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!!”
[DISCUSS! CELEBS, NOTEABLES REACT TO THE DEATH OF DON CORNELIUS]
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 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 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.