Music and Television – Soul Train

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Here’s my third installment of the series “Music and Television.”

Soul Train was a weekly one hour performance show which primarily featured R&B, soul, funk, disco, and hip hop artists. Occasionally, genres like jazz and gospel also were featured. It ran in syndication from 1971 to 2006. In its later years, it billed itself as the longest running first-run, nationally syndicated show in American television history (although Sesame Street was (is) longer, and later it was surpassed by Entertainment Tonight, Wheel of Fortune, and others). Some have called it a “black American Bandstand” – creator Don Cornelius acknowledged that Dick Clark’s American Bandstand was the model for the show, though as Soul Train became an institution of its own, Cornelius avoided the comparison. See my April 15, 2018 post for more information on American Bandstand.

The origins of Soul Train trace back to Chicago in 1965. Local TV station WCIU began 2 dance programs – Kidde-a-Go-Go and Red Hot and Blues. The latter featured dancers that were predominately African American. Don Cornelius was a disc jockey at a Chicago radio station who also promoted local concerts, calling his shows “The Soul Train.” In 1967, WCIU hired Cornelius as a news and sports reporter, and in 1970, they gave him the opportunity to bring his road show to television. It premiered on August 17, 1970 as a live show on weekday afternoons, with Cornelius as host. The first episode featured guests Jerry Butler, The Chi-Lites and The Emotions.

It was immediately successful, and quickly moved to national syndication, with television stations in 8 additional cities purchasing the show. On October 2, 1971, Soul Train went national. At that time, home base for the program shifted to Los Angeles.

Cornelius remained the host of Soul Train until 1993. After that, he remained the creative director of the program, but hosting duties shifted to guest hosts for several years, then to Mystro Clark in 1997, Shemar Moore in 2000 and finally Dorian Gregory in 2003 until its final episode in 2006. Following that, the program aired old episodes, using the title The Best of Soul Train. This continued for 2 years, and then distribution via television ended. Cornelius sold the trademarks and rights to the library 2008, and Soul Train started to appear in other forms – a YouTube channel, DVDs, and reruns on cable channels.

Much of the show featured the Soul Train Dancers, who danced to the music as it was performed. Each musical guest performed twice, with a short interview between songs – typically, there were 3 artists on each episodes, although sometimes there were only 1 or 2, or sometimes 4. Cornelius began each show with the phrase “the hippest trip in America,” and he ended each show with “…and you can bet your last money, it’s gonna be a stone gas honey. I’m Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and SOUL!”

Even before selling the franchise, Cornelius’ had been dealing with health issues. In 1997, he started suffering seizures, related to a brain operation he had in 1982 to correct a congenital deformity in his cerebral arteries. By 2012, he was in extreme pain, and on February 1, 2012, he died by suicide, at the age of 75.

In 1987, the annual Soul Train Music Awards got its start. It is an awards show that honors the best in black music and entertainment, as determined by a voting body that consists of artists, radio programming and music retail management. It gives awards in categories such as Album of the Year, Best Single, Best Video, Best New Artist and other categories, typically separately honoring male, female and groups in the album and singles categories. A special legacy award is given each year – the first year, it was presented to Stevie Wonder for his legacy. The awards program continues today – the 2017 program gave a legacy award to Toni Braxton, and the 2018 program took place on November 17th this year, with the legacy award going to Erykah Badu.

Here are some other Soul Train fun facts:

  • 1,117 episodes were aired.
  • The final original episode on March 25, 2006 featured artists Goepele and Lorenzo Owens, and a music video by The Pussycat Dolls.
  • 574 different musical acts appeared on the show. Not all of them were African American – some that weren’t included Elton John, David Bowie, Frankie Valli, Cheech and Chong, Captain & Tennille, Hall & Oates, Beastie Boys, Sting, Backstreet Boys, and Christina Aguilera.
  • 11 different theme songs were used over the years, with the song TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) by MFSB and The Three Degrees the most well known theme. In later years, the show used 3 different remixed versions of the song.

Soul Train enabled the careers of many musical artists, and certainly the genres of R&B, soul and other traditional African-American music genres were enhanced by the show. My post on American Bandstand shows an interview of a very young Michael Jackson by Dick Clark. Check out an interview and performance by a little bit older Michael Jackson in 1975 on Soul Train.

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