Don Cornelius on the set of his show, where he was known for his style, his voice and such catchphrases as “You can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey!”

Howard Bingham/TV Guide/Courtesy Everett Collection

Dancers in front of the famed “scramble board”

Courtesy Everett Collection

Jermaine Stewart dances down the Soul Train line; he went on to pop music fame with the single “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off.”

Soul Train via Getty Images
Fill 1
Fill 1
September 02, 2021

Cool Train Running

“The hippest trip in America,” as creator Don Cornelius called Soul Train, was so much more than a Black American Bandstand. Way before “influencer” was a word, the show set trends in music, dance, fashion, commercials, marketing — and even inspired the King of Pop.

For this pop-culture-addicted young Black kid growing up in hardscrabble Gary, Indiana, during the 1970s, an episode of Soul Train was like a blast of fresh, super-cool air.

It wasn't just that the show offered in-person appearances by Black R&B, soul and funk artists I never saw elsewhere on TV, though that was amazing. I saw Curtis Mayfield, Cameo, Jerry Butler, the Commodores, Mandrill and more. As an aspiring drummer, I never realized Cameo and the Commodores had drummers who sang lead until I saw them on Soul Train.

And it wasn't just that creator, executive producer and longtime host Don Cornelius, with his razor-sharp clothes and silky-smooth baritone patter, guided the proceedings like the coolest uncle you never had, though that was also part of it.

It was Cornelius who pronounced Soul Train "the hippest trip in America," assuring viewers that, when the next episode dropped, "You can bet your last money, it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey." He closed most every episode intoning, "As always, in parting, we wish you love, peace and SOUL!"

It was also the Soul Train dancers, who wore some of the hippest outfits of the day. I would learn later that many were aspiring performers themselves, including soon-to-be-stars like Rosie Perez, Vivica A. Fox, MC Hammer and even future NFL star Walter Payton. If you wanted a sense of what the cool party kids would be wearing at a dance or the club that night, you had to watch Soul Train that afternoon.

And you had to see the dances on Soul Train. Every popular move, from the Stop & Go to Pop-Locking and the Robot, was featured first on Soul Train. Jeffrey Daniel, a dancer on the show, reportedly showed a young Michael Jackson how to do the Robot, which would influence his later acts.

The Lockers, a high-profile dance troupe, was filled with Soul Train dancers, and the most famous member of that group, Fred "Rerun" Berry, wound up starring in one of my favorite sitcoms from the era, What's Happening!! Every sock hop and dance I ever attended in school emulated the renowned Soul Train dance line at some point — and you had to have a few moves memorized from the show to avoid serious ridicule.

Let's not forget the commercials. Back in the day, TV spots were an acknowledgement that you mattered in America, and most shows were drenched in visions of white America living an aspirational life. But on Soul Train, Black-centered companies like Johnson Products Company had ads for Black-centered products like Afro Sheen hair creams, placing goods focused on our needs at the center of a show that everyone seemed to watch.

To some people, Soul Train might have looked like little more than a sepia-colored version of American Bandstand — a show with live or lip-synched performances by music stars and footage of Black kids dancing to the day's hits. On the surface, it seemed a harmless way for Black youth to grab a bit of the TV spotlight, dancing to artists they loved in the same way white kids did to pop and rock groups on Bandstand.

But as the nationally syndicated version of Soul Train reaches its 50th anniversary this year, a closer look at the show's history — with a bit of perspective from fans like me — reveals the obvious: the show influenced everything from the King of Pop to how new TV outlets and cable channels are introduced to America, all by showcasing Black youth culture.

"I was looking at young African-American adults just seeing themselves and having fun... and that was a rare image to see on American television back in 1971," says Christopher P. Lehman, a professor of ethnic studies at Minnesota's St. Cloud State University, of the first time he saw Soul Train. Lehman's 2014 book, A Critical History of Soul Train on Television, contends that Don Cornelius was one of the most successful pioneers of Black-centered TV production.

"The legacy of Soul Train has to do with Don Cornelius hiring an all-African American crew, putting this on television and showing Hollywood that if people produce entertainment targeted to a specific group, marketed to them in a way they will appreciate, they will watch," Lehman says.

"What Soul Train did was give a platform to these kinds of underground economies centered on Black culture — from fashion to dance and our music — and brought it to the mainstream," says Ericka Blount Danois, author of 2013's Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America's Favorite Dance Show Soul Train: Classic Moments. "And that's where we are today — there's no dividing line between Black culture and mainstream entertainment culture anymore."

And it all started with a former cop who ran local talent shows in Chicago.

Back in the 1960s, Cornelius had already served in the U.S. Marine Corps and worked as a police officer in Chicago. By 1967, while employed as a news and sports reporter at Chicago UHF station WCIU, he was organizing and emceeing a traveling series of talent shows at area high schools. He called it the Soul Train.

Back then, Chicago was an important nexus of civil-rights activity and Black empowerment. Legendary music stars like Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield were still active in the city, beginning to explore material relating to civil rights and Black power while building their own companies.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson would soon launch his own civil-rights organization in Chicago, Operation PUSH. George Johnson's Johnson Products Company was building the iconic African-American brands Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen, while a firm owned by John H. Johnson was publishing the Black-centered magazines Ebony and Jet.

In this environment, Cornelius realized TV didn't have many showcases for Black musicians or Black culture, so he convinced his bosses at WCIU to air a televised version of his talent show, which he also called Soul Train. The idea was to present a positive vision of Black youth, allowing kids to be themselves — and presenting an alternative vision of Black people to America.

The program debuted in 1970, shot in black and white and featuring a flimsy-looking set. Yet it launched with many features that would become iconic, including a "scramble board" contest with letters that a couple of dancers would unscramble to spell the names of significant figures. (Spoiler: Cornelius later admitted the dancers were told the answers in advance, to avoid showing young Black kids failing onscreen.)

Cornelius's friends in radio would also become staples of the program: longtime Chicago DJ Sid McCoy announced in his bourbon-smooth tones the guests who would appear on Soul Train. WVON-FM's Joe Cobb provided the high-pitched shout that played over the title sequence, announcing "the SOOOOUUUULLL Train!"

"These artists, primarily from Chicago, would come and perform on the program," Lehman says of Soul Train, which kicked off with appearances by Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites and the Emotions. "Children who wanted to get on the program after school would have to go to the Chicago Board of Trade building, where it was produced. It was a big deal for Chicago high-schoolers to be seen on TV by their peers after school."

The program was an immediate success, inspiring Cornelius to get it syndicated weekly on a handful of other stations across the country, beginning on October 2, 1971. At this time, syndicators were featuring series that targeted specialized music audiences — the country-focused Hee Haw and gentle big-band pop of The Lawrence Welk Show also went into syndication in 1971 — inspiring Cornelius to move Soul Train to Los Angeles for its second season.

The cross-country transition gave Cornelius and the show access to bigger stars, more skilled production crews and more outrageous dancers — which Cornelius later admitted in interviews he wasn't sure he liked. But those over-the-top dance performances — a marked contrast to the buttoned-down, cool-school vibe Cornelius saw in Chicago — helped ignite the interest of young fans and make the show a pop-culture treasure.

Lehman notes the importance of another show staple: the Soul Train line. Dancers queued up in two rows with a corridor down the middle, so two people at a time could dance down the line, showing off their moves. This feature became so popular that Cornelius moved it further back in the program to make sure viewers stuck around.

It was in the Soul Train line that dancers could show their stuff and get real camera time. It was also where dance crazes were born and fashion trends were set by scrappy young performers eager to grab the spotlight. Later, that kind of attention would prove valuable, as some performers developed followings of their own, scoring gigs dancing behind music superstars or starring in their own groups, as dancers Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel eventually did in the band Shalamar.

"From the show's second season into its fourth — that's when the show is really in its prime," Lehman says. "That's when there is this big crossover of R&B on the pop charts... and the show gets talked about in mainstream newspapers like the New York Times."

In fact, the author says, Cornelius's approach to selling Soul Train to stations across the country — targeting large urban markets with lots of Black viewers eager to see people like themselves, promoting the show as an important outlet and window into Black America — became a strategy emulated by emerging broadcast networks and cable channels in their early days, from Fox and UPN to Black Entertainment Television.

Soul Train's growing power as a profitable business and an essential stop for Black musical performers proved that Black consumers had an influence the white-focused TV industry had mostly overlooked. "The success of Soul Train helped make marketers, advertisers and the TV industry aware of this market," Lehman adds. "African-American consumers were just not being catered to as much before Cornelius came along."

One measure of Soul Train's popularity was the success of its theme songs. In 1974, the show's second theme song, MFSB's "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)," topped Billboard magazine's pop and R&B charts — becoming the first TV theme to notch that achievement and one of the disco era's first big hits. In The Hippest Trip in America, VH1's documentary on Soul Train, Cornelius admits his insistence that songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff omit the show's name from the song's title was one of his biggest mistakes.

But he learned his lesson. In 1983 he snagged a tune that would become one of the show's more popular theme songs: "Soul Train's A-Comin'" by O'Bryan Burnette, who used the stage name O'Bryan.

"I had no idea he even wanted a new Soul Train theme, but he looked over at me and said, 'Do you mind if I use this song?'" says Burnette, the R&B singer and songwriter who composed the tune when Cornelius was his manager. "He had this look on his face, kind of a smirk... like I was going to say no? I was just so grateful.... So he wrote the lyrics, and that's basically how it happened."

Burnette had written "Soul Train's A-Comin'" as a funky groove anchored by a powerful bass line, based on a tune his touring band was goofing around with during a rehearsal. Its percolating keyboards, soaring vocals and driving beat reflected the synthesizer-led funk that was beginning to dominate the charts in the mid-1980s.

(In his 2013 book, Soul Train: The Music, Dance and Style of a Generation, author Questlove — better known as drummer for the Roots and bandleader for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon — says Burnette's track is his favorite theme song.)

The singer-songwriter had signed with Cornelius not long after moving to L.A. from North Carolina. Though he valued the mentorship, Burnette says Cornelius could be rigid about his ideas and musical tastes, leading to missed opportunities. Burnette says he tried to interest Cornelius in signing both Whitney Houston and Karyn White long before their careers took off, but the host passed — to his later regret.

Burnette also says Cornelius could be personable and relaxed off camera in a way that was very different from his unflappable, buttoned-down attitude on camera. "What most people don't know about Don was that he wasn't always that stiff person who walked up and interviewed the artists [on the show]," Burnette explains. "He had quite the personality and he had some fire in him, sometimes. He was a good guy... a people person and a problem solver."

Over the years, Cornelius would leverage the Soul Train name into other businesses, including a record label and several awards shows. But in 1993, he decided it was time to step away from regular hosting duties and hired a series of guest hosts, until actor-writer Mystro Clark took over full-time in 1997.

"It was definitely big shoes to fill," says Clark, who hosted for a couple of years before Shemar Moore took over. "I remember we went out to dinner in his Rolls-Royce, and I felt like Willis Drummond from Diff'rent Strokes .... But he was the only one who had done this job every week, so I couldn't really ask anyone but him for advice."

Production on new episodes of Soul Train eventually ended in 2006 and Cornelius sold the franchise in 2008. Four years later, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, shocking friends like Burnette, who says he'd always seen his former manager as a pillar of strength.

These days, Soul Train and its archives belong to ViacomCBS's BET, which presented a scripted series in 2019 based on the creation and success of Soul Train called American Soul. But Burnette believes Cornelius hasn't been sufficiently recognized for all the groundbreaking ideas Soul Train brought to pop culture.

"There should be a bust of Don somewhere," he says. "He's the creator... he's the visionary who brought this thing to life. They wouldn't even have a brand to buy if Don hadn't established this long before any of us were old enough to drive."

In the end, Soul Train may have become a victim of integration. As more TV outlets began to feature Black artists and Black culture — from cable channels like BET and TV One to late-night hosts like Arsenio Hall and series like In Living Color — Cornelius's show lost a bit of its uniqueness. But its success, as author Ericka Blount Danois points out, was one of the first signs that a TV show featuring authentically Black people could appeal to everyone.

"What stands out for me [about Soul Train] is the unapologetic Blackness of it all," she says. "Being in the Black bubble worked for [Cornelius].... Some white people told me the show was their first introduction to Black people altogether. Watching Soul Train. And I don't think people anticipated that undiluted, authentic Black culture would resonate with all kinds of people."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2021

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