[EXCERPT] 'Soul Train's Mighty Ride'

[EXCERPT] 'Soul Train's Mighty Ride'

Ericka Blount Danois’ forthcoming book takes a look at the house Don Cornelius built

Ericka Blount Danois

by Ericka Blount Danois, February 02, 2012

[EXCERPT] 'Soul Train's Mighty Ride'

the Bop. The idea was to capture the real-life energy of a smoky, hole-in-the-wall club, a place where people come to dance until the sun rises and sets again.

The Chicago show had become a hit virtually overnight. In just a year, it had joined every Midwestern pre-teen’s and teenager’s afternoon line-up: Soul Train followed by Speed Racer, then The Three Stooges. With the freedom of expression of the 1960s and a new interest in black culture in the early 1970s, Cornelius felt the time was right to take Soul Train to the next level. The world was ready for a show that celebrated black culture, he thought, so he began planning a power move to Los Angeles.

But he was nervous. Even by the early 1970s, advertisers, especially in the South, were still unconvinced that audiences would tune in to watch a black host, let alone dancers with the kind of explosive energy and psychedelic styling seen on Soul Train. Plus, Cornelius didn’t have national name recognition. Even Nat King Cole, one of America’s most beloved talents, was unable to get advertising in the South, and The Nat King Cole Show shut down after just a year on the air.

Nevertheless, armed with a pilot featuring chart-toppers The Dells, The Staple Singers, Tyrone Davis, and The Chi-Lites, Cornelius spent his own money to personally pitch a national version of Soul Train to television executives across the country. He coaxed executives to give him their worst time slot in exchange for getting his innovative, hip new show--for free! Then he offered them six minutes of commercial time, while he took six minutes of commercial time for himself.

It was an offer that was hard to refuse. For stations with dead air time, instead of airing reruns for cheap advertising rates they could show original programming that could be sold to advertisers at a higher rate. With Cornelius, television executives had someone essentially doing the legwork for their profit. But Cornelius profited as well, pocketing his advertising revenue and earning credibility for his nascent show.

And by 1971, in the continuing wake of Dr. King’s murder, civil unrest, and the resulting Kerner Commission that called for an increase of minority representation in media, some Southern affiliates had finally softened their tone when it came to sponsoring a show with a black host. Cornelius picked up syndication in two Southern states--Texas and Georgia. Of course, it didn’t hurt anyone’s pockets that soul music, like blues before it, was marketable to black and white teenagers—and their parents too—especially from the privacy of their homes. 

At first, of the twenty-five markets that Cornelius visited, only seven picked up the show. Plus, they stuck Soul Train on Saturday mornings right after cartoons, which for many of the advertisers was their worst time slot. Turning trash to treasure, Cornelius realized the advantages of catering to kids and teens. Cornelius and his sponsors knew, like Dick Clark before him, that teens from the soon-to-be populous baby boomer generation had buying power and, were particularly susceptible to advertisers.

Better yet, in a few markets Soul Train aired right after a new Motown production on ABC, a cartoon featuring one of the most ubiquitously popular teenage singing groups of all time, The Jackson Five. The Jackson 5ive cartoon had begun airing just a month before Soul Train’s national debut, but already it had hooked in younger black viewers.

Eventually adults tuned in to Soul Train too. Every Saturday morning they watched the show, learning new dances to take to the club Saturday night. As the ratings soared, it became clear that a sizeable white population was boarding the train as well.

By the start of the second season in Los Angeles, 4 million viewers were hooked, and Soul Train became a primary destination for the distribution of black culture on television, expanding to include 26 syndicated markets. In its third year, it spread to 80 markets, and for black viewing audiences the show rated with prime-time network shows—in part because it was the only black entertainment program on the air. Musical artists who had been relegated to the Chitlin’ circuit for much of the 1960s were suddenly catapulted to the mainstream, as the show became the most important promotional vehicle for record companies to sell black artists’ music to white America.

Stars were born from the ranks of the show’s dancers, stars like Fred “Penguin” Berry, a dancer who became the actor “Rerun” on the fluffy comedy series What’s Happening!! (ABC 1976-1979); Adolpho “Shabba-Doo” Quinones, who would serve as a choreographer for Madonna and Lionel Richie, and perform with Alvin Ailey; Walter “Sweetness” Payton, who became a running back for the Chicago Bears; Carmen Electra, who became a model, actress, and television personality, best known for her role on Baywatch; Damita Jo Freeman, who would choreograph for Cher, Shirley

More great reads from Ericka Blount Danois

Stay in the Know
Sign up for the Ebony Newsletter