The Soul Train: Joe Simon, Cheryl Lynn (Feb. 1979)
Soul Train is an American musical variety show that aired in syndication from 1971 to 2006. In its 35-year history, the show primarily featured performances by R&B, soul, and hip hop artists, although funk, jazz, disco, and gospel artists have also appeared. The series was created by Don Cornelius, who also served as its first host and executive producer.
Production was suspended following the 2005–06 season, with a rerun package (known as The Best of Soul Train) airing for two years after that. As a nod to Soul Train’s longevity, the show’s opening sequence (during later seasons) contained a claim that it was the “longest-running first-run, nationally syndicated program in television history,” with over 1,100 episodes produced from the show’s debut through the 2005-06 season.
Despite the production hiatus, Soul Train will continue to hold this honor until at least 2016, if and when its nearest competitor, Entertainment Tonight, completes its 35th season. (If ET does not complete a 35th season, Wheel of Fortune would pass in 2018 if it continues to air).
The origins of Soul Train can be traced to 1965 when WCIU-TV, an upstartUHF station in Chicago, began airing two youth-oriented dance programs:Kiddie-a-Go-Go and Red Hot and Blues. These programs—specifically the latter, which featured a predominantly African American group of in-studio dancers—would set the stage for what was to come to the station several years later. Don Cornelius, a news reader and backup disc jockey at Chicago radio station WVON, was hired by WCIU in 1967 as a news and sports reporter. Cornelius also was promoting and emceeing a touring series of concerts featuring local talent (sometimes called “record hops”) at Chicago-area high schools, calling his traveling caravan of shows “The Soul Train.” WCIU-TV took notice of Cornelius’s outside work and in 1970, allowed him the opportunity to bring his road show to television.
After securing a sponsorship deal with the Chicago-based retailer Sears, Roebuck & Co., Soul Train premiered on WCIU-TV on August 17, 1970, as a live show airing weekday afternoons. The first episode of the program featured Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, and the Emotions as guests. Cornelius was assisted by Clinton Ghent, a local professional dancer who appeared on early episodes before moving behind the scenes as a producer and secondary host.
Move to syndication
Its immediate success attracted the attention of another locally based firm—the Johnson Products Company (manufacturers of the Afro Sheen line of hair-care products)—and they later agreed to co-sponsor the program’s expansion into national syndication. Cornelius and Soul Train‘s syndicator targeted 24 markets outside of Chicago to carry the show, but stations in only seven other cities—Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Francisco—purchased the program, which began airing on a weekly basis on October 2, 1971. By the end of the first season, Soul Train was on in the other seventeen markets. When the program moved into syndication, its home base was also shifted to Los Angeles, where it remained for the duration of its run. Soul Train was part of a national trend toward syndicated music-oriented programs targeted at niche audiences; two other network series (Hee Haw for country music, and The Lawrence Welk Show for traditional music) also entered syndication in 1971 and would go on to have long runs.
Though Don Cornelius moved his operations west, Soul Train continued in Chicago as a local program. Cornelius hosted the local Chicago and Los Angeles–based national programs simultaneously, but soon focused his attention solely on the national edition. He continued to oversee production in Chicago, where Clinton Ghent hosted episodes on WCIU-TV until 1976, followed by three years of once-weekly reruns. The syndicated version was picked up in Chicago by CBS–owned WBBM-TV at its launch; the program moved to WGN-TV in 1977 and remained there for the balance of its run.
In 1985 Chicago-based Tribune Entertainment (WGN’s syndication wing) took over Soul Train’s syndication contract; the series would continue distribution through Tribune for the rest of its original run.
Don Cornelius ended his run as host at the end of the show’s 22nd season on June 26, 1993, though he remained the show’s main creative force from behind the scenes. The following fall, Soul Train began using various guest hosts weekly until comedian Mystro Clark began a two-year stint as permanent host in 1997. Clark was replaced by actor Shemar Moore in 1999. In 2003, Moore was succeeded by actor Dorian Gregory, who hosted through 2006.
Production of first-run episodes was suspended at the conclusion of the 2005–06 season, the show’s 35th, though several episodes were apparently produced for a 36th season that never aired. Instead, for two seasons starting in 2006–07, the program aired archived episodes (all from between 1974 and 1987) under the title The Best of Soul Train. This was because in recent years, Nielsen ratings dropped to below 1.0; however, the classic episodes seemed to revive interest in the series and received a mostly positive response. In the process, some of the stations that used to air Soul Train on Saturday afternoons started burying it to middle-of-the-night time slots. The future of Soul Trainwas uncertain with the announced closing of Tribune Entertainment’s syndication division on December 18, 2007, which left Don Cornelius Productions to seek a new distributor for the program. Cornelius soon secured a deal with Trifecta Entertainment & Media.
When Don Cornelius Productions still owned the program, clips of the show’s performances and interviews were kept away from online video sites such as YouTube owing to copyright infringement claims. Cornelius also frowned upon unauthorized distribution of Soul Train episodes through the sale of third-party VHS or DVD compilations.
In May 2008, Cornelius sold the rights to the Soul Train library to MadVision Entertainment, whose principal partners come from the entertainment and publishing fields. The price and terms of the deal were not disclosed. However, by the start of the 2008–09 television season, the Tribune-owned stations (including national carrier WGN America) that had been the linchpin of the show’s syndication efforts dropped the program, and many others followed suit. Soul Train’s website acknowledged that the program had ceased distribution on September 22, 2008.
Following the purchase by MadVision, the Soul Train archives were exposed to new forms of distribution. In April 2009, MadVision launched a Soul Train channel on YouTube. Three months later, the company entered into a licensing agreement with Time–Life to distribute Soul Train DVD sets. MadVision then came to terms with Viacom-owned Black Entertainment Television to relaunch the Soul Train Music Awards for BET’s new spin-off channel, Centric, in November 2009, a move that may be one step into reviving the program. Centric, which launched on September 28, 2009, is currently broadcasting archived episodes of the program. Archived episodes of the series can also be seen on Bounce TV, an Atlanta-based television network that launched on September 26, 2011.
MadVision sold the rights to Soul Train to a consortium led by basketball player Magic Johnson in 2011. Johnson’s group plans on a potential film project Cornelius had briefly mentioned prior to selling the franchise, as well as producing potential stage adaptations and a cruise. As part of the sale, Johnson’s Aspire TV channel also began airing reruns of the series.
Cornelius continued to appear for Soul Train documentaries and ceremonies up until his death in February 2012.
Some commentators have called Soul Train a “black American Bandstand,” another long-running program with whichSoul Train shares some similarities. Cornelius, however, tended to bristle at the Bandstand comparison.
Dick Clark, host and producer of American Bandstand, attempted to divert viewers from Soul Train with a similarly themed program called Soul Unlimited, whose brief run on ABC in 1973 was controversial for its pronounced racial overtures. Clark ended Soul Unlimited after a handful of airings and agreed to work with Cornelius on a series of network specials featuring R&B and soul artists.
Cornelius was relatively conservative in his musical tastes and was admittedly not a fan of the emerging hip hop genre, believing that the genre did not reflect positively on African American culture (one of his stated goals for the series). Even though Cornelius would feature rap artists on Soul Train frequently during the 1980s, he publicly would admit (to the artists’ faces such as Kurtis Blow) that the genre was one that he did not understand; as rap continued to move further toward hardcore hip hop, Cornelius would admit to be frightened by the antics of groups such as Public Enemy.Rosie Perez testified in the 2010 VH1 documentary Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America that Cornelius also disliked seeing the show’s dancers perform sexually suggestive “East Coast” dance moves. Cornelius admittedly had rap artists on the show only because the genre was becoming popular among his African American audience, though the decision alienated middle-aged, more affluent African Americans like himself. This disconnect eventually led to Cornelius’s stepping down as host in the early 1990s and the show’s losing its influence.
Within the structure of the program, there were two enduring elements. The first was the “Soul Train Scramble Board,” where two dancers are given 60 seconds to unscramble a set of letters that form the name of that show’s performer or a notable person in African American history. In describing the person’s renown, the host concluded their description with the phrase “…whose name you should know.” Cornelius would openly admit after the series ended its run that the game was usually set up so everybody won in an effort not to cause embarrassment for the show or African Americans in general.
There was also the popular “Soul Train Line,” in which all the dancers form two lines with a space in the middle for dancers to strut down and dance in consecutive order. Originally, this consisted of a couple—with men on one side and women on the other. In later years, men and women had their own individual lineups. Sometimes, new dance styles or moves were featured or introduced by particular dancers. In addition, there was an in-studio group of dancers who danced along to the music as it was being performed. Rosie Perez, Damita Jo Freeman, Darnell Williams, Carmen Electra, Nick Cannon, MC Hammer, Jermaine Stewart, Fred “Rerun” Berry, Laurieann Gibson, Pebbles, and NFL legend Walter Payton were among those who got noticed dancing on the program over the years. Two former dancers, Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, enjoyed years of success as members of the R&B group Shalamar after they were chosen by Soul Train talent booker/record promoter Dick Griffey and Cornelius to replace the group’s original session singers in 1978. Watley would later enjoy success as a solo artist after leaving Shalamar.
Each guest usually performed twice on each program; after their first number, they were joined by the program host onstage for a brief interview. The show was also known for two popular catchphrases, referring to itself as the “hippest trip in America” at the beginning of the show and closing the program with “…and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace…and SOUL!”
In 1987 Soul Train launched the Soul Train Music Awards, which honors the top performances in R&B, hip hop, and gospel music (and, in its earlier years, jazz music) from the previous year. Soul Train later created two additional annual specials: The Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, first airing in 1995, celebrated top achievements by female performers; and the Soul Train Christmas Starfest, which premiered in 1998, featured holiday music performed by a variety of R&B and gospel artists.
The Lady of Soul Awards and Christmas Starfest programs last aired in 2005. In April 2008, Don Cornelius announced that year’s Soul Train Music Awards ceremony had been canceled. Cornelius cited the three-month-long strike by the Writers Guild of America as one of the reasons, though a main factor may have been the uncertainty surrounding Soul Train’s future. Cornelius also announced that a motion picture based on the program was in development. However, subsequent owners of the franchise have followed their own agenda for the program, which included a revival of the Soul Train Music Awards as of 2009.