Don Cornelius' 'Soul Train' Trick: Putting Actual Black People In Your Living Room
From the opening shout of "Sooooouuul Traaaain" to the final dance number, Soul Train hosted by Don Cornelius was more than just the black answer to American Bandstand. Soul Train put soul and R&B music front and center while mainstreaming black urban culture. Soul Train introduced artists like Earth, Wind & Fire, King Curtis, and Sister Sledge to viewers in middle America. Without Soul Train, Americans of all colors might not have seen stylish black people having fun on television.
It may sound ridiculous today, but the entertainment industry engaged in a selective segregation that permitted black artists to have chart hits and perform, but assumed a white audience of white consumers. The idea of black artists playing music for black people, and advertisers selling products to black consumers during the commercial break, was outlandish in the '60s.
It all goes back to Chicago
Before there was Soul Train there was Red Hot and Blues, a dance program aimed at young black people that aired in 1965 on WCIU-TV, a new UHF station in Chicago. The show featured in studio dancers made up predominantly of people of color, and audiences took notice - particularly one mister Don Cornelius. At the time, Cornelius was working as a backup disc jockey at WVON in Chicago, and in 1967 he was brought onto WCIU to read the news.
Cornelius wasn't in radio and television to read the news, he wanted to make people dance. He kept a side hustle promoting a series of road shows featuring local performers who played at Chicago-area high schools that he referred to as "The Soul Train," and in 1970 WCIU asked him to bring the Train to television.
Cornelius gets his chance to shine
After years of reporting about crime in low income areas of Chicago and living through the civil rights movement, Cornelius was ready to bring joy to television, and he specifically felt that it was important to bring black joy to screens when the only thing that white America was hearing about in the media was the rising crime rate.
On August 17, 1970, Soul Train was beamed into homes around Chicago from the WCIU-TV studios, sponsored by Sears. Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, and the Emotions were the first guests, and Cornelius was there with his airplane pilot voice, inviting audiences to have a good time and dance for an hour, but it wasn't as simple as just setting up some cameras and doing the mashed potato. Cornelius had daily fights with advertisers who thought the show was too black. Sinqua Walls, who plays Cornelius on the BET dramatization of the Soul Train story, American Soul, explained to The Guardian:
What I learned was there was Don Cornelius the host, and DC the man. The only image we got of Don was the cool guy on Soul Train... Don had to butt heads with everybody: the buyers, the advertisers, people who wanted to invest in the show for ulterior motives. His challenges were daily.
'Soul Train' was the harbinger go a new era
The weekly dance series was immediately embraced by viewers in the black community who saw it as a two-fold experience. Sure, it was a fun dance show where new artists premiered every week, but it was also a chance to see yourself on television. There were people who looked like you, dressed like you, and danced like you on television every week and they were having fun. Greg Tate, a writer for the Village Voice explains:
The fact that somebody could have an all-black audience dancing to all-black musicians every Saturday reflected a serious paradigm shift in American mass entertainment. [It was] a post-revolutionary moment when anything black people did on a certain scale felt political.
The show went national thanks to Afro Sheen
The dancers, the music, the immaculately coiffured host - there was no way that Soul Train was going to stay local. The weekly series was immediately successful and the Johnson Products Company took notice. The manufacturers of Afro Sheen offered to bring Soul Tain to a national audience, offering their backing as a way to make sure the show received syndication.
Initially, markets were wary about picking up the all black dance show, with stations in Atlanta, Birmingham, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia acting as the early adopters on October 2, 1971. It took the entirety of the first season for another 18 markets to come around to the glory that was Soul Train. The syndication deal for Soul Train was vastly important. Not only did it mean that the series was being broadcast around the country, but Cornelius kept control of his show and didn't have to do anything he didn't want to. Author Nelson George told NPR:
In the same way that Mike Douglas owned his show. Syndicated TV was, you know, it's sort of - people don't even really think about syndicated TV now because of cable's dominance, but that was the other way in. And if you were able to find a sponsor who would get you enough money to produce the content, there were enough independent TV stations around the country that were looking for shows that you could make that sale. And Don was able to do that.
The performances were like nothing else on television
As important as Cornelius was to creating and producing the show, viewers at home watched for the joy of seeing the Soul Train Dancers shake a tailfeather to the most cutting edge performers of the era. The Jackson 5 appeared frequently, Stevie Wonder improvised a song on the air, and James Brown was one of the few performers who left the bandstand to dance with the people on the floor. For audiences who weren't used to R&B, funk, or soul music Soul Train was a weekly hour-long deep dive into wonderful new grooves. It reflected young black America in a way that nothing else was doing at the time.
Taping 'Soul Train' wasn't all fun and games
Once Soul Train moved out to California in its early syndication days, Cornelius brought on a series of "personality" dancers who were cast for their good looks and dance floor prowess. Cornelius and his crew shot for two days straight, recording an entire month of programming in one weekend. There was little to no pay for the floor dancers this schedule was brutal, but they were offered a chance to get front and center during each episode with the Soul Train line.
This portion of each episode saw dancers face off opposite of one another and form two lines. Couples danced in between them and did the best they could to be memorable for the camera. Dancer Jeffrey Daniel explains how crazy things could get for a dancer who wanted to be remembered:
I did a handstand on a skateboard down the Soul Train line. I came down dancing with a mannequin. Once I roller-skated down, doing splits and spins. My partner Jody Watley and I once staged a fight coming down the line, and the other dancers rushed to intervene and try to pull us apart because they thought it was real.
'Soul Train' brought fashion to television
Soul Train wasn't just ground zero for some of the most mind-blowing dance moves at the time (people were popping, locking, and voguing on the Train long before it was happening anywhere else), but it was a show where you could find cutting edge fashion. In the early days of Soul Train, dancers were wearing everything from bell bottoms, to dashikis, to skin tight body suits. There was no specific style on Soul Train, the only thing that mattered was if the outfit looked good or not. Louie Ski Carr, Soul Train dancer, said of the visual expression of the show:
Every Saturday morning, that was our chance to see our people, and to indulge in our own dances, styles, eras, and crazes.
The series was a place of expression in uncertain times
With Soul Train, Cornelius found an outlet for channeling black pride across the airwaves at a time when America was at an impasse. Without being overtly political Cornelius met the struggles of the 1970s head on with a beaming ray of positivity. But it's not that he just put a happy face on a chaotic era, he used the negativity that was coming out of the news every day and let it fuel a series that allowed young black people to be themselves.