For over 4 decades, every Saturday morning Soul Train brought America the very latest in music, dance and fashion trends. It was also one of the most important platforms to express black culture and break down bigoted cultural views across America at a time when the Civil Rights movement was in full steam. We love Soul Train for all of the music, the dancing and the grooves that it brought us, but most of all we love it most for what it stood for culturally.
At the heart of The hippest trip in America was the one and only Don Cornelius, the charismatic conductor who also doubled as the executive producer and mastermind. In the words of author Nelson George, what Soul Train did was take black joy – the excitement, the vitality, the spirit of soul music, of black music, of funk, of the beginnings of disco – and put it here in a format for everyone could enjoy in their living room.
The show premiered in 1970 in Chicago, Cornelius’s home town, and was an instant success – airing nation-wide within just two years of release and moving its headquarters to Los Angeles. Soul Train brought American audiences the latest and greatest of soul music, having hosted artists such as Aretha Franklin (side note, check her out in our April Records of the Month), Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, James Brown and many more. Next to the music, of course, was the dancing – a melting pot of the latest moves and grooves, from the funky chicken to the mashed potato all presented to the viewer through the Soul Train Line.
Soul Train – More than just a music show
What we might take for granted today is the radicalism of the show at the time. Most US television at the time had been very conservative when it came to race, while Soul Train was just groundbreaking. Don’t forget that in the early 70s the wounds of the tragedies that were going on in racial America were still very fresh, be those the riots in Detroit, the unrest in Memphis and the tragic killing of Martin Luther King. Topics that we may find unimaginable today, such as school segregation, were very much at the forefront of social dynamics.
While the content of the show wasn’t strictly political, it addressed the struggles of the time by giving a message of positivity and empowerment. Cornelius was finding all sorts of new and creative ways to incorporate black pride into the segments of the show, in some cases by even inviting political leaders such as Al Sharpton to come on to the show and give motivational messages and speeches. Even the advertisers and sponsors of the show stepped up and directly spoke to black consumers, most notably via the hair product Afro Sheen.
In one of the very first episodes, Cornelius stated to the audience – “I want black folks to be seen how black folks should be seen: strong, powerful and beautiful”
Soul Train – The music and the dancing
Within just a short period of the show’s release, artists were ringing up to have the opportunity to perform on it. Although many were lip-synced renditions of the artists’ hits, some offered live performances (such as James Brown), while others like Stevie Wonder went as far as improvising Soul Train jingles live on the show.
We think that the show’s powerful platform was recognized pretty quickly – and how could it not? It was absolutely captivating for audiences – from the stage set-up, to the vibrant California-cool colours of the outfits worn by dances, to the varying hair-styles and of course the overall funky and soulful groove of it all. It was all a trip – a party and a celebration. The show also gave a platform to so many dancers to catapult their own careers – one notable and familiar name of course being Rosie Perez (for those of you who’ve seen White Men Can’t Jump, you’ll know).
We thought we’d bring our readers a few of our favourite performance on the show and we truly hope that you enjoy them as much as we have!
First up, it’s the time James Brown turned up in a purple jump suit and got everybody dancing and swingin’ to Get on the Good Foot!
And next, here’s the Soul Line Train which we think everyone should see to experience first-hand, what it is that we love so much about this show!
The legacy of the show and of Cornelius live on, thankfully. So many books (including this one by Questlove) have been written, so many great photographs collated that this story will live forever. In case you haven’t already, be sure to also check out American Soul – the TV-show centered around Don Cornelius and Soul Train.
In Cornelius’s own words, “As always in parting, we wish you love, peace, and soul.”