Hitch a ride on the ‘Soul Train’ with Don Cornelius

“SOUL TRAIN” was the brainchild of its original host, Don Cornelius. A new DVD series celebrates the long-running music show. Photo courtesy Time Life

By Dave Thompson

Although we all have our favorite television programs, and the DVD shelves creak beneath the weight of all the vintage revivals, very few shows ever truly deserve the epithet “classic” — not according to its unalloyed dictionary definition, anyway.

There, this much-used and abused term has just three primary criteria: belonging to the highest rank or class; serving as the established model or standard; and/or having lasting significance or worth. And apologies to both viewers and marketing departments, but there are precious few TV shows that qualify for even one of those terms, let alone three.

Nowhere, you will notice, does “classic” equate with “old,” although the two words have, again in ad land (and motor speak — which means your late ’80s Hyundai is now a classic car), become synonymous. A show can be a classic long before its run is over, and when you add the feel-good factors of nostalgia and age to the equation, then you’re talking in the realms of legend. And of all the TV shows to air in America over the past half-century, and focusing our attention on music alone, none are more legendary or classic than “Soul Train.”

You can keep your “Shindig!” … generally bland “MOR” pop, interspersed with the occasional genuine goodie; your “American Bandstands” … far too many performing poodles; your “Midnight Specials” … you only remember the three or four good ones per season, and have mercifully blanked out the rest. “Soul Train” was your weekly insight into the sounds of soul music at both its best and its most popular, and the nearest thing American TV ever came to the long-running pop digests of European repute, Britain’s “Top of the Pops” and Germany’s “Disco.” And yes, while it’s true that an appreciation of soul, funk, R&B and even the dreaded disco was probably an advantage when you sat down to watch, it wasn’t mandatory. “Soul Train” was nothing if not constantly surprising.

’Fess up time. As a born and bred Brit, I never saw a single episode of “Soul Train” until my first visit to the USA in 1984, 13 years into its 35-year lifespan. But I was certainly aware of it, if not from the applause that echoed across the Atlantic after Elton John became the show’s first-ever white English performer (quickly followed by the Average White Band and David Bowie), then from the occasional clips that would make their way onto the aforementioned “Top Of The Pops” or other U.K. shows. No, we poor Limeys may never have gotten to see “Soul Train” in all its unadulterated glory. But we knew what it was, and we were jealous.

“Soul Train” was the brainchild of Don Cornelius, a former police officer who had since moved into news reading and disc jockeying for Chicago station WVON. He was also involved in concert promotion at the time, touring area high schools with a caravan of constantly changing stars that he titled … the Soul Train.

In 1967, Cornelius was hired by WCIU-TV, a UHF station, as newsreader and sports reporter, but his bosses were well aware of his extracurricular activities, and, in 1970, the station agreed to transfer the Soul Train concept to television. The first episode, sponsored by Sears Roebuck and broadcast on WCIU on Aug. 17, 1970, featured The Emotions, The Chi-Lites and Jerry Butler and dancer Clinton Ghent.

Initially, the program was reliant on local talent or visiting performers for its guest list. Long before its first year of broadcast was over, however, its reputation had spread sufficiently for the acts to begin making trips to Chicago specifically to appear on “Soul Train.” By the time the show moved into syndication in October 1971, it was already regarded as an essential halt for many performers, and that despite the fact it initially aired in just seven markets nationwide — Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Houston, Detroit, San Francisco and Los Angeles, to whence the show itself relocated at the same time.

Gladys Knight and Eddie Kendricks headlined the first syndicated edition on Oct. 2 1971; by the end of the year, Freda Payne, The Staple Singers, Chairmen of the Board, Al Green, Bill Withers, Lou Rawls and the Chambers Brothers had all appeared on the show. Few of its earliest viewers could ever have predicted that “Soul Train” would go onto become the longest, continuously-running, first-run syndicated program in American television history, but still the show’s success now seemed guaranteed. And if the statistics don’t impress you, then maybe the newly-released 3-DVD box set “The Best Of Soul Train” (Time Life DVD 25658) will.

Boiled down from the nine DVDs produced under the same Best Of banner by Time Life (which also are a joy to behold), “The Best of Soul Train” rounds up no less than 50 performances from throughout the first eight years of “Soul Train’s” life, delving into 16 separate episodes of the show (just 16 of the 334 screened between 1971-1979) for a series of devastating routines.

The Isley Brothers, Graham Central Station, Barry White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra, Sly and the Family Stone, Earth, Wind & Fire, Aretha Franklin, Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, War, James Brown and LTD highlight the sheer variety of music that was available to the show.

Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Jacksons and the Commodores maintain the old Detroit connection by bringing Motown to the masses; Teddy Pendergrass, The O’Jays, Lou Rawls, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and the Main Ingredient pinpoint soul’s 1970s base in the Philadelphia sound. We see, again, the Soul Train dancers, and delving into the three hours or so of bonus material brings interviews and insights from Don Cornelius and others.

It’s a mesmerizing package, all the more so since the very nature of “Soul Train” encouraged the guests to relax into their performances — the James Brown segment, four songs from February 1973, rates among his most explosive filmed performances since the T.A.M.I. Show, while Stevie Wonder’s performance, from 1977, is sheer dynamite. The average viewer, looking at the track listing, could probably think of a hundred songs they’d prefer to him watch him perform (“My Cherie Amour,” “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “These Three Words” are scarcely Wonder at his most wonderful, after all), but such considerations fly out of the window once he starts cooking.

And so on. Yes, aficionados will mourn the absence of some of the era’s other highlights (Donna Summer’s spectacular “Love To Love You Baby,” LaBelle in full Glam mode for “Lady Marmalade” and so on), but aficionados should already have the nine-disc set. This package is for the rest of you, an eight-hour ride on what was, and probably always will be, “the hippest trip in America.”


For related items that you may enjoy in our Goldmine store:
• Buy the brand new edition of “Goldmine Standard Catalog of American Records 1948-1991, 7th Edition”

• Get the new John Lennon book: “John Lennon: Life is What Happens, Music, Memories & Memorabilia”

Get the closest thing to the full Woodstock experience with the book “Woodstock Peace, Music & Memories.”

About Patrick Prince

Patrick Prince is the Editor of Goldmine

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