Soul Train

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Soul Train

Since 1970, fans have been grooving every week to America's top soul and R&B hits on a televised boogie down called Soul Train. Known as "the black American Bandstand," the syndicated dance party proved to be more than just a musical showcase: It established an African American presence on television at a time when such representation was almost nonexistent.

Created and hosted for 23 years by Don Cornelius, a former Chicago disc jockey with a silky, measured baritone, Soul Train was conceived around the notion of "soul music going from city to city as a train would." The program relied on a sequence of stock elements that gave it an air of familiarity. The show's distinctive squealing "Soooulll Traaain" opening, devised by a deejay friend of the host, has remained unchanged since 1970. Each week, Cornelius opened the show by promising viewers they could "bet your last money it's gonna be a stone gas, honey." A series of musical performances followed, with the camera alternating between the lip-synching band and the gyrating denizens on the dance floor. Occasionally stopping to banter with his musical guests, Cornelius closed each program by wishing his viewers "love, peace, and soul!"

The show was a first of its kind on mainstream American television, a weekly forum for the best in African-American rhythm and blues. "It was trailblazing," observed J. R. Reynolds, R&B editor of Billboard Magazine, "not in terms of being a dance music show, but in terms of R&B being offered a platform on a consistent basis." In its heyday during the 1970s, Soul Train was able to attract some of the top names in the entertainment industry. Guests on the first national telecast were Gladys Knight and the Pips; the performers who made regular appearances included Barry White, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown. Several of the dancers went on to show business careers of their own, including Jody Watley, Rosie Perez, and Fred "Rerun" Berry. Soul Train shows from the 1970s even became popular staples of Japanese TV in the 1990s.

In the 1980s, with the advent of rap, Soul Train began taking on a hip-hop orientation. The appearance of the politically charged rap group Public Enemy was a sure sign that the torch had been passed to a new generation of African-American musicians. Through it all, Cornelius continued to beam beatifically and tout his program as "the hippest trip on television."

The transition from trailblazing series to revered television institution did not diminish the show's impact. Young people of all races continued to watch Soul Train for tips on dress and personal style. " Soul Train showed a generation what it meant to be cool," declared Todd Boyd, assistant professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. In the 1990s, the show became a cultural touchstone for the African-American artistic community, cropping up in movies like Spike Lee's Crooklyn and the Hughes Brothers' Dead Presidents. But Soul Train had a wider pop cultural impact as well, as witnessed by Soul Trek, a 1992 comic book parody that placed the affable Cornelius in command of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Cornelius served as host of Soul Train until 1993, when he assumed the role of "host emeritus," introducing a new guest emcee every week. He graduated from independent producer to partner with the Tribune Entertainment Co., the show's distributor. In 1995, he was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame. Despite the show's success, however, Cornelius continued to have difficulty getting exposure from TV stations. Even in cities with large black populations like Cleveland and St. Louis, Soul Train continued to air at irregular times well into the 1990s.

Soul Train is the longest running program in television history originally produced for first-run syndication. While originally created by African Americans for young African American viewers, it has grown to attract a much larger and more diverse audience. "I've been a fan for a long time!" gushed President Bill Clinton on the Soul Train 25th Anniversary Special in 1995.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Dean, Chuck. "'Soul Train' Rolls into Its 25th Year; Get Down with Your Bad Self." Entertainment Weekly. March 17, 1995.

Elber, Lynn. "Don Cornelius Reflects on 'Soul Train,' His 'Little Dance Show."' Star Tribune. August 11, 1995, 18E.

Moody, Lori. "Durable 'Soul Train' Is Pop History in the Making."Star Tribune. November 22, 1995, 1E.

"Soul Train Still Chugging Down the Track." Michigan Chronicle. June 17, 1997.