Saturday, June 18, 2011

Soul Train

As announcer Sid McCoy would intone in the opening credits, Soul Train was indeed "The hippest trip in America". It was also Sid informed us, the longest running nationally syndicated show in history and will remain so unless the next show in line, Entertainment Tonight stays on the air until at least 2016. If not, it may possibly be overtaken in 2017 by the game show Wheels Of Fortune. Soul Train aired in syndication from October 1971 to March 2006. During this time practically every act with a top selling R'n'B ,soul or funk hit appeared on the show, many of them multiple times. The engine that drove the show was The Soul Train Dancers. The conductor, at least during the years that counted, was one Don Cornelius.
Don Cornelius was a news reader and disc jockey in Chicago circa 1965 for radio station WVON. In 1967 he was hired by tv station WCIU as a news and sports reporter. He also was promoter and emcee for a series of local dance shows. These shows caught the attention of the station and Cornelius was invited to bring them  to television. After getting sponsorship from the Sears And Roebuck Co., the show, called Soul Train aired on WCIU-TV on August 17 1970 as a live weekday afternoon show.

The show's success attracted the attention of another local company, The Johnson Products Co., maker of Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen hair products. They agreed to co-sponsor the show's move to syndication. Cornelius along with the show's syndication company Syndicast targeted 24 cities for syndication. The show aired October 2,1971 and by the end of the first season was on in all 24 targeted markets. The show,now weekly, was picked up by CBS-owned WBBS-TV, and operations were shifted to the Los Angeles where it remained for the duration of the show's run. Syndicast remained the syndication company until 1985 when Tribune Entertainment took over.

Soul Train's identity was determined by a few enduring elements. One was the Scramble Board, where one dance couple was chosen to re-arrange randomly placed letters on a magnetic board to spell out the name of , as Don would say, "a famous artist whose name you should know". While the couple worked on this, a recorded hit would play and the audience at home could yell things at the tv like, "come on you idiots, it's The Bar Kays", or some such.

Another element was the group of dancing couples that were featured during the recorded songs. They were alternately known as The Soul Train Dancers and The Soul Train Gang. During the years people such as Rosie Perez, Nick Cannon, Carmen Electra, Jermaine Stewart, and MC Hammer were first noticed among their ranks. Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniels, two former dancers, went on to fame as part of the group Shalamar with Howard Hewlitt, and in Watley's case, as a solo artist. These dancers, many of them professional, were watched by young people in all markets keeping up with the latest in dance and clothing styles. The Soul Train Line, another of the show's defining elements was made up of two single lines formed by the dancers while a couple or a single dancer would dance down the length of the space between them. This was where the best dancers highlighted their technique.

The greatest identifying element of all was the face and voice of the show, the inimitable, and later to be proven irreplaceable Don Cornelius. He combined a towering presence with a booming baritone voice that announced the hits as "a groove that definitely makes you wanna move", or "a big'un everybody's sure 'nuff diggin' ". He brought many years of announcing experience to the table as well as definitively cool demeanor. He hosted the show until 1993, remaining a creative force behind the scenes for the remainder of its run. Succeeding hosts were comedian Mystro Clark, actor Shemar Moore, and actor Dorian Gregory. The sad simple fact is, when Don left he took the show's personality with him.

Soul Train stands as an icon in rock music history. Countless artists were brought into millions of homes by this influential show. The spin-off Soul Train Awards and Soul Train Lady Of Soul Awards shows gave recognition to the best and the brightest in the genre. Mr. Cornelius said it best..."and as always in parting we wish you love, peace and soul".

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