There Was Nothing Like 'Soul Train' On TV. There's Never Been Anything Like It Since
There Was Nothing Like 'Soul Train' On TV. There's Never Been Anything Like It Since
When Soul Train was first nationally syndicated in October 1971, there was nothing else like it on TV. It was the iconic Black music and dance show, a party every weekend that anyone could join from their living room. We break down the lasting influence of Soul Train on the culture with Hanif Abdurraqib, author of A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, as well as scholars, fans and even a few featured dancers, and ask why there's never been a show like it since. This is the first episode in a three-part It's Been A Minute series examining the concept of crossover in pop music across three decades.
Don Cornelius' vision
Don Cornelius was born and raised in Chicago. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and working a few different jobs, he took a broadcasting course and landed as a news announcer and DJ at a radio station in Chicago. Cornelius switched to TV in 1967, appearing on a program called A Black's View of the News. Three years later, he launched Soul Train as a daily show at WCIU-TV.
Hanif Abdurraqib (author, A Little Devil in America): [Don Cornelius] was someone who kind of had an eye towards the streets, and so therefore he had a distinct understanding of the needs of Black folks.
Ericka Blount Danois (professor and author, Love, Peace, and Soul): Soul Train had the hip factor, and mostly because Don was so hip. You know, all of the '70s style, from the bell bottoms to the hats ... and then he had this baritone voice and he had the afro, which in the '70s was huge.
Abdurraqib: Everyone knows his voice was just an immensely beautiful instrument. ... He always had the same gravitas, and he always seemed to imagine that this is what he was going to do.
Monique "Mo'Que" Chambers (Soul Train dancer): He's a businessman. And that's what I've seen and what I've known from him personally. And when he says anything, he means it and he wants it done.
Appointment viewing across the nation
After only a year, Soul Train started securing sponsorships, moved to Los Angeles and expanded into national syndication on October 2, 1971. Don Cornelius became one of the first Black men to own and produce a nationally syndicated franchise. By the end of the first couple of years, it was airing in more than 25 markets, and it continued growing.
Abdurraqib: As it was approaching syndication, for it to be on this precipice of something, you know, maybe not beyond [Cornelius'] wildest dreams, but certainly probably beyond what his initial imagination was, the temptation is, "Well, I gotta make this as big as possible." But the prudent thing is what he did, which is to say, "How can I keep this mine?"
Christopher P. Lehman (author, A Critical History of Soul Train on Television): Because Soul Train was syndicated, not every channel aired the same episode the same day. I remember watching on my Oklahoma City UHF station every Saturday afternoon. Then when cable TV arrived at my childhood home, I realized that the Chicago station, WGN, aired episodes one week ahead of the Oklahoma City episodes. So sometimes I'd watch two episodes on a Saturday if I wanted to see the previous week's episode again.
Peter Murray (Soul Train fan): I grew up in 1970s Rutland, Vt. We were a Black family of five — my parents, older brother and younger sister. The only other Black person was my great aunt, who lived right around the corner from us. Aside from the six of us, there was nothing even remotely Black about our small New England town. My only connection to other Black folk happened every Saturday at 5 p.m. on WPIX's Channel 11 out of New York City. It was at that time we would drop whatever we were doing and gather in the family den to watch Soul Train. To be able to see others that looked like us was truly a beautiful experience.
Abdurraqib: I think places that did not pick up on the syndication at first very quickly realized there are markets where there is a real hunger for a show like Soul Train. People really wanted to see it.
Blount Danois: If you missed it, you didn't have much to talk about in school on Monday.
Soul Train's aspirational dancers
Soul Train's dancers were the heart of the show. They embodied the cutting edge of style and their signature moves were copied in homes across America. The dancers didn't need prior experience — producers often just plucked them from the crowd.
Blount Danois: There was nothing like Soul Train on TV, where, you know, just regular kids were the stars. So these regular kids that went to the recreation center and made up these dances got to be on this platform, this national platform, where they were showcasing their talent. ... It got so popular that these kids were wrapped around the corner waiting to get on the dance show.
Abdurraqib: It's almost a myth to suggest that there was no white audience for the show. Now, those weren't the folks we saw, at least not at first. One thing that you notice when you watch the evolution, particularly of the Soul Train line, is that as you get kind of late in the '70s, and especially in the early '80s ... you start to see white folks or non-Black folks of color begin to kind of make appearances in the line. And I think by the time you hit the mid-'80s, late '80s, it does feel a little bit closer to fifty-fifty some episodes.
Randé Tomas (Soul Train dancer): It opened another door for me to be a part of the entertainment world. ... Don gave professional artists a mainstream platform and unprofessional dancers a place to be themselves with a possibility to develop.
Cheryl Song (Soul Train dancer): Being able to dance on Soul Train was my release. ... It was so freeing to be able to dance and feel the music and just express yourself that way.
Blount Danois: Cheryl Song, she was on pretty much every episode in the '80s, but she was just a really amazing dancer. She had really long hair that went, like, down to her ankles. And we just tried to mimic everything that she did.
Chambers: We became family, we became bonded. The dancers [were] very close, we ended up clicking. ... We would clown and just have a good time.
Bowlegged Lou (member of music group Full Force): It's so crazy because I [was] like, wow, the set is not as big as I thought it was. Because on TV, it looks huge. It's kinda small, but everybody's rocking and rolling. ... They did a lot of takes because it was pre-recorded — it wasn't live, and they would just stop. And I see people with towels wiping themselves off and all of that stuff. ... I mean, it was incredible, and I became friends with so many Soul Train dancers.
Music that mattered
Soul Train was a platform for performances by iconic artists over the years. Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Grace Jones, OutKast, Mariah Carey and many other musicians graced the stage during its run, all connecting to people watching at home.
Lehman: The dancers and performers had a symbiotic relationship. The dancers saw the singers they loved, and the performers relished the chance to perform in front of African Americans on a TV show. When The Jackson 5 introduced the "robot" dance on Soul Train in 1973, it was a dance that the group had learned from the dancers themselves.
Blount Danois: So there was one [episode] with Al Green, and he's mesmerizing to listen to in every way. Like, I went to his church in Memphis, and he is a reverend there, and even as a reverend his voice is just entrancing. And so on that episode, it's like you're in a church, the way that he sings and the way that you're moved by whatever he says. Every time I watch it, whatever I'm doing, I have to stop and [be] like, you are taken in by him.
Abdurraqib: There's that episode of Marvin Gaye just, like, sitting on the stage in conversation with audience members — you know, eye to eye. It seemed like Don Cornelius understood that there's a simplicity to access — saying, well, outside of this room, this person is one of the biggest musicians on the planet, but inside of this room they're just a community member.
Don Cornelius steps down
After more than 20 years, Don Cornelius stepped down from hosting Soul Train in 1993, though he stayed on as executive producer. Hip-hop had moved to the center of the Black music world, and it was no secret that Cornelius was not a huge fan of it. After he bowed out, the show had a series of other hosts, but none stayed for long.
Abdurraqib: [Don Cornelius] stopped hosting in '93. And that kind of just changed the show, there was no consistent host. Mystro Clark was a host for, like, a couple of years. ... Shemar Moore was pretty consistent. ... [But] none of those people are Don Cornelius. That's just the thing. And none of them stayed long enough to entrench themselves. The show didn't take on their identity because they weren't there long enough.
A lasting legacy
Soul Train wished its viewers "love, peace and soul" for the last time in 2006, ending after its 35th season. The show influenced more than three decades of music, style and culture, leaving a lasting impact on its loving fanbase.
Blount Danois: Soul Train was one of the first national shows to showcase Black joy and our everyday lives on television. The show was the embodiment of the Black working class who worked hard all week and forgot their troubles Friday night dancing at a club. ... It represented Black artistic talent that didn't have a national platform, but [which] Black people knew existed locally in their neighborhoods. It represented Black intellectualism with authors and actors and comedians that appeared on the show. These are things that Black people knew existed, but it wasn't widely represented on television.
Lehman: It let me know that TV could be diverse; it was not impossible, because Soul Train had done it.
Abdurraqib: The real joy and miracle of Soul Train, I think, is that it was something people could gather and watch every week and feel good about watching every week. ... [Soul Train] wasn't asking much of me other than, isn't this beautiful? ... Hey, look at this thing. Isn't this miraculous?
This episode was adapted for the Web by Liam McBain. It was produced by Anjuli Sastry and Liam McBain. It was edited by Jordana Hochman. You can follow us on Twitter at @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at email@example.com.