Soul Train: An important part of Black Music History

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Being that June is “Black Music Month” Quite Trill will be looking at the history of African American music all month.

Soul Train ( The beginning )

Soul Train was platform shoes, applejack caps, a living gallery of Afro hairdos and bell-bottoms….’It’s gonna be a stone gas, honey ‘– was the promise the deep-voiced Don Cornelius made when the Saturday morning television show debuted. 

The key ingredient for the success of Soul Train was that it’s very solidly based on black music. These were the best dance records made for our beginning period, our second decade, our third decade and any future decades. The best dance records made during those periods were black records. Made by black artists, black singers, black musicians. The best dance music was our folks. We just played the best dance records possible.

The origins of Soul Train can be traced to 1965 when WCIU-TV, an upstart UHF station in Chicago, began airing two youth-oriented dance programs: Kiddie-a-Go-Go and Red Hot and Blues. These programs, which featured a predominantly African-American group of in-studio dancers—would set the stage for what was to come to the station several years later. Don Cornelius, a news reader and backup disc jockey at Chicago radio station WVON (W Voice Of Negro) was hired by WCIU in 1967 as a news and sports reporter. Cornelius also was promoting and emceeing a touring series of concerts featuring local talent (sometimes called “record hops”) at Chicago-area high schools, calling his shows “The Soul Train”. WCIU-TV took notice of Cornelius’s outside work and in 1970, allowed him  to bring his road show to television.

After securing a sponsorship deal with the Chicago-based retailer Sears, Roebuck & Co., Soul Train premiered on WCIU-TV on August 17, 1970, as a live show airing weekday afternoons. Soul Train quickly became popular attracting a lot of children and teenagers off from school. The first episode of the program featured Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, and the Emotions as guests. Businessman George Johnson of the Johnson Products Company, helped Cornelius make Soul Train a national television program. It was syndicated in 1971 and moved its base of operation to the west coast, Los Angeles. It was difficult getting stations to sign up for the show. In addition to Chicago, stations in Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco were among the first to air Soul Train.

The best black artists wanted to be on the pulsating “Sooooooollllll Train! James Brown, the Godfather of soul came on making the show a crucial stop for established stars. Barry White followed, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Jermaine Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Spinners…even Elton John and David Bowie asked to be on the hottest and sexiest dance show on television.

What went on behind the scenes of the Saturday morning show that Cornelius considered a black American Bandstand was so hot, recording artists asked to be on the show so they could get close to the dancers. It was the hypersexual atmosphere of Los Angeles in the 1970s and ‘80s.

A number of dancers on the show were gay and Cornelius just accepted it. So black gay culture had a platform and Soul Train introduced gay culture to the masses.

Dancer Jody Watley told the author: ‘Soul Train had an obvious black male gay culture going on, and for that reason the show was also quite forward. Don allowed everyone to be themselves on camera’.

Soul Train ( The middle )

By the mid-1970s, Soul Train was a force to be reckoned with. Each week, the latest hits and coolest dances were served up in a slick package that had kids of all ages and races dancing around the TV-room floor. Cornelius was a stylish, cool figure as the host,  he became one of the most often-imitated icons in the entertainment community. Music groups of all colors and many genres hoped for an appearance on Soul Train because it was seen a ticket to r&b (and often pop) chart success. 

‘The impact of Soul Train on television was not unnoticed by Dick Clark, who dominated TV for teens with his lily-white American Bandstand which did not feature many black artists. Dick Clark tried to have Don Cornelius’ all-black Soul Train taken off the air–and replaced with his own knockoff, Soul Unlimited in 1973. Clark launched a special episode of his copycat show and despite it being amateurish, but with ‘Clark’s power in the record and television industry, including the backing of ABC, this rip-off could have proved fatal to Cornelius’s dream. Clark’s power move outraged black political leaders who along with the black community believed that having a black-owned show on television was not only cool, but an extension of the civil rights movement.

Led by Chicago’s Reverend Jesse Jackson, they contacted Clark and ABC executives to protest. ‘The idea that Clark, with whom blacks had always had an uneasy relationship, could kill Soul Train led to threats of an ABC boycott’, George writes.

Black leaders were joined by one of the most powerful men in the history of the black music business—and  also a consultant to ABC, Clarence Avant, who went ballistic when he learned about Clark’s power move.

Avant was invited by Clark to a meeting to discuss Soul Unlimited. ‘Clark wanted my okay’, Avant recalled. ‘He wanted me to endorse his idea. I freaked out. If you do this, there’s no Don Cornelius’, I told him. We had just gotten free enough to have something on TV. ‘I told Dick Clark no – I would not endorse his show’.

Avant received a threatening letter from William Morris Agency that represented Dick Clark Productions telling him to stay out of their business. But Avant was a powerful force behind the scene in the black music business in the early 1970s and would not be intimidated. Meanwhile Don Cornelius would never speak to Clark again and Soul Unlimited was dead in the water.

Soul Train ( Not big on hip hop )

Ironically Don Cornelius was not a big fan of hip hop, he did not see the connection between the early gritty soul and funk artist that he had on Soul Train in the early days and the rappers that he eventually had to put on the show. Kurtis Blow who was considered to be one of hip hops first big stars due to his charisma and charm recalled being sort of hurt by Cornelius comments on hip hop following his performance on Soul train. 

 

Actress/dancer/choreographer Rosie Perez grabbed the spotlight on Soul Train at age 19 when she came out to LA from Brooklyn. Rosie was viewed as being aggressive and sexy, ‘like a machine gun.’ Other dancers were intimidated at first and weren’t initially kind.

‘Don Cornelius did not want to see how I really danced’, said Perez. ‘I was doing hip-hop, and it was foreign to people out in California. They only knew about popping and locking, so they were not keen on hip-hop dancing.

‘Then I had to dance in high heels, and I never danced in high heels before, and I had this little tiny short dress, and it’s riding up my ass and I’m like, Oh my God. I couldn’t move.

 

Soul Train ( The end )

In the early 1980s, Don Cornelius was diagnosed with a congenital malformation of the blood vessels in his brain, a life-threatening condition. He underwent a twenty-one hour operation in November, 1982. He was back at work six months later. In the 1990s, Don Cornelius stepped down as Soul Train host and passed the role to others. Guest hosts were used from 1993-97 (seasons 23 through 26). Mystro Clark became host in 1997. Following him, was Shemar Moore who hosted seasons 29 through 32. Dorian Gregory is the current Soul Train host. Cornelius remains active as an executive producer for the show, which shows no signs of slowing down. With r&b music more popular than ever in the mainstream, viewers everywhere continue to shake their groove thing to the churning wheels of the Soul Train.

Soul Train continued with new episodes through the 2005-06 season. The final, first-run episode aired on March 25, 2006. The 2006-07 season began with repeats from 2005-06. By 2006, Cornelius wanted out of the business and he called Avant. He knew the music scene had moved on.

Soul Train ( The legacy )

 The Soul Train Music Awards. This yearly awards gala has become one of the most popular and respected awards ceremonies for r&b musicians and now enjoys “institution” status in the music world. The success of this awards show has also led to other popular Soul Train spin-off specials like The Soul Train Lady Of Soul Annual Awards Special and The Soul Train Christmas Starfest. Today, Soul Train is remembered as the television show that did the most to bring African-American popular culture into American households.

 

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