From Gospel Artiste to Disco Dancers, the very best of R&B lyrics and Jazzy arrangements, hot pants, bell-bottomed trousers, and trendy dances, the impulsion of this weekly American musical variety show graced our hearts for more than 35 years – and left its imprint on our souls. Soul Train became many of our Weekday and Saturday morning sanctuaries, our dance guide for the next social gathering, and our enthusiastic and artistic anthem.
The longest running Nationally Syndicated TV Program of any genre in the history of America, Soul Train showcased the brightest, the boldest, the most beautiful, and the best. From Irene Cara to Culture Club, The Pointer Sisters to the Pussycat Dolls, Soul Train’s variety of music and fashion encouraged audience members to pay attention to politics, pop culture, and performers. Exclusively considered “The Hippest Trip in America,” Soul Train created the distinguished Soul Train Line where dancers formed lineups, with men on one side and women on the other. Demonstrations of dances ranged from the Bump, the Robot, the Snake, Pop- locking, the Hustle, and Break Dancing – all the way down to the Tootsee Roll, the Smurf, the Humpty dance and Kid n’ Play! As well, the Soul Train Scramble Board became an emblem and customary agenda on the show. Dancers were given 60 seconds to decode a set of letters that would form the name of a notable person in African-American history. The media magnet of the day was expressed as someone, “whose name you should know.”
An inspired journalist by day – soul innovator by night, Don Cornelius [born Donald Cortez Cornelius] identified the need for a television venue in the United States that could creatively speak to the heart [and soul] of Black America. During the time of The Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960’s, no television show existed that highlighted the accomplishments of African-American music, its art, ingenuity and culture. In 1966, this native Chicago South Side pacesetter quit his job with the Chicago Police Department to pursue a three-month broadcasting course, with a wife and two children and only $400 in his bank account. In that same year, not by chance would this bold step later reposition him as a news reporter and disc jockey on Chicago Radio Station, WVON. The rest was history from that point forward. After pitching the idea to WCIU-TV in Chicago and agreeing to produce the pilot at his own expense, Don Cornelius launched the “dream” of Soul Train, and it hit the airwaves as a daily local show. After receiving national recognition, it later moved to Los Angeles under national syndication.
With a smooth voice, grandiose style, and an ambition to change main-stream television forever, Don Cornelius created, wrote, produced, and hosted the most widely exposed popular television dance program in history. Spike Lee once described it as an, “urban music time capsule.” African-American musicians such as James Brown and Michael Jackson, singers such as Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, dancers like Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, actors such as Cicely Tyson, activists such as Isaac Hayes, comedians such as Robert Townsend and Steve Harvey, and liberals alike, have graced the platform of this black-oriented, all-embracing Chicago-launched sensation. An original theme song that spanned over 30 years with the ingenuity of writers like King Curtis, the Soul Train Gang, The Waters, The Whispers, George Duke, Everette Harp and Naughty by Nature, still enchant our hearts and ears as the train boogies along.
Like the show it personifies, the train pressed forward from a local Five-Day-Per-Week, One-Hour afternoon episode in 1970, to its first syndication on October 2, 1971. The success of the Soul Train Portfolio has been quite impressive and includes the development of the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards Annual TV Special [which honored the achievements of female artists in music], The Soul Train Christmas Starfest [which featured holiday music] and later, The Soul Train Music Awards, which launched in 1987. The latter afforded honorable recognition to top performances in R&B, Hip Hop, Gospel music, and Jazz. To date, Soul Train reaches all major markets and 85% of television in U.S. Black households, and through station clearances in 105 cities worldwide. [Source: soultrain.com] From 1971 to 2006, Soul Train was and continues to be acknowledged as one of America’s most successful targeted TV programs in first-run syndication.
Today, Don Cornelius holds a STAR on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As well, he was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall Of Fame in 2005 and into the Illinois Broadcasters Association Hall Of Fame [IBA] in 2012. His proof positive realization of what ambition is made of earned him countless prestigious awards for his achievements and contributions to Black America in Broadcasting, Career Production, and TV Production.
For more than three decades, an array of extraordinary guests boarded the Train of Soul. Amongst the many include Jackie Wilson, Roy Ayers, Aaliyah, KRS-One, Kurtis Blow, The Dells, Jill Scott, Elton John, George Wallace, Duran Duran, Millie Jackson, Ziggy Marley, Van Hunt, Mary Mary, Jerry Butler, L.L. Cool J, Shelia E., Floetry, Al Green, Gregory Hines, Hall & Oates, Teena Marie, Nancy Wilson, Sting, Bill Withers, Patti LaBelle, T.I., Whodini, Lou Rawls, and Tina Turner.
Departing us too soon on February 1, 2012, the passion for love, the necessity for peace, and the devotion of soul to our music and culture, is the legacy that Don Cornelius left behind. Once in time, what was only an idea of creating, a thought of developing, a dream of becoming – is now a historic presence and narrative in radio and television. Thank you Don, for reminding us all that our dreams can be the change we wish to see in this world.
“Soul Train represents our proudest examples of the partnership’s consistent pursuit of our common goal of creating extraordinary exposure opportunities for minority and other recording artists on national television.” – Don Cornelius
Love, Peace and Soul for your Tuesday!