Soul Train 30th Anniversary Television Stills
2001 Tribune Entertainment

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.

THE COMMERCIALS

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.

THE PERFORMANCES

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.”

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#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.

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J Dilla and Common had a really tight creative bond and, at one point, lived together in L.A. So you know that Common got dibs on all of his hot beats first. They were hip-hop brethren just trying to work together and of all of their collaborations, living and posthumous, the track “Thelonius,” is the sharpest intersection of the two legendary artists' careers.

A singular song fit for two albums, the cut was placed on Common’s fourth studio album Like Water for Chocolate and Fantastic Vol. II, Slum Village's classic sophomore album. “Thelonius” as we know it was in a way an accident...a soulful snafu that we get to enjoy forever. In this excerpt of VIBE's Then & Now video franchise, Common shares how the song manifested unplanned, willed into existence by Dilla’s uncompromising creative compass.

The story is brought to life with artwork by visual artist supreme, Dan Lish (@DanLish1), the man behind Raekwon’s The Wild album artwork. The illustrations you see in this video are a small fraction of what you can find in his upcoming book: Egostrip Vol 1 – The Essential Hip Hop Art Book, a psychedelic visual history of hip-hop to be enjoyed by the genre’s oldest and youngest fans alike. 

Today is the last day to support Lish's Kickstarter for the incredible project. Click the following link for a copy of your own: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dan-lish/egostrip-book-1 

“I picked up on what inspired me about the artists, whether it be a certain lyric from a classic song or my perception of what may be going through their mind at the moment of creation,” says Lish.

There is much more to be said about all of these artists. For more stories on Common’s catalog, including several more Dilla cuts, stay tuned for the upcoming episode of Then & Now, where we dig deeper into notable tracks in the career of one Lonnie Rashid "Common" Lynn, Jr.

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Courtesy of Biz 3 / FCF

Quavo Is Introducing 'Fan Controlled Football' To The Culture

From their penchant for popping tags and name-dropping designer brands in their rhymes to the obsession with diamond-encrusted neckwear, the Migos are the modern-day poster-children for decadence and opulence. But when it comes to balling, group member Quavo is a seasoned veteran, literally and figuratively. Notorious for his appearances in NBA all-star celebrity games, where he routinely dominates the competition, Huncho has built a rep as one of the athletically gifted hit-makers in music today.

Although he's known for his skills on the hardwood, football is definitely among his passions. His newest endeavor, an ownership stake in Fan Controlled Football (FCF), the first professional sports league to put the viewer in the coach's seat and the general manager's office, in live time, finds him putting his focus back on the gridiron. Having inked an exclusive, multi-year streaming broadcast partnership with Twitch, the FCF will be the first professional sports league to be fully integrated with the streaming platform with the potential to explode in the digital age, where user interest and participation is the main recipe for success.

Having tossed the pigskin around as a Georgia high school football star, to Quavo, it was a no-brainer to get involved with the innovative league on the ground level. “We are building a brand and something different in our league – with the fans. They are in control and get to pick the team names, colors, logos, and more,” said Quavo said in a press release. “I’m really excited because FCF is fast-paced, high-scoring 7v7 football and you are in control. You go from sitting on the couch watching TV and pressing buttons on the remote to actually pressing the buttons on the plays.”

Played on "a 35-yard x 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones,” the Fan Controlled Football league will kick off in February 2021, with a four-week regular season, one week of playoffs, and a Championship week. The league will consist of former elite D-1 athletes, the CFL, XFL, and the Indoor Football League. Broadcasted live from the FCF’s state-of-the-art facility in Atlanta, each game will be 60 minutes in length and will allow the viewers to play a hand in the final outcome on Twitch.

Aside from sports, Quavo has been relatively lowkey on the musical tip as of late, with two years having passed since a solo release or a Migos album. However, according to him, this delay can be considered the calm before the storm, as he assures him and his brethren are primed for one of their biggest years yet. VIBE hopped on the line with Quavo to talk Fan Controlled Football, what he's got cooking in the studio, and his foray into TV and film.

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You're the newest team owner at Fan Controlled Football (FCF). What about the league piqued your interest and made you wanna get involved?

It's just showing my interest in the game of football and just trying to put a twist to where it's fan-controlled, fan-involved. A lot of times we watch the game, you watch the game, you just have some concerns. Sometimes you feel you can make the plays or call the play, [with FCF], you can sit on the couch and make the play. I just think we came together to make something crazy like that. I feel like it's something hard, it's something new, it's something fresh. It's a new beginning to something, like giving ni**as a chance. Giving D-1 players who couldn't make it to the league a chance, giving ex-NFL ni**as a chance if they still got it, [and] to go with the fans. When we saw the Falcons lose the Superbowl LI, we [fans] just knew what plays to call, we knew to run the ball. We were up 28-3. All we had to do was hold the ball, but we wanted to air it out and we made a mistake and lost to Tom Brady. Just like when Marshawn could've won a Superbowl. If they'd have given him the ball on the two-yard line. We knew that Marshawn Lynch was supposed to get the ball, [but] they wanted Russell Wilson to win it and the New England Patriots caught an interception. So that's how we're trying to shape it, we're trying to make something new.

The FCF will be live-streamed exclusively on Twitch, which has become one of the leading platforms for eSports live-streaming and will kick off in February 2021. Do you feel the FCF has the opportunity to fill that NFL void during the spring, particularly given the fan engagement that FCF enables?

Most definitely, cause after the Super Bowl, it just feels like you just want another game. You feel like you want one more game. and coming from something [where it's] eleven on eleven players to seven on seven, I feel [there’s] still a difference. After coming from watching the game and the regular politics, the regular structure of the game, now you're getting to be involved in a game that you can control. You can pick the jersey, you can pick the helmets, you can pick the jerseys, you can pick the coaches, you can pick the plays. I just feel there are two different dynamics [between the NFL and FCF). You come from sitting on the couch and pressing the remote to actually pressing the button on the plays."

Speaking of fan engagement, the FCF is the only professional sports league that enables fans to call the plays in real-time and puts the viewer in control of a game’s outcome like never before. Have you ever had that experience, as far as fantasy football?

Nah, but I'm into Madden. You can sit at home and pick your plays [with FCF], it's just like the lifestyle of Madden. It's like a reality of Madden. You're playing with people at home, with these unique athletes, and it's seven-on-seven.

As an Atlanta native, how significant was the FCF’s state-of-the-art facility being in your hometown in your decision to come on board as an owner?

It's very important. We got top-tier talent here, so it's opening up opportunities for a lot of guys. We're just glad it's in the south, it's like a hub. Everybody loves Atlanta and everybody wanna be here. Everybody wanna play and the weather is good.

NFL Super Bowl Champions Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch, boxing legend Mike Tyson, and YouTuber and podcaster empire Greg Miller are among the FCF's team owners. How does it feel to be competing against some of the most accomplished athletes and entertainers in the world? Have you had the opportunity to meet with any of them?

Most definitely. I have a good relationship with Mike Tyson. I've met Marshawn Lynch, it's a blessing. I feel like we're not competing right now, I feel like we're building a brand. I feel like we're building a league. I feel like we're trying to make the world understand what we're bringing to the table and what type of game we bring to the table, you feel me? I feel we're trying to create something different. Once we get the ball rolling, it's all together and moving into a real FCF league, then we'll get to compete. Of course, we all wanna win, but right now, we're just trying to get the foundation and the basics going and letting the strength of the owners and the relationships show on the field.

Being that you'll all be working with your respective fan bases in shaping your team’s personality and identity, any thoughts about what the team’s name will be? 

Man, I wish I did, but it's so straight strictly fans that you never know. Just like with music, can have an idea that is a smash, and then the fans don't think it is. You gotta strictly listen to the fans on this one. You gotta listen strictly to how they want it because it's the point of the game, that's the point of the league. We gotta let them control this game and then we the players and we the people that's listening to the people, the culture. FCF stands for culture, too, you feel what I'm saying? We listen to the culture, we're letting the culture run the field.

How involved will you be in the drafting and scouting process for your squad?

The fans make the draft, fans get to see everything. Open books, everything. It's an open thing, it ain't nothing to hide over here. The fans control it all.

In addition to sports, you've also been delving into acting, with cameos in shows like Atlanta, Star, Black-ish, and Ballers. Earlier this year, you appeared as yourself in Narcos: Mexico. How did that opportunity come about? 

Narcos reached out. We [Migos] had this song called “Narcos” on the [Culture II] album and we went and shot [the video] in Miami and everybody thought it was a Narcos movie scene and it ended up being Madonna's house. So we just shot that there and then they reached out to us. I think Offset had a performance somewhere and Takeoff had to do something and I just ended up being free that day and I went and shot it in New Mexico. I had fun, I loved it.

Do you have plans to pursue any supporting or leading roles in film or television?

Hell yeah, most definitely. I've been sitting down and having real great meetings with directors and people that got some movies in the works for 2021. I feel like I’ve got some good spots. I don't wanna tell it cause they’re gonna make some announcements. It's coming soon.

It's been two years since you've released a solo project or one with the Migos. Can fans expect any new music from you anytime soon and what are your next plans on that front?

Most definitely, hell yeah, we're shooting videos right now. We’re vaulting up a whole lot of videos so we can give you music and visuals at the same time. “Need It," the song came first and then the video. Right now, we wanna get a lot of videos and a lot records in the vault and smash [them] all at once 'cause it's been two years.

Pop Smoke's passing was one of the more tragic events in rap in recent memory, but his debut album, which you appeared on throughout, has been one of the most successful and acclaimed projects of 2020. How has it been seeing how the album’s been received, especially after you and him developed such a bond in a short time?

I'm happy. I'm proud of him, that was my partner. We did a lot of records, we spent a lot of time together and I feel like the album would've did even more with him being alive. A lot of people's album just go crazy when they die, I feel like his sh*t would've still went crazy. He had the momentum, he had the buzz. He was having fun. He was hot, he was fresh, he had everything ready.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Toots Hibbert performing at Hammersmith Palais, London in 1983.
Photo by David Corio/Redferns

Remembering Toots Hibbert

The best singers don’t need too many words to make their point. Otis Redding could let loose with a sad sad song like “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa” and get you all in your feelings. Bob Marley got pulses pounding with his “Whoi-yoooo” rebel yell. Gregory Isaacs melted hearts with nothing more than a gentle sigh. Toots Hibbert, who died last Friday at the age of 77, could sing just about anything and make it sound good. One of the world's greatest vocalists in any genre, Toots paired his powerful voice with the understated harmonies of Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias to form The Maytals, a vocal trinity that never followed fashion and remained relevant throughout the evolution of Jamaican music—from the ska era to rock steady straight through to reggae, a genre named after The Maytals' 1968 classic “Do The Reggay.”

Whether they were singing a sufferer’s selection (“Time Tough”), a churchical chant (“Hallelujah”), or the tender tale of a country wedding (“Sweet and Dandy”), The Maytals blew like a tropical storm raining sweat and tears. The lyrics to Six and Seven Books,” one of The Maytals' earliest hits, are pretty much just Toots listing the books of the Bible. “You have Genesis and Exodus,” he declares over a Studio One ska beat, “Leviticus and Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua, Judges and Ruth...” Having grown up singing in his parents' Seventh Day Adventist Church in the rural Jamaican town of May Pen, Toots knew the Good Book well.

The Maytals broke out worldwide in 1966 thanks to the song “Bam Bam,” which won Jamaica's first-ever Independence Festival Song Competition, held during the first week of August as the island nation celebrated both independence from Great Britain in 1862 and emancipation in 1834. They would go on to win the coveted title two more times, but “Bam Bam” was a singular song with a message every bit as powerful as Toots' voice. “I want you to know that I am the man," Toots sang. He was young and strong, ready to "fight for the right, not for the wrong." The trajectory of "Bam Bam" would not only transform Toots' life but make waves throughout popular music worldwide.

"Festival in Jamaica is very important to all Jamaicans," the veteran singer stated in a video interview this past summer while promoting his latest entry into the annual competition. "I must tell you that I won three festivals in Jamaica already, which is “Bam Bam,” “Sweet & Dandy” and “Pomp & Pride.” Toots described that first festival competition as a joyous occasion. "Everybody just want to hear a good song that their children can sing," he recalled. "Is like every artist could be a star."

In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of "Bam Bam" winning first place, Toots looked back over the legacy of the tune that made him a star. "I didn’t know what it means but it was a big deal," he told Boomshots. "You in the music business and you want to be on top and you write a good song and you go on this competition and if they like it then it becomes #1." After The Maytals won, the group was in demand not just all over the island, but all over the world. "We start fly out like a bird," he says with a laugh. "Fly over to London."

"Bam Bam" went on to inspire numerous cover versions, starting with Sister Nancy, Yellowman, and Pliers. It would also be sampled in numerous hip hop classics, and interpolated into Lauryn Hill's "Lost Ones." But according to Toots, he did not benefit financially from these endless cover versions. "People keep on singing it over and over and over, and they don’t even pay me a compliment," he told Boomshots. "I haven’t been collecting no money from that song all now."

 

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“This man don’t trouble no one... but if you trouble this man it will bring a Bam Bam” Original Maytals Classic @tootsmaytalsofficial 🎶 All them a talk, them nuh bad like Niya Fiya Ball ☄️🔥💥 via @tonyspreadlove . 💥💣🔫#Boomshots

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When Toots began singing in his parents' church, music was not seen as a career prospect, and the profits were slim for Jamaican recording artists in the 1960s. "Those days we get 14 cents for the record to play on the radio," Toots said. "I get three shillings and five shillings for a number one record, which I had 31 number one record in Jamaica... It’s not about money for me. It’s about the quality that Jamaicans need to go back in the festival jamboree... You gotta talk to the children."

On the poignant “54-46 (Was My Number),” Toots recalls the dehumanization of his arrest and 18-month imprisonment at Jamaica's Richmond Farm Correctional Center for what he always insisted was a trumped-up ganja charge just as his music career was taking off. The song's crescendo comes two minutes in when Toots breaks into a scat solo that cannot be translated into any language known to man, delivered with palpable passion that made his message universal. During Toots' ecstatic stage performances he would follow this riff by commanding his band to “Give it to me... one time!” Then the 'd make 'em say Uh!  (Way before Master P!) “Give it to me... two times!” Uh! Uh! And so on and so forth until Toots worked the place into a frenzy.

The Maytals' live show was so explosive that Toots began touring all over the world, opening for rock megastars like The Rolling Stones and The Who. While Bob Marley richly deserved the title King of Reggae, his friend Toots was performing internationally before The Wailers, and remained a force to be reckoned with throughout his life, blazing a trail for generations of reggae artists to follow in his footsteps.

On his Grammy-winning 2004 album True Love, Toots recorded some of his greatest hits with a host of legendary artists, many of whom were also good friends, including Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, and Eric Clapton. His 2006 cover of Radiohead's "Let Down" was a favorite of the band's, who used to play it on their tour bus. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood called Toots’ version “truly astounding,” according to Easy Star Records Michael Goldwasser.

Toots supported himself and his family by touring all over the world. During a 2013 show in Richmond, Virginia he was singing John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads" when a teenager in the crowd threw a vodka bottle at the stage and hit him on the head. He suffered a concussion and had to stop touring for several years. As his first album in a decade, Got To Be Tough was highly anticipated when it was released on Trojan Jamaica label August 28. On the cover the former boxer and lifelong fighter can be seen throwing a punch. Just a day after the album dropped, Toots came down with symptoms similar to COVID 19. Within a few days he was hospitalized where doctors placed him into a medically induced coma from which he never recovered. As his Tidal obituary pointed out, he passed away exactly 33 years after his old friend Peter Tosh died by gunfire.

Songs like "Just Brutal" from the hit different now, with Toots pleading for more love in a world gone wrong. "We were brought here," Toots sings. "Sold out. Victimized brutally. Every time I keep remembering what my grandfather said before he died."

“I’m feeling alright,” Toots said the last time we spoke, while he was still sidelined with stress issues due to the bottle-throwing incident. "I’m feeling alright. I’m feeling alright. I’m feeling just cool because is Jah works. You seet?" I asked him if the song "Bam Bam," was about him—a peaceful man who should not be provoked—or else. "Nooo don't trouble him," Toots said with a laugh. "It’s gonna be double trouble, triple trouble. A lot of trouble."

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