If you have any interest at all in soul, rhythm & blues, and funk music (the primary genres featured on the programme), you have no excuse to have never heard of this groundbreaking television show. As best as i can tell, in spite of its syndicated distribution (meaning it wasn’t tied to a single network, and local markets, especially independent UHF stations and, later, cable access programmes, tended to pick it up, depending on local demand), it aired only in the United States, but many British musos, when on tour in the States, including Elton John (who was later a guest musician on the show) often cited it among their favourite American programs.
The show’s origins began with Chicago-based radio personality, Don Cornelius, and origins have also been cited in local Chicago UHF programs, Kiddie-A-G-Go and Red Hot & Blues, the latter of which was especially notable for its predominantly African-American dancers, and the former, well, today it would be said to aim for the “tween market”, but back then, if you were between the ages of eight and twelve years, you were just a kid. While I can confirm that both programs first aired in 1965, both seem to have ended within a few years before Soul Train. The format of each programme seemed similar to American Bandstand and other, similar programmes that produced and aired locally: Play some of the latest singles of the day, feature a popular band or two, the host MC of the show might hold some Q&A with one of the music acts featured, and some sort of featured “game” or quiz based around a record featured on the show.
I would like to apologise for being unable to find any video for Red Hot & Blues.
Now to Don Cornelius: In addition to his radio work, he also hosted a travelling series of “record hops” around Chicago area high schools as an after-hours activity, and this became nicknamed his “soul train”. WCIU, which had previously hosted Kiddie-A-G-Go and Red Hot & Blues, soon took note of Cornelius’ success with the travelling record hops, and made him an offer to basically tweak the format a little and put it on television. On 17 August 1970, Soul Train first aired on WCIU, as a local Chicago program, after securing a sponsorship with the Chicago-based Sears & Roebuck company.
It didn’t take long at all for Soul Train to prove a local success, and the Johnson Products Company (the makers of Afrosheen and Ultrasheen; not to be confused with Johnson & Johnson, the baby shampoo people), also based in Chicago offered to co-sponsor the program for national syndication, which began on 2 October 1971.
(apologies for the awful rip, just be assured that I had nothing to do with this)
Initially, the program was only picked up in seven local markets in the States, in addition to Chicago: Atlanta (Georgia), Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Francisco —all cities which, at the time, had large African-American populations, except perhaps San Francisco, but then again, this is San Francisco. In Chicago, Soul Train was also unique, at this time: Cornelius moved production to Los Angeles, upon gaining national syndication, but wanted the Chicago production of the show to remain on WCIU, in spite of Chicago’s CBS affiliate picking up the national version, so professional dancer and co-host in the earliest pre-syndication episodes, Clinton Ghent, hosted the WCIU Soul Train until 1976. Chicago essentially had two versions of the show for most of the 1970s —and unfortunately, I can’t find a single pre- or post-syndication WCIU Soul Train, not even a clip, on the Internet.
The first theme song for Soul Train was King Curtis’ “Hot Potatoes”, recorded in 1962, but this didn’t last very long. In 1973, the theme was replaced by “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”, and though it only lasted until 1975 (though with re-recordings featured as the show’s theme from 1986 to 1993), it became the programme’s best-known theme song, and has been covered several times, with one notable version by Dexys Midnight Runners —which is oddly appropriate, as the piece is essentially an instrumental with prominent horns and strings, and horns and strings certainly define the DMR sound.
Don Cornelius wasn’t all that keen on the comparisons that Soul Train got to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, in spite of the similarities in format. One of the reasons is likely cos in 1973, Clark sought to compete with Soul Train, and produced Soul Unlimited, which didn’t survive a full television season on ABC. Soul Unlimited was presented by then-DC area DJ Buster Jones (who later became best known as a voice actor), and a lot of the program’s critics, including Jessie Jackson and record producer Clarance Avant, felt that Soul Unlimited pandered to stereotyping by alleged use of “deliberitely racial overtones” —being a white kid born long after Soul Unlimited left the airwaves, and having only very limited access to clips from Soul Unlimited, I can only guess on what this was all about, but I do sense the “jive talk” enunciation in Jones’ voice in a few interview segments, which has been a problematic portrayal of African Americans since the 1920s, and his wardrobe tended to be a bit more flash than Don Cornelius.
…I think the biggest reason for the outcry against Soul Unlimited was ultimately that it was conceived of and produced by a white man who clearly was attempting to take over a television niche popularised by an African American who worked very hard most of the prior decade to gain he success he had earned from this syndicated program —and that program had become successful beyond what many, I’m sure, expected of it. In the end of Soul Unlimited, Clark agreed to work with Cornelius on a series of soul-themed network television specials for ABC.
While Soul Train remained culturally important throughout the 1970s, its relevance was believed to decline in the 1980s. Why? Hip-Hop.
Don Cornelius was a bit conservative in his tastes, and didn’t feel that even a lot of the downright silly early rap of the 1980s portrayed a positive-enough image for the African American community, which he prided himself over. He eventually brought on Hip-Hop and rap acts, though often making sure to choose who was featured very carefully. He was also critical of a lot of the more overtly sexual dancing popular on the East Coast in the 1980s hip-hop scenes, and apparently claimed to have been frightened by the theatrics and the prominent Black Panther imagery adopted by Public Enemy. One of the few hip-hop acts to have made several appearances on Soul Train throughout the 1980s was Whodini, likely because their best-known songs are indisputable “positive” and, well, rather tame:
Though Don Cornelius stepped down in 1993 from his role as presenter on Soul Train, the program continued (with several different presenters) until 2006, securing it as the longest-run program in national television syndication, an honour some sources site as being previously held by Hee-Haw (a similar program based around Country/Western and American Folk music) and The Laurence Welk Show (another similar program, but centred around early 20th Century pop, big band, and music hall selections).
Currently, Soul Train reruns in the United States on Aspire, a cable network owned by Comcast and Magic Johnson —which can probably be described as “The African American ME-TV” (there’s a huge rotation of African-American programming from the 1960s and ’70s, including the subtle espionage farce I Spy, featuring a young Bill Cosby, and Julia, starring Dihann Carroll, before she did Wookie porn), but with the addition of station-IDs that feature various current African-American singers, actors, poets, cellists, ballerinas, and so on. The cable network, Centric (formerly BET Jazz) also hosts the Soul Train Cruise and formerly hosted the Soul Train Music Awards.
Don Cornelius’ health had been in decline for some time, and apparently, in 1982, he underwent brain surgery to correct an abnormality in a cerebral artery, but being a private person, few knew about this. In 2008, he’d also been arrested on domestic violence charges, to which he pleaded no contest and served a minor probation term. Finally, on 1 February 2012, he took his own life. An autopsy revealed that he had been suffering seizures as a complication from his 1982 surgery (and which may have very likely contributed to his 2008 DV charge), and a close friend believed that Cornelius had also been suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, and Cornelius’ son claimed that he had also been suffering extreme chronic pain, citing Don Cornelius’ last known words as “I don’t know how much longer I can take this”. While Soul Train certainly had its peak influence in the 1970s, its legacy continues on, and the archive footage certainly serve as a time capsule for US urban music and fashion during the 1970s.