Greetings all! In this month’s edition of “Diary,” I would like to put the spotlight on a group of people who not only helped make the Soul Train television show extremely popular, but were trendsetters in dance, style and fashion. This was a group who, in a sense, were a catalyst in spawning the hip-hip generation today: the original Soul Train Gang, all of whom I have the pleasure of knowing and being friends with.
Before MTV, BET, VH1 and any other music-oriented cable station, Soul Train was the program young people watched not only to watch the recording artists but also to see the dance moves and styles of the dancers on the show a/k/a the Soul Train Gang.
Although “American Bandstand” was already on the air, the dancing on that program which featured predominantly white teenagers and young adults was pretty conservative. But when Soul Train hit the scene in seven major markets in October 1971, the wild and exciting energy the Soul Train Gang exhibited on TV screens caused a tidal wave of excitement and by the end of 1972, Soul Train was seen in nearly every major market across the United States.
Kids, teens and young adults were fascinated by the young people that danced on the show and wanted to know more about them. They wanted to know more about the girl that danced with Joe Tex and James Brown and the guy that did the eye boggling dance moves pointing his fingers and arms every which way before slapping his hand down to the floor and the girl whose robot moves were always on point. Hence, the Soul Train Gang were spotlighted in the hugely popular teen magazine, Right On!
Right On! magazine was a sister publication to Tiger Beat magazine, which featured mostly white celebrities. With the black power movement of the late sixties and early seventies, there was a growing need for a publication for young black people that focused on and spotlighted their heroes in music, television, movies, sports and other careers.
The first issue of Right On! coincidentally came out the same month that Soul Train made its national debut. The Jackson 5, who went on to have several appearances on Soul Train, graced the magazine’s first cover and, throughout the seventies and eighties, either individually or as a group, they would continue to grace the covers and articles of many of its issues. Right On! was to young black kids and teens what Ebony and Jet were to black adults. Issues of Right On! sold out at newsstands every month.
The first editor of Right On!, Flo Jenkins, had said at the time that as a result of Soul Train’s popularity, Right On! readers would send numerous letters asking that the magazine feature articles on the people that danced on the show. In the latter part of 1973, their requests came true.
The first Soul Train dancer spotlighted in Right On! was Damita Jo Freeman. She became instantly popular on the program as a result of her unique dancing styles on the show, in particular her dance routines with Joe Tex during his performance of his number one hit “I Gotcha” in late 1971 and with James Brown during his performance of his number one hit “Super Bad.” Right On! readers wanted to know more information about Freeman and as a result she was featured in the October 1973 issue of the magazine.
This of course led to many of the other dancers being featured in the magazine. In the summer of 1973, several Soul Train Gang members were part of the national Soul Train tour which featured a number of soul recording artists. The dancers that were part of that tour, Pat Davis, Sharon Hill, Tyrone Proctor, Gary Keys, Freddie Maxie, Edith Pickins, James “Scoobie Doo” Foster and James Philips, graced the cover of the February 1974 issue of Right On! The numerous photos taken of them, which were used for the cover and inside photo spreads of the magazine, were shot at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, The articles focused on the dancers’ likes, hobbies and other areas of interest to Right On! Readers. The dancers also got a chance to give their insight on education and their career goals.
From 1974 to 1978, the Soul Train Gang was featured prominently in Right On!, snagging many of its covers. They were so popular, they shared covers with other major stars of the time including The Jackson 5, the Sylvers and Al Green.
Right On! readers even had a chance to have their letters to the Soul Train Gang answered personally by them. In one issue, a fan wrote dancer Sharon Hill the following: “I think you’re fine Sharon. I’d like to marry you. I’m eleven years old. I’m 5’2″ tall and weigh 110 lbs. Do you think that’s weird?” Sharon answered, “Hey, thanks for wanting to marry me, but you’re a little young right now. When you get to be 21, I’ll think about it! And no, it’s not weird to be 5’2″ and weigh 110 lbs.”
One of Soul Train’s popular regulars, Joseph Chism, even had a monthly column in Right On! entitled “That’s the T!” which gave readers inside happenings on Soul Train and various members of the Soul Train Gang.
Some celebrities and even some Right On! readers became jealous of all the attention that the Soul Train Gang received in the magazine. However, Flo Jenkins, editor of the magazine, addressed this in an open letter in one of its issues, stating that it was important to showcase the accomplishments of young people to inspire other young people. Moreover, she stated that featuring the members of the Soul Train Gang was a testament to what hard work, talent and perseverance can do. Indeed, many members of the Soul Train Gang went on to have long, succesful careers in various aspects of the entertainment industry.
The Soul Train Gang were featured less frequently in later issues of Right On! by late 1978/early 1979, but their massive popularity on television and in the pages of Right On! left an indelible mark on pop culture through their dancing, their fashions and unique styles, and, as Soul Train Gang member Joseph Chism would have said, “that’s the T!”
– Stephen McMillian
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In addition to being a dancer/performer, Stephen McMillian is also an up and coming actor and filmmaker.