Vanishing Point: Cleavon Little as Super Soul
Cleavon Little as Super Soul, blind radio DJ
Nevada Desert, Summer 1971
Film: Vanishing Point
Release Date: March 13, 1971
Director: Richard C. Sarafian
Wardrobe Master: Ed Wynigear
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Before he blazed into Rock Ridge as the controversial new sheriff, Cleavon Little was already shaking up the desert as Super Soul, the almost mystic blind radio DJ who guides our laconic hero in in his white Dodge Challenger through the blue highways of the west in Vanishing Point, released 50 years ago today on March 13, 1971.
The Oklahoma-born Little was already a stage star at the time he walked Super Soul’s dog to the KOW radio booth in Goldfield, Nevada, having won a Tony Award in Ossie Davis’ Purlie just one year after making his Broadway debut. Vanishing Point was only his third credited screen role, his charismatic energy a contrast to Barry Newman’s taciturn Kowalski, whom Super Soul dubs “the last American hero.”
What’d He Wear?
Super Soul protects his eyes with a pair of black wraparound sunglasses, a style popularized in the early ’70s by models like the Ray-Ban Balorama that Clint Eastwood famously wore the same year in Dirty Harry. Super Soul abandons these shades partway through his Kowalski-themed broadcasts, now relying solely on his mystical sense of second sight as he guides Kowalski through the desert.
He also wears a kufi-style skullcap, open-woven in brown, tan, and beige. The traditional kufi originated in West Africa, and can be “a sign of peace, mourning, renewal or protection of the mind,” according to Wikipedia. Kufis are made in a variety of colors and styles, with the open weave of Super Soul’s cap providing additional ventilation in the extreme heat of the Mojave Desert.
Super Soul puts his whole body into disc jockeying, moving with the tunes he turns even as he goes from spinning music to guiding muscle cars. Such hard work calls for a rugged shirt, made from classic chambray, the denim-like cotton cloth whose dense weave but light-wearing properties make it a popular shirting for warm-weather work shirts.
Blue is the most traditional and typical color for chambray shirts, with Super Soul’s shirt no exception with its blue warp and white weft creating an overall sky-blue effect. Apropos the Western setting, Super Soul’s “cowboy shirt” has pearl snaps up the front placket, two double-snap “sawtooth”-flapped chest pockets, and pointed chest yokes. The cuffs presumably also have a two- or three-snap closure, though Super Soul wears them undone with the sleeves rolled up his forearms.
Super Soul’s light brown straight-leg trousers are made from a coarse cloth, likely cotton or a cotton-linen blend that would wear cooler in the desert heat than wool. The front pockets are shaped on a curved slant from under the belt line out to the side seams, and the back pockets are jetted with a button to close through the left pocket. The bottoms are plain-hemmed with a short break that doesn’t interfere with his tan leather open-toed sandals that appear to be worn with black socks. He holds up his chinos with a brown edge-stitched leather belt fitted through the tall loops and fastened through a thick silver-toned single-prong buckle.
Super Soul wears a wide, ornate silver ring on the third finger of his left hand, traditionally the finger for wedding rings. On his left wrist, he wears a gold watch with a round gold dial on a light brown “Bund” strap, the wide leather cuff developed by the German air force (Bundesrepublik) to protect pilots’ skin from how the watch metal would be impacted by extreme temperatures in flight.
Though their costumes differ in almost every other sense, both Kowalski and Super Soul wear their watches on Bund bracelets. This could be a mere coincidence, as Bund straps were arguably most popular during the early ’70s, but it could also signal how Kowalski and Super Soul are united in time, explaining their almost supernatural connection.
Super Soul’s unrelenting support of the anti-establishment Kowalski encourages a gang of bigoted locals—led by the discomfited deputy Charlie (Paul Koslo)—to storm the station, attacking Super Soul and his engineer (John Amos, making his uncredited screen debut) and briefly commandeering the KOW controls.
The next day, Super Soul defiantly returns to work for the first time on a Sunday morning, no longer wearing the skull cap and dressed in a voluminous black shirt with wide sleeves, side vents, and hip pockets like a barber’s smock, worn untucked over the same khaki-hued trousers and tan sandals that he wore the day before. This pullover shirt has a V-neck draped on each side by a long-pointed, curved collar, echoing the shirts made popular by “King of Calypso” Harry Belafonte decades earlier.
What to Listen to
Kowalski and Super Soul never directly or physically communicate in Vanishing Point as the disc jockey instead speaks to the driver through music, the tracks he’s spinning at KOW correlating to the mood inside Kowalski’s Challenger as it powers west.
Super Soul kicks off his Saturday broadcast with the energetic and brassy “The Girl Done Got It Together” by Bobby Doyle, appropriately the most pop-friendly of the Vanishing Point soundtrack as it plays when Kowalski’s stakes are at the lowest, though the opening lyric—”I just got the feeling like my life was due”—foreshadows how Kowalski’s expedition will end. The lyrics also underline the exposition as we eventually learn that Kowalski’s fatalism may be motivated by his mourning the loss of a woman who “turned [him] inside out with the love you just can’t hardly find.”
By the end of the song, Kowalski has attracted the attention of the Colorado Highway Patrol and his refusal to stop forces him to ask himself “Where Do We Go From Here?”, echoing the rocking Jimmy Walker track that Super Soul selects next, even before he’s apprised of Kowalski’s situation. (Super Soul attributes this track, “the first really monstrous hit of the ’70s,” to a fictional musician named Brian Obine?)
Jerry Reed’s pulsating “Welcome to Nevada” welcomes Kowalski into, well, Nevada. Not subtly titled, the brief but memorable instrumental track was recorded specifically for Vanishing Point by the Georgia-born picker who was famous at the time for songs like “Amos Moses” and “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” and who would eventually star alongside Burt Reynolds in the Smokey and the Bandit series. Reed’s track plays as Super Soul learns of the mysterious Mopar driver tearing up the desert, leading to more on-the-nose tracks like Eva’s “So Tired” that directly correlates to Kowalski’s exhaustion as he works his way through the Mojave Desert.
The next morning, Super Soul arrives back at the station following his attack and greets Sunday morning with “Sing Out for Jesus” by Big Mama Thornton, the R&B pioneer who originally recorded songs like “Hound Dog” and “Ball ‘n Chain” that later became hits for Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin, respectively. He maintains the boisterous energy with “Over Me” by Bob Segarini and Randy Bishop, though this brass-infused anthem becomes Kowalski’s swan song when his Challenger meets a blazing end in the blades of two bulldozers arranged to stop him in the unincorporated hamlet of Cisco, California (in fact filmed in Cisco, Utah.) Super Soul should have realized nothing good comes out of playing Segarini and Bishop, as it was while he was playing their more somber “Dear Jesus God” the previous day that he was attacked in his station.
Once Kowalski cashes in on the life due, the soundtrack closes with the funereal but catchy “Nobody Knows”, an early recording by Kim Carnes who would later be famous for her global hit “Bette Davis Eyes”.
How to Get the Look
Unapologetically individual, Super Soul dresses to broadcast over the airwaves of the far West in a snap-front shirt like those often associated with the frontier, appointing the look with kufi, sunglasses, Bund-strapped watch, and one of the few times you’ll likely see socks and sandals worn together on this blog.
- Sky-blue chambray cotton Western-yoked work shirt with narrow spread collar, snap-up front placket, double-snap “sawtooth”-flap chest pockets, and snap cuffs
- Khaki cotton chino flat front trousers with tall belt loops, jeans-style front pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Brown edge-stitched leather belt with silver-toned single-prong buckle
- Tan leather sandals
- Black socks
- Tan, beige, and brown open-woven kufi-style skullcap
- Black wraparound sunglasses
- Wide engraved silver ring
- Gold wristwatch with round gold dial on brown leather “Bund” strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, and track down the Super Soul-approved soundtrack.
The blind leading the blind…
A GREAT movie from back then.
Did you touch on any possible symbolism of a blind man wearing a wristwatch? It could lend support to your theory about the two characters being connected by time, since he has no real use of a strictly visual information device.