MacLaine, Whitney Houston, and Air Supply; Rosie Perez (Pineapple Express, Do the Right Thing); and singer and Grammy award-winner Jody Watley, who started out as a dancer, signed to Soul Train Records with the R&B group Shalamar, and eventually sold over 50 million albums as a solo artist.
On August 17, 1970, Soul Train premiered on a set the size of a small dining room. At a time when color television was the hippest thing in town, it was filmed live in black-in-white. The dressing room was literally a closet. The floor was black with a green spot in the middle where the artists stood in close proximity to the dancers. The one camera was manned by a cock-eyed cameraman who was physically unable to use the viewfinder. He had to move around to catch different angles of the artists and dancers. Filmed live, there was no opportunity for mistakes.
The show opened up with a clip of a real train coming down the tracks. Then it cut to Don Cornelius, who wore a low-cut tank top, accented by chains and leather. His hair was done in an Afro that he parted neatly on the left-hand side. He talked to the audience in the rhyming style he had learned from working at WVON using lines like: “We’ll be dealing some good feeling for the next 60 minutes.”
For the rest of the show, the dancers angled for airtime, throwing out wild dance moves that would hopefully keep the camera still for a minute. Jerry Butler came on and sang his hits “People Get Ready” and “For Your Precious Love.” The Emotions sang some of their tunes that didn’t chart, including, “I Can’t Stand No More Heartaches,” and “So I Can Love You.” But the songs were well known locally from the sisters singing at The Regal Theater, where they had won many talent shows, and at the Mount Mariah Baptist Church, where their father served as pastor. But it was the dancers who stole the show, with their cool, laid-back gliding and strutting.
The show went on without any glitches to the television audience. At the end, Cornelius signed off with what would become his signature line: “And you can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey! I'm Don Cornelius, and in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!”
Ericka Blount Danois is the author of the forthcoming book “Soul Train’s Mighty Ride, Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show,” to be published by Backbeat Books later this year. You can reach her at her website: www.erickablount.com.