How 'Soul Train' Got America Dancing

The hourlong dance variety show Soul Train was the longest-running syndicated show in history when it signed off in 2006. Adolfo "Shabba Doo" Quinones, one of the program's original dancers, celebrates Soul Train's 40th anniversary with a look back at the show's impact on fashion, dance and culture.

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NEAL CONAN, Host:

From 1970 to 2006, "Soul Train" was the show with a permanent revolving door, bringing on dancers and singers to show you how to bump it, crump it, puck it, or even break it, along with performers like the Jackson Five, Gladys Knight, James Brown, and the voice of the groove that will make you move real smooth.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")

DON CORNELIUS: I'm Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul.

CONAN: And now as the show edges past it's 40th anniversary, we want to talk about the show's influence on music, culture, fashion, and dance. In a moment, one of the "Soul Train" dancers joins us. But first, for those of you listening, what is your "Soul Train" story? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Adolfo Shabba Doo Quinones is one of the original "Soul Train" dancers. He went on to become a director, choreographer, actor and dance instructor around the world. He joins us today from the studios at CAN, our member station in North Ridge, California. And thanks very much for being with us today.

ADOLFO QUINONES: I'm glad to be here.

CONAN: And remind us what it was like on the show 40 years ago. What are your first memories?

QUINONES: First of all, I want to say that it was magical. It was nothing short of a fantasy to go on "Soul Train" during a time - you know, if you know, you know, I think the Vietnam War was still going on.

CONAN: Sure.

QUINONES: We were still divided in our country. We were still trying to come to grips with who you were as a collective people. We had the civil rights movement that was still in full bloom. We had James Brown at the top of his game.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

QUINONES: It was a very special time. I call it and I liken it to the Camelot of hip-hop at that time.

CONAN: Well, that was before...

QUINONES: (Unintelligible) Renaissance period.

CONAN: Yeah, before any of us knew the phrase hip-hop.

Mr. QUINONES. Yeah. Soul was the name of the game, and still is, basically. There's a new trend going around where people are saying, well, you know, they're calling it funk styles and this type of thing. And I reeducate them. I say, no, it's soul. It's always been soul.

And whether it be locking or popping or those types of dancing, it's really a super soul dance. We're all children of James Brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

QUINONES: And you know, and if James Brown was our father, then you'd have to say Don Cornelius was our great uncle.

CONAN: Don, what kind of a person was he like?

QUINONES: Kind of quiet. On the set he didn't really say much. But when he said things, it really made sense to do it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

QUINONES: Snappy dresser. I mean, he was pretty Toney - the Mac, P. Daddy, Jay-Z all rolled into one.

He got a little Obama thing to him too. So he was a very educated, articulate man. You know, I just remember watching him, like, from the set. Mind you, I was 16 at the time.

CONAN: Sure. Yeah.

QUINONES: I would look at him and think, God, I want to be like him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

QUINONES: Or at least I wanted his suit.

CONAN: Yeah. Wanted his suit. Now...

QUINONES: Yeah.

CONAN: ...there were a number of shows - the show started in Chicago and then went national. But there were a number of TV Shows like this in Chicago at the time. What made "Soul Train" take off, do you think?

QUINONES: Well, we had red hot and blues - and again, a number of show in Chicago that were based on, you know, or geared towards the ethnic crowd. But "Soul Train" had something a little bit different. It was a little more sane in terms how the show was put together. The red hot and blues in these shows in Chicago were really wild.

CONAN: Hmm. The other shows are - there was another one called "Kitty a Go-Go." Sometimes you have to wince at the names of some of these programs from all that time ago.

QUINONES: Very "Kitty a Go-Go."

CONAN: Yeah. Then finally after awhile, the show moved to Los Angeles.

QUINONES: Yeah. That was sad for us in Chicago. They were like, oh, you know, "Soul Train" is moving to L.A. And - but then this other thing happened where my mom, you know, says, hey, I'm going to move you guys to California. At the time, I was a bit of a hoodlum, you know? Running around the streets of Chicago, living in the Cabrini-Green projects, the infamous Cabrini-Green projects...

CONAN: Which are no longer with us.

QUINONES: Yeah, no longer with us. And so I stayed on the north side, mostly, but also the south side. But mostly north side. And so, I was mixed up in a lot of like street gangs and that kind of thing as a kid. Again, single mom, don't know what to do with myself. The only thing I could really do that was special was dancing. So, when she said, hey, we're going to move to California, I was like, great.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MR: I'm going - I'll get on "Soul Train" and my life will change. And sure enough, that's exactly what happened.

CONAN: It's interesting - of course, Motown, the very essence of Detroit, also moved to LA in that period, too. So it was - there was not just that.

QUINONES: Well, at some point, you need to come here. I mean, this is the Mecca of entertainment. So, you know, you need to come to California, I think, at some point.

CONAN: We're talking...

QUINONES: The only one that's proved different was Oprah. But...

CONAN: That's different. Yes, indeed.

QUINONES: Yes.

CONAN: Different kind of entertainment.

QUINONES: She's unique.

CONAN: We're talking with Adolfo Quinones, the - also known as Shabba Doo, one of the original "Soul Train" dancers who's gone on to become a choreographer, actor, dancer in many other venues. 800-989-8255. What is your "Soul Train" story? Let's start with Yvette(ph). Yvette with us from Gifford in Connecticut.

YVETTE: Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

YVETTE: I was calling just to say that I loved "Soul Train" as a teenager. And I was telling the person on the phone that I grew up in rural Mississippi and I was the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister. And dancing was forbidden altogether, especially dancing to "Soul Train." So I would wait and wait for my dad to go to bed, you know, on the nights that it would come on so that I could turn it up, you know, just loud enough for me to hear it and I would dance in my living room and have such a great time. So I have great memories of "Soul Train."

CONAN: Did your friends do the same thing?

YVETTE: I doubt it. I have no idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: You didn't tell anybody.

YVETTE: No. It was not something we talked about.

CONAN: Did you ever think, Shabba Doo, that this was forbidden fruit?

QUINONES: I think for some, it was. Well, for me, it was as well. My mom wanted me to go to school. She didn't want me to dance...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

QUINONES: ...on "Soul Train." She thought it was a waste of time.

CONAN: Huh. Well, Yvette, have you gone on to continue dancing there in Connecticut?

YVETTE: Absolutely. Every chance I get.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

YVETTE: Thanks.

CONAN: The dancers, The Lockers - and you talked about some of the steps that you guys innovated there...

WUINONES: Yeah.

CONAN: ...was there a dance director or did you guys bring those steps from the streets as it were?

QUINONES: Okay. We had a dance coordinator. Her name was Pam Brown - Pam, who would, sort of like, cast us on a show. But no, we brought our own dance styles. The locking that I came to be known for...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

QUINONES: ...and being part of the fabled legendary street dance crew, The Lockers, that dance was created by Don Campbellock Campbell. Don Campbellock Campbell created a dance that really changed the face of dance forever. And it was his relationship with Toni Basil - Toni Basil having been our sort of Abe Saperstein of The Lockers, kind of, you know, the (unintelligible).

CONAN: Abe Saperstein was of course the genius behind the Harlem Globetrotters.

QUINONES: Exactly. I would say that Toni Basil was sort of our Abe Saperstein in terms of how she was able to organize us into a professional dance troupe. I remember her teaching us how to count music. She was like, okay, we were like, count music? How do you count soul? It was crazy, you know? So...

CONAN: Yeah. But it turns out...

QUINONES: Anyway...

CONAN: ...it does have bars there, yeah.

QUINONES: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. But we didn't know that because all of our cues kind of went something like this, boom, pop, do boom, pada da boom, pada like that. And she was like, how do you guys get in sync like that? I said it's a feeling, you know?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

QUINONES: But, anyway, the original Lockers changed the face of dance. "Soul Train" was that sort of fertile soil for us. We were able to like, work it all out on the show coming down the "Soul Train" line.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

QUINONES: Every week, he would have a - Don Cornelius would have the dance of the week, you know, or something like that. And, and so we were able to introduce like The Witcha Ways(ph), Flukey Luke from The Lockers introduced the Witcha Ways. Scooby Doo and Campbellock Jr. would introduce like the Stop and Go. I would do the Shabba Doo and, you know, so we - Slim The Robot would do the robot. He had the late Fred Berry from "What's Happening."

CONAN: Well, that never went anywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

QUINONES: Well, yeah. He got Slim The Robot - I mean, he got Fred Berry from "What's Happening."

CONAN: Yeah.

QUINONES: He did - he created the slow motion so he was a dance of the week, too.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line.

QUINONES: Yeah.

CONAN: This is Harry(ph). Harry with us from Hickory in North Carolina.

HARRY: How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

HARRY: I learned how to dance watching "Soul Train." And you were talking about the meter dance, too. There's this three beats in two that us white folk don't really know very much about. But I was able to master it. And for several years, all through high school and college, people would clear the floor while I was out dancing.

CONAN: Really?

HARRY: I'm a Methodist minister now. I don't know if my congregation are hearing this. I'm 61. I do a lot of weddings and I go to a lot of receptions and they still clear the floor when I get out and dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

QUINONES: I love it.

CONAN: What's your favorite tune?

HARRY: Oh, goodness. You just pick one. And - I like the Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Running."

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HARRY: It's got that kind of beat that you can just move all over the place.

CONAN: I don't think I heard that on "Soul Train."

HARRY: You might not have.

CONAN: Might not have. All right.

HARRY: Might not have.

CONAN: Harry, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

HARRY: Okay.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Michael(ph). And Michael's calling from Charlotte, North Carolina.

MICHAEL: Hey, you guys. I distinctly remember Marvin Gaye performing on there with a shaggy beard after he came back from his time away in Europe, and how just seeing him there and performing live, how he just completely looked different than what we remembered him by - clean shaven on the cover of the various albums. And that just really stays out in my mind.

CONAN: Yeah. He was a different - still had the great voice, of course, but different kind of performer after he came back.

MICHAEL: Absolutely.

CONAN: Yeah.

MICHAEL: And then, of course, the tragic end. So that's kind of the picture that stays with me since his death.

CONAN: And I - you had the chance to meet - did you have the chance to meet those great performers who came by to perform on the program? Shabba?

QUINONES: Who, me?

CONAN: Yeah.

QUINONES: Oh, yes. Yes. Yes, I sure did. I was there. I was - I happen to have been there when Marvin Gaye came on the show. My sister danced with him. If you ever look at some of the old episodes, you're going to see my sister. She was considered one of the Butterfly Girls.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

QUINONES: The Butterfly Girls consist of my sister Fawn, who was married to Fluky Luke from The Lockers, Pat Davis and Lisa Jones. Anyway, when she's - when Marvin Gaye is singing, that's my sister he's singing to on the show.

CONAN: Oh. That must be - do you watch the old episodes?

QUINONES: Of course. Of course, I do. And I'm reminiscing - I'm like, oh, I remember when Marvin Gaye was singing that and I remember I was eating you a chicken or...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

QUINONES: Because also my ex-wife, who's now really a good friend of mine, Gwendolyn Powell, she was also a "Soul Train" gang member, original "Soul Train" gang member. And we were just reminiscing about the show the other day and I was like, remember we used to do like this and that? I mean, if you were there, it was kind of like - it was like a club, too.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

QUINONES: Because behind the cameras is what, you know, people didn't see, really. But we were sitting in the bleachers, you know, they would provide - we'd have food and stuff, and we're - we would get fan mail and we'd watch the, you know, the artist. The artist would come by and talk to us about the dancing on the show. But my biggest thrill is when James Brown came, that was like the pope came.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

QUINONES: I was like, oh, my God. I thought I was going to wet my pants.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

We're talking with Adolfo Quinones, Shabba Doo, one of the original "Soul Train" dancers. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this is Leonard(ph). Leonard with us from Long Island.

LEONARD: Hello. This is Mr. Leonard. And I remember my first time watching "Soul Train." It was on a Saturday. I woke up early one morning, I said, wow, Dick Clark has - he went all black on the show one day?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEONARD: It's really funny. Wow, look. Wow, look, Ma. Hey, look. Dick Clark is all black. Yeah, I heard soul and it thought it was something new. Okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEONARD: So, that was my first time.

CONAN: And did you become a regular every Saturday?

LEONARD: Yes I did. I used to do the "Soul Train" dance. Just like the previous caller said, I can do the line dance, turn around do the split, all of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Leonard, like you, I'm sadly old enough to remember a lot of these shows. And one of the big differences with "Soul Train" - and Adolfo would know this much better than I do - most of those shows, the performers came on and lip-synched to whatever their single was. They really sang and played on "Soul Train."

LEONARD: Right.

CONAN: Yeah.

LEONARD: Right. Back in the day, that's correct.

QUINONES: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Yeah. All right, Leonard, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Are you still dancing?

LEONARD: Yes, I am, with my bad knees. Yes, I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Gerri(ph). Gerri is with us from Walnut Creek in California.

GERRI: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I was 11 years old when I discovered "Soul Train" in 1972 and my parents had just moved back from Ireland. And so, here I was, this white Irish-American kid with an accent who got up on Saturday mornings and couldn't wait to watch "Soul Train" because I loved soul music. And if you remember, transistor radios - I used to listen to the transistor radio before I'd fall asleep at night to the soul station in the town that I grew up in, San Mateo, and they had a station, KDIA, back then. And I absolutely love "Soul Train."

And if you know about the group U2, Bono says that he's very influenced by African-American music. And it was very exciting for me being this Irish-American kid discovering soul music and African-American culture back in 1972 through "Soul Train." And I've just recently rediscovered it on YouTube and I absolutely love it.

CONAN: Gerri, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

GERRI: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Ingrid(ph). Ingrid with us from Charlotte.

INGRID: Hey there. It's such an honor to actually speak to Shabba Doo. Oh, my gosh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INGRID: I just wanted to say, when I was a small child in the '70s and '80s, "Soul Train" was just hugely impressive upon me as far as, like, the music. And I just love the fact that it was called "Soul Train," but it included all kinds of music. There was the Doobie Brothers, there was Elton John, Captain and Tennille, along with, you know, like Gladys Knight and The Pips, and Marvin Gaye and Al Green, and all the '80's acts, and, you know, the Jacksons and, of course, DeBarge, and everybody.

So, as a kid growing up, I never felt that I had any limitations on what I could listen to musically. And we came up with all kinds of music in our household and "Soul Train" reflected that. So it was like the soul of everybody, not just necessarily, you know, African-Americans or urban community.

CONAN: Well, that's one of the things obviously had to make a breakthrough not just to the black community to have the enormous success and the enormous impact it had, but with other communities as well.

To that point, here's an email from Rebecca(ph) in Phoenix. I used to watch "Soul Train" all the time when I was a kid in the '70s. What I always found interesting was it was one of the few shows where you could see black individuals in the TV commercials. It was great.

Well, Ingrid, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

INGRID: Thanks so much.

CONAN: And Shabba Doo, thanks very much for sharing your memories of "Soul Train" with us. We appreciate your time today.

QUINONES: I'm glad you invited me. I'm really, really happy to be a part of this.

CONAN: Adolfo Shabba Doo Quinones is the head of On Q Media. He continues to lead workshops and seminars on dance technique and style around the world. I guess he's still locking.

Tomorrow, it's a special snowed-in version of the Political Junkie. Ken Rudin will join us no matter how deep it is.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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Celebrating 40 Years Of 'Soul Train'

Don Cornelius of Soul Train i i

hide captionDon Cornelius was Soul Train's host and executive producer, but he was also the show's owner, which made him the first black owner of a nationally syndicated television show.

Photo courtesy of Soul Train Holdings
Don Cornelius of Soul Train

Don Cornelius was Soul Train's host and executive producer, but he was also the show's owner, which made him the first black owner of a nationally syndicated television show.

Photo courtesy of Soul Train Holdings

I have to laugh when I see current fashion layouts that feature shorts in corduroy, suede and denim worn with tall boots and vests — and touted as The New Look.

Uh, no. That was The New Look 40 years ago, and people picked it up on Soul Train, the hourlong dance variety show that showcased some of the nation's premier soul artists from the early '70s until 2006. On Saturday, VH1 will air an hourlong documentary, Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America, as part of its rock-doc series.

And this doc does indeed rock. Hard. Aretha Franklin. Marvin Gaye. James Brown. George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Chaka Kahn. Ike and Tina Turner (in, ahem, hot pants and over-the-knee boots). They all appeared at the request of executive producer/owner Don Cornelius, who is credited with being the first black owner of a successful syndicated television show.

Later, when the disco craze threatened to derail Soul Train, Cornelius says he had to have a talk with himself.

"I realized that a lot of what people were dancing to were black artists — disco could be us, too," he said at the documentary's premiere in Beverly Hills. So Gloria Gaynor, Barry White and Donna Summer all performed their hits under a shimmering, mirrored disco ball. Love to love you, baby.

White artists benefited, too. Singer Gino Vanelli said Soul Train made him a crossover success, because his appearances on the show greatly expanded his black fan base. Same for The Average White Band and David Bowie.

Probably the most beloved part of the Soul Train hour was when the show focused on its regular teen dancers coming down the Soul Train Line. As the documentary points out, that line has become an integral part of many celebrations.

Kevin Swain, Smokey Robinson, Jodi Watley, Cuba Gooding Senior, Don Cornelius, QuestLove i i

hide captionWriter Cheo Horari Coker (from left), singer/producer Smokey Robinson, singer Jody Watley, The Main Ingredient's Cuba Gooding Sr., Soul Train host Don Cornelius and Ahmir "?uestLove" Thompson of The Roots.

Copyright Bruce W. Talamon, all rights reserved
Kevin Swain, Smokey Robinson, Jodi Watley, Cuba Gooding Senior, Don Cornelius, QuestLove

Writer Cheo Horari Coker (from left), singer/producer Smokey Robinson, singer Jody Watley, The Main Ingredient's Cuba Gooding Sr., Soul Train host Don Cornelius and Ahmir "?uestLove" Thompson of The Roots.

Copyright Bruce W. Talamon, all rights reserved

"Any African-American wedding, you have two things to close it out," Cedric the Entertainer says in the film. "A prayer, and the Soul Train Line."

And the line crossed ethnic borders to become a truly American tradition: Home videos in the documentary show couples who are Latino, Asian and white coming down the line at dances, parties, class reunions and weddings. And it wasn't just for young folk: There's a charming clip of a very sedate elderly couple dancing with elegant restraint through a double line of clapping, cheering youngsters.

The '70s get a constant drubbing for their bad taste and general lameness, but they got at least one thing right: Soul Train. And for an hour on Saturday night, viewers can acquaint themselves (or, in the case of people my age, reacquaint themselves) with why this show became must-see TV for so many of us.

Dancing: mandatory. White suits, platform shoes and medallions: optional.

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