Giving voice to the increasing popularity of soul, R&B, and disco, a local Chicago show was soon a national obsession – Soul Train.
Born out of a radio promotion by then news reader / disc jockey Don Cornelius, The Soul Train was a series of concerts promoting local talent in the African-American community at highschools.
Its popularity soon got the notice of his new employer WCIU TV, who wanted to bring the show to television.
In August 1970, after securing sponsorship from Sears Roebuck, Soul Train premiered on WCIU TV, with Don Cornelius as host, and special guests The Emotions, Jerry Butler and the Chi-lites. Airing weekday afternoons, the show’s popularity with teenagers soared, and picking up another sponsor, Johnson Products, the team decided to nationally syndicate the variety show with its unique mix of music, culture and dance.
Chosen in seven markets – Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco, Soul Train began to air weekly in these markets in October 1971. By the end of the season, 17 more cities were airing the variety show. Moving to WBBM in Chicago and later WGN, the show’s base moved from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Despite the move to California, Cornelius kept a local version of the show going in Chicago which he hosted simultaneously with the national show airing out of Los Angeles. Every major performer of the time appeared on Soul Train such as The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Elton John and David Bowie.
The show had two repeating elements each week: the Soul Train Scramble Board, where the two dancers are given a minute to unscramble the letters which spelled out a performer or significant African-American person, and the Soul Train Line, where the dancers lined up and showed off their moves.
The show wasn’t just the place to see performances by the musical acts of the day or see the dance moves that one wanted to know, but the self-named “hippest trip in America” was a place to pick up on fashion styles and see African-American culture in action. Later on the show reluctantly welcomed rap and hip hop into its family, and became the launching pad for several dancers, including Jody Watley, Jeffrey Daniel and Rosie Perez, as well as Prince, Run DMC and emerging hip hop performers.
Known for its unique theme songs, such as Soul Train Hot Potato, TSOP, Soul Train 75 and Up on Soul Train, the show was something that I only saw in the 1980s, but I was fascinated with the styles and dance moves, no matter if I saw old shows or the current shows.
As one of the longest running entertainment variety shows, that ended its run in the 21st century, Soul Train’s enduring legacy came be summed up with its end tagline – we wish you love, peace and SOUL!