Don Cornelius walks with measured steps onto the set. A commanding presence at 6’5,” he stops, turns toward the camera, and lifts his microphone toward his mouth. Behind him stands a plywood replica of the head of a passenger train decorated with neon lights and pastel colors—vibrant sky blues, raspberries, and yellows frame the background. The colors accent Cornelius’ own outfit, a sky-blue, double-breasted nylon suit with a butterfly-collared jacket. His Afro is neat, almost perfect. He has on shades.
“Hi, I’m Don Cornelius,” he says in what will become his national trademark, a deep, sonorous baritone, “and what you’re about to see is a very special program.”
The cameramen stir around him. The dancers stand poised in their psychedelic coloring, ready to vie for on-camera close-up opportunities. Cornelius’ arm flashes towards the stage and with a self-assured look, he cracks a slight smile and announces to the television audience, “Gladys Knight and the dancing, swinging, singing Pips!!”
On October 2, 1971, Soul Train debuted, on KTTV, Channel 11, in Los Angeles, premiering in six other major markets—Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. During the opening sequence, a cartoon version of the “soul train” grooved on tracks suspended in the air. The train wiggled back and forth to the beat of King Curtis’ soul theme song, “Hot Potatoes.” As the train danced, Sid McCoy, former radio deejay for WVON radio in Chicago, gave the introduction. His voice was smooth, his words tumbling along like a well-oiled diesel as he announced, “The hippest trip in America. Sixty non-stop minutes across the tracks of your mind into the exciting world of soul!”
The premiere episode featured first class acts: Gladys Knight and the Pips, Eddie Kendricks, The Honey Cone, and Bobby Hutton. But it was the dancers that caught the audience’s attention, with their platform heels, their loud-colored bell-bottoms, dashikis, and patterned shirts. Their braids swirled, and their Afros bounced in time to their wild dancing—all high-leg kicks, splits, and gymnastics.
Cornelius’ laid-back demeanor gave no hint to the barriers he had to overcome to get to this point. The impressive Los Angeles set was a far cry from the show’s beginnings as a local dance show in Chicago on WCIU-TV, Channel 26. That claustrophobic set was constructed in a 10’ by 10’ space with Don Cornelius flanked by wood paneling and a child-like rendering of the front of a train, a cardboard cut-out with two open rectangular panels for the two front windows. The musical guests stood right next to the audience on the hardwood floor, desperately trying to pay attention to the one camera when the light flashed red.
In Chicago, Cornelius had convinced management at WCIU to let him use the station’s cramped studio in the attic of the Board of Trade building for the set. He reached out to his list of contacts from the WVON, where he worked as a news reporter, and from the artists he’d been promoting in high school auditoriums. Joseph Hutchinson, the father of the Emotions singers, was the first person he contacted, then Jerry Butler, and the Chi-Lites. All of them he booked them for the first show.
He also reached out to his colleague at WVON, Don Jackson, the first black advertising sales manager at the station, as well as the youngest, to help him develop the show. He told him that it would have the hippest dancers from around town and first class acts from the Chicago music scene.
So Cornelius knew that he was going to have to do this on his own.
Next, he needed to find dancers—but not just any dancers. He needed the kind that would keep the attention of an audience used to seeing the latest dances at the clubs around town.
At first, he simply advertised for dancers in the black newspaper, The Chicago Defender. But it would take a chance meeting with a childhood friend to get the personnel that would make a name for the show.
As a teen, Clint Ghent danced nightly at Southside clubs. When he went to college, he caught the attention of a dance professor at Central State University in Ohio, who helped land him a scholarship for a six-month program at Julliard. Ghent returned to Chicago with a certificate to choreograph and ended up choreographing for The Emotions, the Chi-Lites, the Whispers, and other soul groups—eventually even the Jackson Five.
One night while dancing at the Guys and Gals club on 69th and Green, he ran into Don Cornelius.
Cornelius didn’t hesitate. “I’m putting together a TV show. I need the best dancers. Can you get them together?” he asked Ghent.
The dancers Ghent got turned out to be the baddest dancers from clubs around town, performing the latest crazes like the Monkey, the Funky Broadway, and