Music Sermon: 'Soul Train' and the Audacity of Blackness
In advance of the premiere of BET's series American Soul, VIBE revisits how Soul Train became a symbol of black flair, style, entertainment, and culture in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
In 1971, a funky, little-animated train got rolling for “sixty nonstop minutes through the tracks of your mind into a world of soul,” and black America lined up to get on board. More than just a music entertainment show, Soul Train was the first national television show conceived and created completely for us, by us, and it struck such a chord that it became the longest-running nationally syndicated program in TV history. Cornelius welcomed viewers to the first episode promising, “If the sight and sound of soul is your pleasure and what you treasure, you can bet your bottom, we got ‘em.” Soul Train delivered on that promise for 35 years, until 2006. Now, Jesse Collins Entertainment and BET are highlighting Don Cornelius’ challenges, successes, and failures as the visionary creator, owner, producer, and host of the culture-shifting show with the series American Soul, premiering Tuesday night.
In the immediate years following the civil rights movement, there was little to no representation of black youth culture in media. White teens, on the other hand, were drivers for music, fashion, print, and TV. Cornelius had “a burning desire to see black people presented on TV in a positive light,” and conceived of Soul Train as a black spin on Dick Clark’s teenage-centric music and dance show, American Bandstand. An activist himself, Cornelius knew the platform needed to serve a greater end than just entertainment – it needed to uplift, and to combat mainstream media’s narrative of black existence, which in the late '60s painted black youth especially junkies, criminals, and degenerates. Cornelius made Soul Train remarkable with details that elevated it from a showcase for black music to a showcase of black culture and excellence: the black staff and crew; the dancers sporting naturals and bell bottoms or dashikis and braids; the black advertising sponsors; the Scramble Board game which highlighted notable and historical black figures. It was the first black-owned and controlled entertainment on national television, the first time advertisers looked at black consumers as a target demo worth spending to reach.
In short, Soul Train was intentionally black AF. It gained a wider audience with its success, but that was never the goal; it was black for the glory of blackness. “We’re not trying to do a gerrymandered black show that appeals to white people or competes with the so-called general market efforts,” Cornelius explained to the LA Times a decade into the show’s run. “We’ve had to make a decision about what we want to be in character, in style. And we want to be a show about black music.”
Soul Train is now symbolic of black flair, style, entertainment, and culture, especially for the ‘70s and ‘80s. Over the years, Cornelius’ passion spawned a record label, the first black entertainment awards show, several acting, and singing careers, and black America’s favorite family dance tradition. Let’s take a look at the show’s wide-reaching legacy.
THE THEME SONG
For the first couple of years, Soul Train used blues and soul artist King Curtis’ “Hot Potato” as the intro, mainly serving as a bed for Cornelius’ mellifluous voiceover. Then, Cornelius reached out to the soul producers - Lenny Gamble and Leon Huff, architects of the Philadelphia soul sound - to create something original. Gamble, Huff and the band MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother) came up with Soul Train's theme groove during a jam session, and Cornelius loved it. The group Three Degrees added vocals, putting out the call for “people all over the world” to get down. In the version used on Soul Train, the ladies also sing the title, but Don was adamant the show not be referenced in the commercial single. Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International had a distribution deal with Columbia Records, and Cornelius worried that a single titled “Soul Train” jeopardized his ownership of the name. He later called the decision the “dumbest move (he) ever made.” The single was released as “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” 1974 and hit the top of the R&B, Adult Contemporary, and Hot 100 charts. It was the first TV theme song – and arguably the first disco song – to do so. The theme was adapted and changed a couple of times as the sonic landscape evolved, but the show returned to the original version in its final years. “TSOP” also stands on its own as a trademark for the early disco sound and the Philly Soul sound.
Before the show had the pull to land big-name acts, the young, fly, sometimes outrageous dancers - eventually known as the Soul Train Gang - carried the program. They were the true stars of the show, and in time, breakout talent was identified and featured prominently, like Soul Train legends Damita Jo Freeman, Shabba Doo (later of Breakin’ fame), Tyrone Proctor and Cheryl Song (known to viewers for 14 years as “the Asian girl with the long hair”). The Soul Train Gang also launched careers beyond dance, including the hardest dancer in the entire world, Rosie Perez; pop star Jody Watley; and pop-locker extraordinaire Fred Berry, better known as Rerun (who Cornelius once called “the best big man in the business”).
Kids and teens watched on Saturday morning to study the moves (and the fashions), then broke them out on the block or at house parties on Saturday night. Dance is Soul Train’s most enduring trademark; give someone direction today to get it in like a Soul Train dancer, and they’ll either serve you all kinds of pops, locks, pumps, and kicks with energy and precision, or give you dramatic dance interpretation to an R&B groove. We all know that Soul Train = dance performance. Ain’t no two steps. The show introduced and spread dance crazes like popping and waacking into living rooms across the country, and the foundations are still evident today in regional dances like juking.
Soul Train’s move to national television came around the same time as the founding of two of foremost black advertising agencies in the country, Burrell McCain (now Burrell Communications) and UniWorld (now Uniworld Group). Before Soul Train, print media was the only medium to directly target black consumers; the show presented an opportunity to get real reach through television. For the first time, companies were developing creative campaigns just for the black demographic. Sears and black-owned hair care company Johnson Products were the two primary sponsors when the show launched, and Johnson’s spectacular Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen ads, created by Burrell, remain as iconic representations of the black pride and black is beautiful movements of the 70s. Just think; if not for Soul Train, we’d never have seen Frederick Douglas tell somebody to tighten their fro up before class. #BlackHistory
THE RECORD LABEL
In 1975, Cornelius and Soul Train talent coordinator Dick Griffey founded Soul Train Records as an offshoot of the show. The label’s initial roster included talent from the show, including Shalamar, a group made up of dancers Jody Watley, Jeffrey Daniels and Gerald Brown (replaced by Howard Hewett in 1979). Splitting focus between the label and the show was too much for Cornelius, who was still involved in every detail of Soul Train including hosting, and he left the label in 1977. Griffey changed the name to SOLAR (Sound of Los Angeles Records). The dominant black-owned record labels were going through a tough transition as majors started opening black music divisions. Stax closed in 1977, Motown had lost a significant number of marquee acts and was figuring out the next direction, and Philadelphia International’s peak was waning with the end of the disco era. This left SOLAR room to thrive. In addition to Shalamar, the label was home to The Whispers, Klymaxx, The Deele, Midnight Star, and Lakeside. With noted producer Leon Sylvers (of the Jacksons-esque Sylvers family) and a gang of talent in their roster of musicians, SOLAR became the home of the post-disco boogie music sound.
Shalamar, "A Night To Remember"
The Whispers, "Rock Steady"
Klymaxx, "Meeting In The Ladies Room"
Griffey and Cornelius shared the mission of expanding black empowerment on the business side of the music industry, and Griffey encouraged artists and producers towards ownership of their product. SOLAR’s offices included in-house studios and rehearsal space, and Griffey shared the resources openly, providing studio space to LA Reid and Babyface (who bought the building for LaFace records when Solar folded), Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Dr. Dre and Suge Knight as they were getting Death Row off the ground. In fact, The Chronic was recorded in SOLAR’s studios, and the Deep Cover soundtrack, which introduced the world to Snoop Dogg, was released through the label.
THE AWARDS SHOW
Cornelius’ vision continued to grow, and he launched The Soul Train Music Awards in 1987 as the first awards show devoted specifically to black entertainment. As with Soul Train, Cornelius wanted to create something that didn’t exist; a platform to celebrate black creative excellence. “We (black people) tend to get ignored as a group of creative people,” he told the Chicago Tribune before the inaugural awards broadcast. “Black music is too big and too powerful to not have its own awards show. It’s overdue.” Black music was indeed fighting for proper recognition at the major awards shows, even in black music categories (George Michael scandalously won best R&B/Soul Male at the 1989 American Music Awards) and hip-hop wouldn’t be a Grammy category for two more years. Before the BET Awards existed – before BET was even a national network – The Soul Train Music Awards provided a place for our artists to shine.
Radio executives, music producers, and recording artists voted for awards in 12 categories, and winners were presented with a trophy modeled after a traditional African mask.
Dionne Warwick and Luther Vandross shared hosting duties for the first awards, and for years the event drew the biggest names in black music, entertainment, and even sports to the celebration. Frequent attendees included Janet Jackson, Anita Baker, Magic Johnson, Mike Tyson, Eddie Murphy, even Michael Jackson just months after pulling a no-show at the 1990 Grammys.
Hell, Whitney met Bobby at the Soul Train Music Awards!
The growth of the MTV Video Music Awards and BET Awards created challenges and a bit of an identity crisis for the Soul Train Music Awards (and the spin-off awards show, Lady of Soul, which aired the same weekend as the VMAs), but they’ve found their lane again. The Soul Train Music Awards are now branded for the old heads – or at least the old souls. They provide a destination for folks who don’t know who any of the “Lil’s” are, want to dance and sing along to songs they know, and only watch the BET Awards for the legend tributes and twitter commentary (like me).
THE SOUL TRAIN LINE
People who have never seen a single episode of Soul Train know the Soul Train line; it’s become bigger than its origin. There’s an unwritten rule that when a large collective of black people is gathered for celebration, some type of group line dance formation must happen. Sometimes it’s a slide or a hustle, sometimes it’s the Soul Train line - and when those two rows of people form, you know you gotta have your best moves together to come down the center. It has become a cultural institution, referenced in countless TV shows, movies, and videos.
Cornelius created the line to highlight the dancers, and as the dancers were the true stars of Soul Train, the line was the centerpiece of the show. The Soul Train Gang continuously upped the ante over the years with props, costumes, and tricks to maximize their moment.
Cornelius came down the Soul Train line only once in the history of the show, with former Supremes member Mary Wilson, shocking dancers and viewers alike because he was always so controlled and cool. Don dancing and laughing was the rarest treat.
Of course, the heart of Soul Train was the performances. In the first season, Cornelius hustled to book established talent, but by season two the show was a must-visit for any black artist, and eventually also for white artists with black audiences.
It was especially essential for those acts who didn’t have a mainstream draw and couldn’t easily get booked on shows like American Bandstand. Conversely, at a point in the ‘80s, large pop-leaning black artists like Prince, Michael Jackson (although he’d come to the awards) and solo Lionel Richie were discouraged from appearing on Soul Train because it was too black. The obsession with crossover appeal was a thorn for Cornelius. He vented his frustration in an interview around the show’s 20th anniversary. “Why is there the phenomenon of a black person doing something so well enough to be accepted by a mass audience having to belong to another culture?” In the show’s golden years, however, before booking wars between music programs and when there was no Arsenio or Apollo, the biggest stars of R&B, soul, and funk would regularly grace Soul Train’s stage.
Auntie Gladys and the Pips set the tone for the show with “The Friendship Train:”
This train stands for justice,
This train stands for freedom
This train stands for harmony and peace
This train stands for love
Come on get on the friendship train
Michael Jackson debuted his first signature move on the Soul Train.
Al Green was one of a handful of artists who Cornelius let perform live instead of to track, and he always had his run of the show. Even with one arm in a sling.
Berry Gordy and Rick James strategically decided not to use Teena Marie’s image on her single and album covers – they didn’t want the fact that she was white to distract from her voice. Her Soul Train performance was her big reveal.
Over the years, Cornelius was increasingly and visibly uncomfortable with hip hop acts on the show. No doubt the dominance of hip hop in popular music led to him finally stepping down as host in 1993. But in the earliest days, rap still felt like dance music. I can’t believe they let the whole seven-minute edit rock.
For almost 20 years, Soul Train was black culture, packaged into one hour, once a week. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, as larger TV platforms for black music emerged and more mainstream platforms embraced black music, Soul Train became less influential. But the show’s Golden Era and largest period of impact – from 1974 to 1987 – lives on in “Best of Soul Train” reruns, packaged by Cornelius in the ‘90s, and still airing occasionally on TV One, Centric and Aspire. The shows are a vibrant, colorful time capsule. A love letter to blackness. Rumors floated for several years that Nick Cannon, who hosted Soul Train for a stint and in many ways is Cornelius’ heir apparent, was reviving the show. But it may serve us best as the cultural archive it is. “When the aliens come in about 2000 years and they want to see what was going down in black life, they can watch all the episodes of Soul Train,” Cannon told VH1 for their documentary, Hippest Trip in America. “That’s how we got down.”
#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.