Turner, Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, and Usher, among many others.
Video Soul, like all good things, ended in 1996 but paved the way for many similar shows to come. Now, after more than 25 years and a 2021 reboot, Simpson has revived the popular show through a new production banner: his own.
Donnie Simpson’s Video Soul is the first television production under his production company, Donnie Simpson Productions. Simpson went through a two-year legal process to trademark Video Soul after BET had discontinued it.
His business partner Amy Hunter proposed bringing the show to BET+ and was happily accepted by the streaming platform. “They were very excited about it, the thought of me coming home. I was excited to come home. It’s been a long time,” Simpson, a.k.a. Dr. Green Eyes, says with a smile.
If you’re a fan of the original show, the new version will take you on a nostalgic journey. For Simpson, this is a chance to invest in his business ventures and help others looking to succeed in the television industry.
“The whole entrepreneurship thing means so much to me and that’s what this represents for me,” Simpson affirms. “All my career, I’ve been a hired smile, which is great. I’ve done well. When people would show up at my house and the truck says Smith and Son’s Plumbers since 1956. I was always jealous because I felt like, ‘Mr. Smith had something he could pass down to his kids and their kids. I can’t pass down popularity.’ This was about trying to create something that I could pass down to my kids. And not just that, but also as a way of creating opportunities for others.”
Simpson has a radio mentor to thank for feeding his desire to pay it forward.
“Once I became interested in radio, Ken Bell, a popular DJ in Detroit, would let me come into the station every night and record on their equipment. I remember one night I was back there and I said, ‘Wow, what’s this button?’ I pushed the button and I was on the air (laughs). He didn’t get upset about it. He was just cool about it. This guy took this inconvenience that I was and created this career. That’s where it started, right there from that exposure. So I’ve never forgotten that and never will deny anybody an opportunity.”
With the first season of Donnie Simpson’s Video Soul streaming now on BET+, Rated R&B spoke with Donnie Simpson about how he came up with this concept, memories about the original run, the absence of music video-based shows and more.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How would you describe the differences between the reboot of Video Soul and the original show?
I don’t think we could sit here and do two hours of music videos like we used to, even though that was really cool. It was perfect for the time, and we loved doing it. But this time, it’s different. We may have a guest on and show a snippet of one of the videos. It’s about the interview this time. It’s about getting reacquainted with some of the people I’ve known through the years [and] saying hello and meeting new people. That’s always been, what I thought was, a very important element to Video Soul, that it was cross-generational. You got a chance to see the established artists from Aretha Franklin to James Brown but also a 12-year-old Tevin Campbell or New Edition. So that is still important to me: to create that platform for new people to launch their careers. That’s always been a staple of Video Soul, and it will continue to be.
Out of all the interviews conducted during the original run of Video Soul, which one do you consider to be the most memorable?
Whenever James Brown was on, it was always special because I grew up idolizing James. To me, James was my king. I honestly didn’t think that there was anyone in the world more important than James Brown and for good reason. James had that whole Black pride thing. When I heard “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” at 14 years old, it was life-altering. When James would come through, I would always tell James: “Man, you’re my king. I’m your soldier. There ain’t nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” And I meant that.
Same thing with the Queen, Aretha Franklin. To grow up to become friends, it’s just like, “How did that happen?” One of the magical moments on Video Soul that people often watch and will mention to me is when we did a two-hour special from her house, and she started singing Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You.” I just started crying, man. I just lost it. It was so much in that moment for me. This was the greatest voice I ever heard in my life, singing in my ear one-on-one. I’m sitting on her throne in her house, and I don’t understand how I got here. Video Soul afforded me that man to get to know my king and queen and become friends. So that’s pretty special.
Have you considered any potential guests for a potential second season?
There’s so many people: my boy Frankie Beverly, Smokey [Robinson]. I would love to talk to Lizzo. I just love Lizzo. She’s from Detroit, which is my home. I don’t know that I’ve seen anyone enjoy their life more than Lizzo. She loves being who she is. I admire her soul for that. H.E.R. [and] Kendrick Lamar. [He’s] a bad boy, man. Would love to sit down and kick it with him. Billie Eilish — I love Billie. Of course, Ronald Isley. I wasn’t able to get him on for the first season.
Is pitching shows to BET under your production banner, Donnie Simpson Productions, something you’ve considered now that you have renewed your relationship with them?
I certainly hope so. Obviously, it’s a relationship with deep roots. This is home for me. Hopefully, these other productions that we have planned will be with them, but we’ll see. Business is business and you never know how it will go. Neither of us could commit to that at this point, I’m sure. But it’s something that we will definitely talk about.
Since the recent announcement of Video Soul, many fans have requested that BET+ now add the legacy episodes of Video Soul to their platform. Has this been discussed?
I had a brief discussion with them, and it was only to this extent. Because of this relationship now, will I have access to all of these old Video Soul shows? And the answer was yes. That doesn’t mean that that’s a decision to bring it back. I was thinking in terms of being able to show old clips when I have guests on. If you can go back and show Boyz II Men’s first visit to Video Soul and then here they are today, that’s kind of cool. But I don’t know. That’s a conversation worth having. It would be awesome to see them run again and to see it with the relative quality that they were. It certainly won’t compare to today’s quality of production of television, but it certainly would be better than what’s available to you on YouTube.
Video Soul is a classic video-based show on BET that inspired the creation of several others, both during and after its run. Is there any particular show among them that you would like to see make a comeback?
106 & Park would be number one. Rap City was still on at the same time as I was with Video Soul. With this being the 50th anniversary of rap, that would be kinda cool to see them do something with that.
Do you have any opinions about the absence of video music countdown shows?
I hadn’t really thought about it much, but I think that there could be a place for that. Pretty much now, if you wanna watch a video, I guess you could Google it and watch it yourself. The same thing could be said of music. Any music I want to hear is available on my phone, but it’s also how it’s presented. That’s the thing that makes a difference. In terms of radio, for me, that was one thing I was made to understand from the very beginning at age 15. We all get the same records as DJs, but it’s about who presents it, how you present it and that makes a difference. Maybe that same kind of philosophy is applicable to this. While people can Google a video and play it, maybe it would be cool to see it within a format like a Video Soul — something updated — but where you do have a host presenting this and talk about it and [having] the artist on talking about the video, or not just the video, but what they do. We didn’t just talk about the video, obviously. We talked about their lives. It was a chance to get to know you. So it’s really not a bad idea.
Why should viewers tune into the revival of Video Soul?
If you like the first one, we’re doing it again. It’s not just a nostalgic trip. It’s gonna be introducing you to new artists that you’ve never seen before or may have heard about and are curious about. It’s a mixture of the old and new and everything in between. If you like music, then you should check it out. That was the thing with the original Video Soul. It was about music, and then when you look at it, it wasn’t just soul music. Well, that word is tricky. When you say soul, people take it as meaning Black, and it’s not. Listen to Charles Stapleton, this country and western singer, [and] tell me that dude ain’t got soul. With Video Soul, we had Phil Collins on, David Bowie. Tina Turner, she’s the queen of rock ‘n’ roll. We’d have all kind of people come through the show. It wasn’t just soul. It was all kinds of stuff. And I intend to continue that with this iteration of Donnie Simpson’s Video Soul. It’s for music lovers, man. If you love music, then you wanna check it out.
What’s next for you?
That’s a great question —one that I’m not sure I’m ready to answer. Well, I’ll answer it this way. As I told you earlier, my company is called Donnie Simpson Productions, and Video Soul is the first of our productions. I had a great mentor. As I told you earlier, this is something new for me. I’ve always been a hired smile, but I wanted to try to learn the business. The person who’s been so instrumental in helping me get there was Bob Johnson. How blessed am I to have the world’s first Black billionaire as my mentor? Bob’s advice was: “First, get you back up; need your face to lead this. You come back. You’re going to bring Video Soul. Do that, and then you can branch out into other things.”
So we do have some other show ideas that we intend to present. In all honesty, as excited as I am right now about the launch of Donnie Simpson’s Video Soul when I get a project up and I’m not the face of it, I can’t tell you how happy that’s gonna make me because then that’s creating a way for someone else. When I can create something for someone else to express themselves creatively, then that’s gonna be magical to me because ‘US’ is always bigger than ‘ME’ always. And that’s what I look forward to.
Donnie Simpson’s Video Soul is streaming now on BET+.