Soul Train is an American music-dance television program which aired in syndication from October 2, 1971, to March 27, 2006. In its 35-year history, the show primarily featured performances by R&B, soul, dance/pop, and hip hop artists, although funk, jazz, disco, and gospel artists also appeared. The series was created by Don Cornelius, who also served as its first host and executive producer.
|Created by||Don Cornelius|
|Presented by||Don Cornelius|
(1971–1993; 734 episodes)
Various guest hosts
(1993–1997; 128 episodes)
(1997–1999; 76 episodes)
(2000–2003; 111 episodes)
(2003–2006; 68 episodes)
|Narrated by||Sid McCoy|
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of episodes||1,117 (list of episodes)|
|Production location(s)||Metromedia Square|
Hollywood Center Studios
|Running time||45–48 minutes|
|Production company(s)||Don Cornelius Productions|
|Distributor||Tribune Entertainment (1985–2006)|
|Original release||October 2, 1971 –|
March 25, 2006
Production was suspended following the 2005–2006 season, with a rerun package (known as The Best of Soul Train) airing for two years subsequently. 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 American television history," with over 1,100 episodes produced from the show's debut through the 2005–2006 season. Despite the production hiatus, Soul Train held that superlative until 2016, when Entertainment Tonight surpassed it completing its 35th season. Among non-news programs, Wheel of Fortune surpassed that mark in 2018.
The origins of Soul Train can be traced to 1965 when WCIU-TV, an upstart UHF 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. Beginning as a low-budget affair, in black and white, 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
The program's 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 25 markets outside of Chicago to carry the show, but stations in only seven other cities—Atlanta, Birmingham, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia—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 eighteen markets. At the time, there were no other commercial television programs being produced by black people for a black audience; the only nationally available show by blacks for blacks at the time was the public television series Soul! 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, a local version of Soul Train continued in Chicago; Cornelius hosted both 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 the Chicago market by CBS-owned WBBM-TV at its launch; the program moved to WGN-TV in 1977 and remained there for the rest of its Chicago run.
Don Cornelius hosted every national episode of Soul Train during this era except for one: comedian Richard Pryor guest hosted the final episode of the 1974-75 season.
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 in 1993, though he remained the show's main creative force from behind the scenes. The following fall, Soul Train began using 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 2000. In 2003, Moore was succeeded by actor Dorian Gregory, who hosted through 2006.
Soul Train pulled into its last stop when production of first-run episodes was suspended at the conclusion of the 2005–06 season, the show's 35th. Instead, for two seasons starting in 2006–07, the program aired archived episodes (all from between 1973 and 1988) under the title The Best of Soul Train. This was because in later years, Nielsen ratings dropped to below 1.0; most of the stations that aired Soul Train by that point were either Fox affiliates or independent stations that would later become WB or UPN affiliates, and, in the process, some of the stations which had been airing Soul Train on Saturday afternoons started rescheduling the program to overnight time slots. The future of Soul Train was uncertain with the announced closing of Tribune Entertainment in December 2007, which left Don Cornelius Productions to seek a new distributor for the program. Cornelius soon secured a deal with Trifecta Entertainment & Media.
Attempted revivals and new ownership
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 the 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 came 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 Broadcasting-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 spin-off channel, Centric, in November 2009. Centric would broadcast archived episodes of the program. Archived episodes can also be seen on Bounce TV.
MadVision sold the rights to Soul Train to a consortium led by basketball player Earvin "Magic" Johnson and backed by private equity firm InterMedia Partners in 2011. The Johnson-InterMedia consortium planned 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 by suicide in February 2012. In 2013, the cruise-based revival, called the Soul Train Cruise, began taking place. The cruise is presented by Centric.
In 2016, Viacom's BET Networks division bought all rights and trademarks to the Soul Train brand, the show's extensive library, the annual cruise event, and the award shows that continue to bear the Soul Train name.
Some commentators have called Soul Train a "black American Bandstand," another long-running program with which Soul Train shares some similarities. Cornelius acknowledged Bandstand as a model for his program; as the years advanced and Soul Train evolved into a tradition in its own right, he tended to bristle at the Bandstand comparisons.
In 1973, Dick Clark, host and producer of Bandstand, launched Soul Unlimited — controversial for its pronounced racial overtures — to compete directly with Soul Train. Cornelius, with help from Jesse Jackson, openly accused Clark of trying to undermine TV's only Black-owned show. Agreeing, ABC canceled it after a few episodes. Clark later 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 (which was openly mocked in an In Living Color sketch where Cornelius and the show were lampooned as extremely old and out of touch) eventually led to Cornelius's stepping down as host in the early 1990s and the show's losing its influence.
Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, drummer for hip-hop band The Roots and a fan of the program, authored Soul Train: The Music, Dance, and Style of a Generation. ISBN 978-0-0622-8838-7., which was published in 2013.
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 openly admitted 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.
Soul Train line
There was also the popular "Soul Train Line" (a variant of the 1950s fad then known as The Stroll), 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, Cheryl Song, Louie "Ski" Carr, Alfie Lewis, Pat Davis ("Madam Butterfly"), Alise Mekhail, Andrea N. Miles, Carmen Electra, Nick Cannon, MC Hammer, Jermaine Stewart, Heather Hunter, 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 Daniels, 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.
Each musical guest usually performed twice on each program; after their first number, they were joined by the program host onstage for a brief interview. From time to time, stand-up comedians, such as Tom Dreesen (whom Don Cornelius knew from his time in Chicago) and Franklyn Ajaye (known in the 1970s for being a star of the hit movie Car Wash), would be featured on the program to perform a brief comedy routine.
Soul Train 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 you can bet your last money, it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey. I'm Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace...and SOUL!"
In 1985, Cornelius gave permission for a version of the show in the United Kingdom. The UK version, hosted by former Soul Train dancer and member of Shalamar Jeffrey Daniels, was titled 620 Soul Train and ran for one series.
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. Award categories for the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards presented to female recipients included:
- R&B/Soul Album of the Year, Solo
- Best R&B/Soul Album of the Year, Group or Duo
- R&B/Soul Song of the Year
- Best R&B/Soul Single, Solo
- Best R&B/Soul Single, Group or Duo
- Best R&B/Soul or Rap New Artist
- Best Jazz Album
- Best Gospel Album
- Best R&B/Soul or Rap Music Video
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 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. Subsequent owners of the franchise have followed their own agenda for the program, which included a revival of the Soul Train Music Awards in 2009.
Soul Train used various original and current music for theme songs during its run, including
- 1971–1973: "Soul Train (Hot Potato)", by King Curtis (Curtis Ousley) and later redone by The Rimshots as "Soul Train, Parts 1 & 2". [The original 1962 version, which was used on the show, was recorded nine years before the show was named "Hot Potatoes (Piping Hot)"]
- 1973–1975: "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)", composed by Gamble and Huff and recorded by MFSB with vocals by The Three Degrees. Released as a single, this song became a pop and R&B radio hit in 1974 and the show's best-known theme.
- 1975–1976: "Soul Train '75", by The Soul Train Gang, which was later released as a single for the newly formed Soul Train Records
- 1976–1978: "Soul Train '76 (Get On Board)", by The Soul Train Gang
- 1978–1980: "Soul Train Theme '79", produced by the Hollywood Disco Jazz Band with vocals by the Waters
- 1980–1983: "Up On Soul Train", first by the Waters and later by The Whispers, whose version appears in their 1980 album Imagination.
- 1983–1987: "Soul Train's a Comin'", by R&B artist O'Bryan
- 1987–1993: "TSOP '87", a remake of the original "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)," composed and produced by George Duke
- 1989–1993: "TSOP '89", a remixed version of "TSOP '87", by George Duke
- 1993–1999: "Soul Train '93" (Know You Like to Dance)", by Naughty by Nature with a saxophone solo by Everette Harp
- 2000–2006: "TSOP 2000", with rap vocals by Samson and music by Dr. Freeze, and again featuring an Everette Harp saxophone solo. However, a portion of "Know You Like to Dance" was still used in the show's second-half opening segment during this period, though in earlier episodes, a portion of "TSOP 2000" was played.
- List of Soul Train episodes
- Guests on Soul Train
- SOLAR Records
- Soul Train Music Awards
- American Soul, a 2019 TV series on BET based on Soul Train
- American Bandstand
- Showtime at the Apollo
- The Midnight Special
- Don Kirshner's Rock Concert
- Electric Circus
- The Party Machine with Nia Peeples
- Sherman's Showcase, a parody of the series and Cornelious
- "'An ad for blackness': how Soul Train made America do the Hustle". The Guardian. 20 February 2019. Retrieved 10 November 2019.
- Vaughn, Shamontiel L. (January 26, 2009). "Soul Train reunion to honor show host, Ghent". chicagodefender.com. Archived from the original on August 13, 2012. Retrieved March 29, 2010.
- Chapman, Aida. "Soul Train: A Billboard Spotlight.'" Billboard, September 28, 1974. Accessed December 17, 2018.
- Ford Foundation Annual Report 1970, p. 55 of 102 Archived 2008-10-29 at Archive.today. Accessed online 20 April 2008.
- Austen, Jake (October 2, 2008). "Soul Train Local: The show that put black music on TVs across America got its start in Chicago—and even after it moved to LA, Chicago kept its own version running daily for nearly a decade". chicagoreader.com. Retrieved January 18, 2009.
- Soul Train Archived 2009-03-19 at the Wayback Machine - Don Cornelius Productions, Inc.
- Pursell, Chris (December 18, 2007). "Tribune Entertainment Ends Distribution Operation". tvweek.com. Archived from the original on January 29, 2009. Retrieved January 18, 2009.
- Stelter, Brian (June 17, 2008). "After 38 Years, 'Soul Train' Gets New Owner". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved April 9, 2010.
- Mitchell, Gail (July 9, 2009). "'Soul Train' vaults opened for DVD deal". The Hollywood Reporter. Eldridge Industries. Archived from the original on July 12, 2009.
- "Soul Train - Heads Up: The Hippest Trip In America Comes to DVD Soon!" Archived 2010-02-01 at the Wayback Machine TV Shows on DVD.
- "What's next for the Soul Train brand?". MSN. Associated Press. February 21, 2012. Archived from the original on February 23, 2012. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
- "Soul Train Cruise To Set Sail In 2013". The Huffington Post. AOL. February 17, 2012. Retrieved November 17, 2013.
- "Viacom's BET buys 'Soul Train'". USA Today. Gannett. April 4, 2016. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
- In episode 338 of the series, which aired in October 1980, guest performer Rick James begins cavorting with audience members only to have Cornelius stop him and tell him "This ain't Bandstand!"
- Austen, Jake (2005). TV-a-go-go: rock on TV from American Bandstand to American Idol. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, Inc. p. 100. ISBN 1569762414. Retrieved November 17, 2013.
- See the 2010 documentary Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America.
- Martins, Chris. "Here's ?uestlove's 'Soul Train' Book, With a Preface by Nick Cannon". Spin. Spin. Retrieved 18 November 2013.
- "Soul Train 1971-2006". The Michigan Chronicle. 2009-09-29. Retrieved 2018-05-27.
- Black, Stu (December 13, 1987). "She took the Soul Train to stardom: Once a voice in the background, Jody Watley has burst onto the pop charts in her own right". Los Angeles Times. Times Mirror Company. Retrieved April 9, 2010.
- "Television" – via NYTimes.com.
- "Soul Train Comedy Awards". 1 January 2000. Retrieved 29 October 2016 – via IMDb.
- "Soul Train Comedy Awards Movie Posters From Movie Poster Shop". Retrieved 29 October 2016.
- "Lauryn Hill, TLC Top Lady Of Soul Awards". MTV. Viacom Media Networks. 1999-09-05.
- Goodman, Dean (April 18, 2008). ""Soul Train" movie rolling into theaters". Reuters. Retrieved April 20, 2008.
- O'Bryan Soul Train's A Comin' (Remix) - 1983 - Song - MP3 Stream on IMEEM Music.
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