Soul Train was truly the Hippest Trip in America!”
Paying Homage to Don Cornelious,
a Man of Vision and Soul
“Diversity on television had come into its own in 1971. Soul Train made the 1970’s, and every decade since one big train-ride of Love Peace and SOUL!”Before Soul Train came into being, I grew up during the 1960’s in Detroit, Michigan. I came along in the era of Ed Sullivan, Shindig, The Hollywood Palace, Hullabaloo and of course, The American Bandstand. I loved those TV music and dance shows, even though all they would feature sometimes would be acts like Ed Burden and the Animals, The Stones, Traffic, and other 60’s Rock and Roll artist. Mind you, I loved watching those guys, along with some of the newer guys like, Frankie Vali and the Four Seasons crooning “Sherry,” and older rockers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard clowning on the piano; but what we (and many other black children and grownups alike) waited for were acts like Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and Smokey Robinson to come on TV. They’d come on occasionally on shows like Shindig and Hullabaloo, but you’d rarely see black recording artist outside of Motown during the week on TV.
When you did, whoever spied this out in the house would shout out, “Hey ya’ll, black folks on TV! Come in the living room!” And everybody in the house would come-a running! Come to find out, this was true in most black homes during the dawning of the golden age of television starting from the 1950’s on into the 1960’s. Most times we’d have to wait until Sunday nights to see black acts on TV like The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops and The Jackson 5 on The Ed Sullivan Show. We here in Detroit were lucky however, we had a Canadian television dance show called, “Swinging Time” broadcast on Channel 9, CKLW TV, Windsor Canada, right across the Detroit River from us on Riverside Drive. The show aired every weekday at 4:30pm; and was hosted by CKLW radio DJ, Robin Seymour.
Swinging Time was hip, and it was current because it featured mainly Motown acts sometimes twice out of a week or more. And as I said, we were lucky here in Detroit back in the 60’s. We got our “Live” dose of “My Girl” and “Stop in the Name of Love” well before most of America did, and all because of the diversity and hipness of a oop radio and progressive television station in Canada called CKLW. As a matter of fact, CKLW was so into art of american soul, rock, country, folk and pop music, they played a little bit of everything 24hrs a day, forging the way for a new sound on american radio that became known as; Top 40!
I kind of liked the fact that we Motown/Hometown people always got a first look at what America hadn’t seen yet. As Kids, we’d rush home from school, change clothes, do chores and homework and sit in front of the TV and wait for Swinging time to come on. We had it good musically! Well just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, in October 1971, on a gloomy Saturday afternoon, a new television dance show aired on CBS (our WJBK Channel 2) that would in fact change the world as we all knew it. This dance show was Soul Train! Although the original roots to Soul Train go back as far as 1965 in Chicago, it wasn’t until 1971 that most of America got its first dose of Love Peace and Soul from host Don Cornelius and his Soul Train Gang! I’d never seen anything like this on TV before, ever!
An all African American oriented dance show… nationally produced by Don Cornelious and mainly funded by Johnson Products Company and Sears and Roebuck. The show had style and like American Bandstand had special musical guest, and played quick medley-like snippets of hit songs during the dance sequences, instead of long play cuts. Soul Train had great camera shots and angles of the dancers, who were style mavens and stars in their own right. This new thing called Soul Train gave you just enough music to hang on to before quickly switching you to the next song, and the latest dance! What was really cool about Soul Train was the various modes of dance, and the dancers themselves. They had personality and style! Every week, folks would tune into Soul Train to see who the guest artist would be; and to see what the dancers were wearing, or what they’re hair do’s and afro’s looked like.
Some of the dancers on the show developed sort a cult following. I remember all the guys in my band having a thing for dancer, Damita Jo Freeman. She was cute, sexy and could really dance. I remember Damita would raise her right leg straight up high in the air as she stood, as if she would kick the ceiling. Then Damita would hold it there and wiggle her foot as she teased the camera lens, and of course us viewers! Many other dancers became popular as well from just dancing on Soul Train. In later years, Soul Train dancers like Jody Watley, Jeffery Daniel and Howard Hewett would become true stars as a result of being a member of the Soul Train Gang. These three dancers would become the first recording act pinched from the show, and handpicked to work with record producer, Dick Griffey at Soul Train Records (which by the time Watley, Hewett and Daniel joined Soul Train Records, it had become Solar Records). These popular Soul Train Dancers soon became the R&B act, Shalamar! Jody Watley, a sleek slender model and dancer and aspiring singer was made for the role; and Soul Train became the springboard for a newer, revamped Shalamar (while doing research for this article, I discovered that there was an older version of Shalamar that was not quite as successful as The Watley, Daniel, Hewett crew), which by the way became a greatly prolific soul act throughout the mid to late 1980’s, making it even more prestigious to be known as a Soul Train Dancer!
But by far, and by any stretch of the imagination, there was no one on Television like Don Cornelious! Don stood upright, and was as cool as flavored ice cubes, and had a voice like velvet chocolate! Don’s way of talking up a song or an act was all his own smooth style! With his neat afro, festive neckties, wide lapel suits and fashionable glasses, Don Cornelious exuded class and pride that inspired me and many other young MC wannabes over the years. But above all it was his voice! That rich deep baritone that (in my opinion) should have had a singing voice behind it, was his signature! You could tell Cornelious ran a tight ship just by looking at the production value of the show alone. Nothing stayed the same. Soul Train had to stay 10 steps ahead of everybody else! Everything had to be good or better. Soul Train had to put out! Mainly because there just as many people from all walks of life tuning in to see Soul Train as there were to see The American Bandstand. Cornelious had to make Soul Train glimmer and stay soulful all at the same time!
Just like I imagine Don Cornelious once did, I picture dance show host Robin Seymour calling up Barry or Ester Gordy on the phone and saying something like, “ Hey you guys, I need an act for Swinging Time, I heard that new tune by Junior Walker and the All-Stars, and its smoking! Can I book’em?” Well all the same, Don Cornelious Knew a whole slew of talent in Chicago that he could always pull from, as Cornelious was an on-air News Reporter, and part time radio DJ at WVON Chicago before Soul Train hit the national television airwaves. Chicagoans like Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler and The Chi-Lites would come on the show anytime Don needed talent when Soul Train was based in Chicago, and even when the show migrated out west to California; his many Chicago buddies in the business were always willing to give Don a hand with guest appearances. This was also good for the acts themselves, as it was wonderful exposure, making for great Record PR!
How many Saturday afternoons did we all sit in front of the television with a bowl of Fruity Pebbles (or whatever snack you liked) waiting for Soul Train to come on? Saturday’s were quite different back then. Network television (all three stations) played cartoons from roughly 8am to just about 11:30am. Picture this! its Saturday, 1971. At noon, you’d tune in your TV to your ABC affiliate to watch The American Bandstand. And there you’d see possibly Elton John singing “Your Song” or The Osmond Brothers singing, “One Bad Apple.” Those songs were great, it’s just that if you lived in a mainly urban area, you wanted to see the people (much like yourself) who made the records you’ve only heard on the radio, yet never saw what they looked like. Well just maybe (if Sullivan liked them well enough; if they were his idea of mainstream/crossover artist, i.e. OC Smith types… “God didn’t make Little Green Apples”) they’d make an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night. It was a real pain and most times a disappointment to tune into Sullivan on Sunday nights and only see a circus act or a guy from europe spinning plates on a stick. Sure we liked Topo Gigo (the cute little puppet mouse; but that just wasn’t quite Gene Chandler singing “Duke of Earl”), there’d be comedians like, Shecky Greene, aging easy listening singers like Eddie Arnold, and pop singers like Tom Jones. Those acts were all very cool, but blacks waited to see artist like The Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and James Brown.
On Saturday’s, when 1pm would finally roll around, we’d turn to Channel 2, and a big vocal shout would ring out from the TV speaker!… “PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD!” Then came the theme song (which changed many times over the years as well. My favorite version of the Soul Train theme is the 1974 version, “The Sound of Philadelphia”). Then as the show started, there came the iconic; “The SOOULLLLLLL TRAINNNN!“ Voice-over. Then another voice over was dubbed on top of that one announcing:
Soul Train, the Hippest Trip in America. Brought to you by Afro Sheen, and Afro Sheen Products. And now heres your host, Don Cornelious!”
I was star struck! I was also glued to the TV screen for the remaining hour! There was nothing else on television like it… anywhere! There was no BS to the programming either, they went right to the music and the dancing. Every week you picked out who your favorite dancers were, and called each other on the phone goofing and commenting, and all while the show was on, laughing, saying, “Man, did you see that? or “Look at those pants!” I remember the guys picked out who they thought the finest girls were. And the girls scoped the good looking men and all the fashion elements of the show. Soul Train became the’ bastion and hub for style and fashion for the 1970’s and beyond in the black community, and eventually leading out into the suburban areas of America. Fact remains, Soul Train Dancers set trends! Trends lasted and became synonymous with fashion around the world. There were some pretty slick clothing styles and trends set by the creative Soul Train Gang on the show. If they wore Knickers (Knickerbockers: a style of pants), we wore knickers. If Apple Hats was the thing, we went out and bought’em! Baseball Jackets, Platform Shoes and Plated Shirts sold like hotcakes. If the Soul Train Dancers wore Monster Bell Bottoms and scarfs around their knees, and head bands, we wore them.
The Afro didn’t really gain its true prominence until Soul Train came into being as a household name as well. The Dancers and The Jackson Five, The Sylvers and a host of others (with their more than perfect afro’s, along with their repeated appearances on Soul Train) helped solidify and validate the essence of what wearing an Afro really meant back in the day, just after the civil rights and black power era of america had begun to simmer, the afro yet maintained its meaning and new awakening status. Like Angela Davis, The Jackson 5, the Soul Train Dancers and many of us home viewers, wore our Afro or Naturals proudly, reflecting pride and beauty as depicted on Soul Train. Wearing an afro made you feel as proud, and as individually unique and expressive, as a Niki Giovanni poem. Soul Train was a television milestone that showed us as beautiful people to the entire world! We didn’t all look the same. We shined in all our different hues, artist projections and modes of styles. Never once did Soul Train depict us as the dreaded sambo characters Hollywood had always portrayed us to be in cinema for decades! This new sense of freedom through expression, self awareness and black identity snatched us light years away from the shackles of Jim Crow, and stagnation in black culture and lifestyle.
In all the years I watched television as a child, there was never a television commercial featuring Haircare Products made especially for people of color. You’d see ads for Adorn, Toni, Prell, Head and Shoulders, White Rain, even Aqua net Hair Spray. We never saw an ad for black hair care products. Imagine how left out and dejected black women must have felt hearing the Miss Clairol commercial slogan, “Blonde’s have more Fun” For all those decades, having nothing to boaster their pride and raise their spirits about their good looks! Soul Train would be the first television show of its kind to do just that. Feature advertising for black hair care products! Afro Sheen set the pace for modern day hair care and beauty products for men and woman; debuting a beauty line of products and fashion items for black women called, Fashion Fair and Fashion Fair Makeup and skin products, all formulated for black hair and skin.I can’t even begin to tell you how Fashion Fair has evolved into a multi-million dollar fashion powerhouse in the world of fashion! It is dubbed the world’s largest Traveling Fashion Show! Before Soul Train, I remember seeing my dad use old school black hair care products and pomade (Petroleum) based hair grease like Murray’s and Super Groom. I also remember watching black women press their hair with products like Hair Rep pressing oil. Those hair care products were cool, but for a more modern/hip look during the 1970’s, you needed an AFRO! And along with this afro, you needed the Afro Sheen Spray and Bergamot, and so on. If you didn’t use it, you just weren’t hip!
I have to admit, some of the commercial’s on Soul Train were funny as hell sometimes. Yes even some of the products were a scream, and were a bit over the top. I remember “The Afro Sheen Blowout Kit!” The commercial featured Frederick Douglas admonishing a young collage student about the condition of his hair as he was about to rush out of the door to school with his books in his hand, and his hair a mess. Douglas’ line was: “Are you going out into the world with your hair looking like that?” Corny? Yes! But it was “Us” on TV! Good commercial or bad Commercial, there were black people on TV! And if you’re old enough to know better, there were no African American Commercials on television… Anywhere! Yet once a week, on Saturday afternoons, for just about an hour, we saw a reflection of ourselves that was just like the song James Brown sang about in the 1960’s! Finally in a mode of media (if not only for a brief time) we were Black and Proud on television! Afro Sheen helped instill and exemplify this in young black minds of that day. Soul Train showed us that we were indeed Beautiful!
One thing I loved about Soul Train was that it also gave us a chance to see what some of the artist and the cute girls in the singing groups looked like. We saw what The Honey Cone (Famous for their song “Want Ad’s”) really looked like! We didn’t have to imagine or search out an album cover to see what an artist really looked and performed like, for Ed Sullivan (as liberal and as cosmopolitan as he was for that day and time) was most likely not going to have the Honey Cone on his show. We saw most all the obscure soul and R&B groups and artist who’d never make it to Sullivan’s middle of the road viewing, or Dick Clark’s Bandstand right there on Soul Train and sometimes even Shindig. I remember when Don Cornelious walked up onto the Soul Train stage and shook hands with Barry White after he’d sung “Can’t get Enough of Your Love Babe.” I remember those two great big voices rumbling together in conversation, I was awestruck! That was powerful! That was SOUL!
A lot of trends and iconic styles, images and traditions came out of Soul Train! One tradition in particular that is popular to this day at parties, family reunions, and gatherings of all kinds is the famed Soul Train Line! It was my favorite, yet the shortest part of the whole TV show. You had to tune in if not but to see the soul train line, or to see who would be clowning the most going down the line that particular week. What they were wearing, or what moves dancer Scooby Doo (of the Locker Dancers) was doing this week. Maybe you were checking out Demita Jo Freeman doing her famous splits and kicks, saying “that girl is Jammin’!” Did you know that Fred Berry from the 70‘s TV show “What’s Happening” was also a Locker Dancer and was discovered on Soul Train? Of course you knew!
One of my favorite endings to a movie is the ending to the great Christmas movie, “This Christmas” where at the end during the credits, the entire cast engages in a Soul Train Line, dancing to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up!” Now I’m not big on Christmas Movies, and I’m not one for breaking film tradition, but seeing how the cast were having such fun together going down that Soul Train Line made the movie even more enjoyable! Oh by the way, I try and watch “This Christmas” it every year!
Dick Clark had the Rate a Record segment of American Bandstand, and Don Cornelious had “The Soul Train Scramble Board.” This is where you’d un-scramble the name of a famous person, singer, music group or African American Icon. Each week I’d cringe at the couple picked who looked like they were having trouble solving the puzzle. The letters looked like various colored felt alphabets pieces on a felt display board in school. Just when you thought they wouldn’t solve it, they’d put all the letters in order just in time for the next song, or special guest segment!
Soul Train is something most people my age grew up on. It became apart of us! We are the last of the baby boomers from the rock, soul and pop era of america. We’re the Pepsi Generation! We’re the Nuclear Kool Aid Kids who’ve seen it all! Had there been no Soul Train, I’m sure there would not have been a Michael Jackson’s “Thriller!” No “Purple Rain,” no Usher, no Tina Turner Comeback, you name it! The dynamics of musical culture through soul would have been lacking or somehow changed! The medium for expression would just not have been there in quite the same way! I feel had there been no Soul Train, there would not have been a Midnight Special, nor a Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. No local dance shows like “The Scene,” and the “New Dance Show” for these show modeled themselves after their predecessor, Soul Train! There was a symmetry to all this, and Soul Train was the cornerstone; the very starting gate for a new generation! Soundtrack works like Shaft and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly as well as some disco and funk music could have quite possibly gone a different route, and maybe would have not been as popular or revered had it not been for Soul Train.
Not being relegated to having just black artist on the show, it wasn’t until just about 1975 when Soul Train featured White artist who loved and reflected Soul Music in their work! Cornelious featured artist David Bowie on Soul Train in 1975. Bowie’s song “Fame” was funky and soulful and took the country by storm! Among other White artist who graced the Soul Train stage were artist like Gino Vannelli (Gino Vanelli was actually the first white artist to appear on Soul Train. Elton John being the 2nd), Hall & Oats, Elton John, and my buddy the late Teena Marie, Robin Thicke, Culture Club, Duran Duran,The Average White Band, New Kids on the Block, The Beastie Boys, Sting, Michael Bolton, Sheena Easton and Frankie Vali singing “Grease!” Soul was all over the place!
To those who understand it, Soul is not confined to just one culture and expression. It comes from the heart and soul! This is just one reason I am saddened at the passing of Don Cornelious. Soul Train was his heart, his baby; his Mona Lisa! It meant the world to him. And as I pour out my observations and memories onto this paper, I am reminded that Soul Train really did mean a lot to me as an aspiring announcer and voice over artist. I feel that Soul Train meant something special to each and every one of you who are reading this article! This goes out to everyone who has ever sat in front of their television set on a Saturday afternoon watching Soul Train for decades (or whatever day or night you could catch it. For the channel affiliates had begun to move the show around to different days and hours in later years, frustrating viewers and I’m sure Cornelious).
Changes in the Music business, changes in sound, music sampling, declined changes in writing and music styles over the years did not honor or reflect soul music respectively, and Don Cornelious‘ departure from the show after a lifetime of priming, prodding and raising his baby called Soul Train, just didn’t seem the same to him, as with a lot of us longtime viewers as well. The new Soul Train of the new millennium went through a battery of Hip Hop Host who tried to rekindle the Soul and Freshness of the Soul Train of old, but that was not to be! Rap and Hip Hop music (which Cornelious despised) ushered in a whole new audience of video powered iPod urchins, slated more towards cable music video programming like MTV, rather than dance show formatted television. The Changes that Soul Train so eagerly embraced over the years in order to remain cutting edge and new, now became its demise as the winds of change blew in a far different direction, leaving Soul Train in the wind. Soul Train had had its time!
Soul Train viewers are faithful and true to its traditions and memories. There is a documentary on Soul Train out on DVD, and Time Life has a Best of Soul Train collection available. Since day one, I’ve been in love with Soul Train; and what some people still fail to recognize is that Soul Train was more than just a dance show. it was more than its slogan, being forever known as “The Hippest Trip in America!” Soul Train was and is a huge slice of Americana! So to Don Cornelious I say, rest in peace old friend, for as you lived, Let me be brave and use your phrasing to say that your life must surely have been “a Stone Gas!”
You know, on those many Saturday’s before I could go about my day, a minute or two just before Soul Train would go off the air at around 2pm, it just wasn’t officially a Saturday until I heard these words: “…and you can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey! I’m Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and Sooooul!”
Written by February 2, 2012