1 9 7 1 – 2 0 0 6 (USA)
The first-ever syndicated Soul Train on 2 October 1971 was a party.
Apart from upcoming Chicago soul man Bobby Hutton, there was Eddie Kendricks, whose falsetto had helped shape the sound of The Temptations, now making his TV debut as a solo performer.
Another Motown legend, Gladys Knight, sang Friendship Train and her most recent hit, I Don’t Want To Do Wrong, while The Honeycone – the hottest vocal trio of the time – were there delivering the infectious Want Ads and Stick-Up, both R&B chart Number Ones.
And taking the show to an even higher plane were the dancers – exotically-dressed, Afro-mopped exhibitionists, ever ready to shake a butt, boogaloo or whatever else had to be done to make Soul Train the hottest spot on the box.
Amid it all, Don Cornelius, deep-voiced Svengali of the black music industry, beamed. He’d made it, just as he knew he would. His self-devised Soul Train show was about to show the world just how potent soul and R&B could be . . .
Cornelius was a Chicago traffic cop until the mid-60s, when he pulled over a local radio personality from the WVON station. The DJ noted Cornelius’ resonant baritone voice and advised him that he was in the wrong business. One demo tape later, Don Cornelius was a radio announcer.
Now TV beckoned. But it was a white world, the pop portion of which was dominated by Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Cornelius plotted something better and cooler. His dream was called Soul Train.
A pilot, which appeared in mid-1970, was shot in black and white and featured Ice Man Jerry Butler. It became a five-day-a-week dance show on a small Chicago TV station, and an instant hit with the Windy City’s black, switched-on generation.
After a move to California, and a link with sponsors Johnson Hair Care Products (creators of Afro-Sheen and Ultra-Sheen) Cornelius readied a full-colour version of his concept for syndication across America.
And on 2 October 1971, King Curtis’s Hot Potatoes – chosen as the show’s theme – helped the Train rumble forward on Metromedia television.
The music came from the greatest names in black music. But the dancing was something else. Cornelius took the concept of line dancing, which was popular in Chicago’s black community during the 50s and 60s, and shaped it for countrywide consumption.
On a set decorated with rail tracks, dancers strutted amid two lines of would-be terpsichoreans, each pairing attempting to be more extravagant in their gestures than the last.
Everybody danced. At the start of the first show, all the stars could be seen shaking their butts alongside the fans, after which Cornelius spent time interviewing a couple of line dancers about the moves they’d learnt along the way.
The Exercise, The Philly Dog, The Breakdown . . . the list seemed endless. The sound of James Brown‘s latest release, Make It Funky, saw them all once more limb-flinging in impressive style.
In time, Soul Train would become so successful that Cornelius could book just about anyone he wanted.
In 1975, Cornelius (along with his partner Dick Griffey) launched the Soul Train label, signing The Whispers, Shalamar and Carrie Lucas, with Griffey eventually taking the helm and re-naming the label Solar.
Cornelius ceased hosting the show, taking more of an entrepreneurial backseat during the 80s, but Soul Train – albeit suffering from a loss of direction, continued to roll and became one of the longest-running syndicated shows in US television history.
One of the most popular TV shows in Japan, it’s also the most revered programme in soul history.
Don Cornelius hit hard times in later years and in 2009 received a probation order for spousal abuse. He took his own life at his Los Angeles home on 1 February 2012. He was 75.