It is October 2nd, 1971. The total number of American troops still in Vietnam drops to a record low of 196,700; the cost of a gallon of gas is 36 cents; The Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles are slated to be in the World Series (with Pittsburgh winning); the top rated show on television, “All in the Family” airs an episode that evening dealing with Archie Bunker landing in jail over an anti-war protest. A day earlier Walt Disney World opens in Orlando, Florida; the motion picture “French Connection” is set to premiere October 7th, which would win the Best Picture Oscar next year; the “Shaft” soundtrack is in its second week at number one on the Soul album charts; and the Godfather of Soul has the number one soul single with “Make It Funky”. The movies “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song” and “Shaft” are extremely popular with audiences and began the trend for the so-called “Blaxploitation” genre; “The Jackson 5 Cartoon,” which debuted three weeks earlier, is the highest rated cartoon on Saturday mornings; and Motown releases Michael Jackson’s first solo single, “Got to Be There” five days later on October 7th.
It is also on October 2nd, a Saturday afternoon forty years ago, that a new television dance show entitled “Soul Train” hit the airwaves nationally in four markets (Los Angeles on channel 5 at 1:30PM; Birmingham, AL on channel 6 at 11:30PM; Atlanta on channel 5 at 2:30PM; and Philadelphia on channel 48 at 4PM).
Up until the national airing of “Soul Train,” the main dance show most viewers watched on Saturdays was Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand”, and although other dance shows aired in previous years–such as “Hullabaloo” and “Teen Town” and most notably East Coast radio DJ Jocko Henderson’s local dance show “Jocko’s Rocket Ship”–there was something unique about the period during which “Soul Train” aired.
It had been only three years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots that followed in major cities across the world, and the rise of the Black Panther Party. This was a time of black pride, black solidarity, and the Afro hairstyle–all coming on the heels of the Civil Rights movement of the mid-sixties. “Soul Train” came right on time and reflected the times.
The local version of “Soul Train”, which began airing locally in Chicago on weekdays on August 17, 1970, was a huge hit with audiences but the program’s host and creator, Don Cornelius, desired to take the show nationwide so it could be seen by more people. He realized in order to do this he would have to take his show to Los Angeles. “The only other place we could have done Soul Train (nationally) was in New York,” Cornelius stated in a TV Guide interview.
Whereas the set for the local version of “Soul Train” was no bigger than a living room, as many of the artists and dancers who were part of the show recalled in interviews, the set for the national version of “Soul Train” was larger and the production value was on a much grander scale. But no matter how grand the production value was, the local and national versions both had the same goal: to promote records, recording artists, and the latest dances. As Cornelius stated in a Billboard magazine interview, “The fact remains that for many black acts, their only chance for television exposure is ‘Soul Train’ and we feel an obligation to provide it.”
Normally, Saturday morning television watching was restricted mainly for children who got up early to watch the cartoons that aired on the major networks, a trend that began in the mid-sixties. But anyone in those initial four markets who tuned in to watch a new program called “Soul Train” could not help but to be glued to their television sets during its hour-long airing. Indeed, in many households in the seventies, Saturday morning cartoon watching took a one hour break so that viewers could climb aboard the “Soooooooul Train!”
The episode began with an animated train riding down a train track against a yellow backdrop, as King Curtis’s percolating instrumental tune “Hot Potato” played in the background (“Hot Potato” would be used as the program’s theme song until the fall of 1973 when MFSB composed “TSOP” as the show’s new theme), while announcer Sid McCoy’s voiceover booms “Soul Train! The hippest trip in America! 60 non-stop minutes over the tracks of your mind into the exciting world of soul!” The animation segued into the actual Soul Train set, complete with a tunnel and a train track, where the show’s guest stars and the 50 or so teenage and college-aged black dancers, named the Soul Train Gang, are seen grooving together to the “Hot Potato” theme. The guest stars for the first show were Gladys Knight and the Pips, Honey Cone, Eddie Kendricks, and Bobby Hutton. By the show’s second season, the guests would not dance with the Soul Train Gang during the introductions, but would only be seen during their actual performances.
After the introduction of the guest stars, the Soul Train Gang, and the show’s main sponsor, Johnson Products, McCoy introduced the program’s host and producer, Don Cornelius, as the studio audience applauded wildly. McCoy remained the voice of “Soul Train” until its final run in 2006.
Cornelius, with a wide grin and more animated than in future shows, and wearing a long sky blue suit jacket, tall boots, sky blue shorts, and a wide blueish tie, greeted television viewers with his perky introduction, which to many sounded like a radio announcement. This should have been no surprise to those who knew Cornelius and his background as a radio DJ in Chicago. He said: “Hi there, and welcome aboard! You’re right on time for a beautiful trip on the Soul Train and if the sight and sound of soul is your pleasure and what you treasure you can bet your bottom we got it, baby!”
Cornelius sported a short Afro at this time and as the first season progressed, his Afro grew much larger and wider.
Commercials for Johnson Products’ Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen hair care products aired throughout the episode and would continue to for the next several years, showcasing ethnic pride in the wearing of the natural Afro hairstyle.
The Honey Cone was the first group to perform, singing live and soulful vocals to the pre-recorded instrumental track to “Want Ads” which was number one for three weeks from May to June 1971. Artists rarely sang live on the program. As was the case with “American Bandstand”, the majority of artists who appeared on “Soul Train” lip-synced to their recordings.
Cornelius then interviewed a couple to find out what the latest dances were. They answered, “The Breakdown, The Mechanical Man, the Crackerjack, The Philly Dog, The Exercise, and The Dirt.” This led to Cornelius’ introduction of the first song played on the show, James Brown’s “Make It Funky”, which as stated earlier, was a number one hit the week this episode aired. As the song’s title demanded, the Soul Train Gang “made it funky” on the dance floor, doing all of the previously mentioned dances. It was a beautiful sea of pulsating bodies wearing big Afros, dashikis, hot pants, bell bottoms, midriffs, and platform shoes–just young black people expressing themselves freely and effortlessly.
Next, Eddie Kendricks, who had left the singing group The Temptations earlier in the year, performed a track from his first solo album All By Myself entitled “I Did It All For You “. Cornelius asked Kendricks what it was like to be a solo artist to which Kendricks responded, “It’s kind of lonesome. You don’t have many fellas to talk to.”
Following a commercial break, Gladys Knight and the Pips came on to perform their number two soul hit from the fall of 1969 titled “Friendship Train”, an appropriate song to perform on the very first episode of the show since it was a goal of Cornelius to promote harmony and good vibes to the viewers with his program. As Gladys sang, she went out into the audience to shake hands with several of the dancers, promoting the feeling of togetherness and friendship that the song’s lyrics inspired.
It was Gladys Knight and the Pips’ appearance on the show that helped “Soul Train” get the green light to air nationally, since the program needed a big enough name to do so. Gladys Knight and the Pips would go on to appear several more times on the program.
After a dance segment in which Wilson Pickett’s “Just Call My Name” was played, a couple was chosen to watch how they danced during that number on the monitor in what was called “The Soul Train Replay Machine.” They described to Don that the dance they were doing was called The Dirt.
Bobby Hutton, a recording artist who performed on the Chicago version of “Soul Train”, performed his single “You’re My Only Reason”, written and produced by Donny Hathaway.
The next segment was called “Soul Train Hot Seats” in which the major act on the show–in this case Gladys Knight & The Pips–sat in front of the Soul Train Gang and took questions from them. For instance, a girl named Cheryl asked Gladys how she felt to be the only girl in the group. Gladys jokingly replied, “It’s a real gas but these fellas (the Pips) can be a headache.” She then added, “But I like it better than working with girls.” After a few more questions, the group performed their current release “I Don’t Want to Do Wrong”, which went gold and to number two for four weeks in July 1971.
A couple from Chicago was spotlighted doing the Breakdown to Rufus Thomas’ “Do The Breakdown.” They told Cornelius that the Breakdown, along with the Sex Machine and the Popeye, were the most popular dances in Chicago at that time.
Honey Cone then returned to do their latest single “Stick Up”, which was a number one Soul hit for two weeks in September.
Next came a freestyle dance contest, in which the winning couple would be entered in a Soul Train dance contest that following spring and would compete for $10,000 in scholarships from the Johnson Products Company. The winning couple won for doing a dance called The Crackerjack.
Eddie Kendricks performed his current single aptly titled “It’s So Hard For Me to Say Goodbye”; this was the last segment of this episode before a chipper Cornelius, facing the camera, told the viewing audience, “As always in parting, we’re gonna wish you love, peace and soul!” The show’s theme, “Hot Potato”, played in the background with the cameras cutting to the Soul Train Gang doing their thing on the studio dance floor as the credits rolled.
Two of the program’s landmark segments, the Soul Train Scramble Board and the Soul Train Line, were not a part of the program until several episodes later.
The great word-of-mouth about the first episode of “Soul Train” spread like wildfire across the areas where the show aired. Black kids, teenagers, and young adults were ecstatic about this new show not only because it featured popular black artists and lesser known black artists that might have not gotten exposure on mainstream television shows, but also because of the Soul Train Gang–black teens and young adults who dressed, looked, and danced like they did. At this time there was no BET, no TV One, no cable television, no DVDs, no VCRs, and no Internet. “Soul Train” was all black kids growing up in the inner city had at the time to see and idolize themselves and their own youthful images on national television.
Later in October, four other national markets picked up the show (Detroit, Oct. 7th, Ch. 2; San Francisco, Oct 13, Ch. 44; Houston, Oct. 16, Ch. 39; and Detroit and Chicago, Oct. 30, Ch. 2). The positive reaction to the show was so huge that by the summer of 1972 it aired in all the major 17 markets in the U.S.
What was chiefly important and groundbreaking at the time of “Soul Train’s” first airing is that this was a program owned and created by a black man. Not only were black people in front of the camera, they were behind the camera as well. There were not many, if any, blacks during this time who had behind-the-scenes control over what was viewed on television. Indeed, Don Cornelius helped to change this concept. Whenever the credits rolled, seeing Cornelius’ credit as Executive Producer or seeing the Don Cornelius Productions logo, or hearing McCoy’s voiceover stating “This has been a Don Cornelius production” sent a subliminal message that if this black man can create, promote, and most importantly own his own product, other black people can do the same for themselves, too.
Music, dance, and fashions change during the course of time and although “Soul Train” changed with the times, it continued to do just what it did in that first episode: Display the latest and most current music, dances, and fashions, all from the vision of one man named Donald Cortez Cornelius who gave viewers over 35 years of love, peace and soooooooooooooooooooooul!!
In addition to being a writer and dancer, Stephen McMillian is an up and coming actor and filmmaker.