She can be called “Ms. Soul Train.” Pam Brown was Don Cornelius’ right hand woman. From the very first national episode of Soul Train to its very last, Pam Brown worked as audience coordinator for the television show, auditioning and selecting dancers and making sure that they not only danced well, but maintained the proper decorum and professionalism while on set. She also cared deeply for the dancers being sure that Soul Train prepared them for future opportunities in the entertainment industry and other avenues. Although the show had other dance coordinators in later years, Brown was the main one who oversaw that order and proper conduct were in place. All of the Soul Train dancers love Brown like a mother, and she was responsible for giving many of the dancers their first big break in show business. Here is her story.
Soultrain.com: Thank you so much Pam for granting us this interview. My first question is, where are you originally from?
Pam Brown: I am originally from Los Angeles.
Soultrain.com: What were your aspirations when you were growing up?
Pam Brown: I thought of going into teaching at one point. I always loved school.
Soultrain.com: Speaking of school, what is your educational background?
Pam Brown: I graduated from Spelman College. My major was physical education with a minor in biology and related science. I also did some graduate work at Pepperdine University. My dad went to Morehouse at 14 and graduated at 18 years old. My mother attended Indiana University. So education was very important in my family.
Soultrain.com: What career did you go into after college?
Pam Brown: I eventually became recreation director for the city of Los Angeles for all of its parks, which are open all year round. I was responsible for overseeing Los Angeles’ 150 parks.
Soultrain.com: That is very impressive! How long were you the recreation director for the city of Los Angeles?
Pam Brown: I started in 1969 and retired in 2000. Even while I was working with Soul Train, I never quit my full-time job as a civil servant.
Soultrain.com: How did your journey with Soul Train begin?
Pam Brown: I had a good friend who played pro football and he was spotlighted on the program This is Your Life. While I was in the audience during the program, a talent agent’s wife told me that a man named Don Cornelius was looking for an audience coordinator for his television program Soul Train, and she knew of my work as Los Angeles recreation director and she referred me to Don. So I met with Don and Tomas Kuhn, his executive in charge of the show’s production, in July 1971 and the rest is history.
Soultrain.com: What was that first meeting like with Don Cornelius and working with him overall?
Pam Brown: Don was so cool! (Laughs) He was always very cool. He was a sensitive person and he picked the people he chose to be around him. He had his moments like everyone else, but he was the kind of person who would give you the shirt off his back.
Soultrain.com: How did you go about selecting dancers for those first Soul Train tapings?
Pam Brown: I set up all the auditions for people to dance on Soul Train. I went to different high schools and clubs in Los Angeles and made up flyers to tell kids about the show. Auditions were held at Dinker Park and I selected the dancers to come to the show. Don even came to the park for those first auditions. We had buses sent to different parks for those kids who didn’t have transportation to and from Metromedia Studios where we taped the show at the time.
Soultrain.com: What were you looking for in the dancers that were chosen for the show?
Pam Brown: I was not only looking for people who could dance well, but also those with different personalities that stood out.
Soultrain.com: Do you remember the first day of taping?
Pam Brown: The first day was a learning experience. It was new for all of us except Don. He was basically the only one in the staff used to doing this since he also had a local Soul Train show in Chicago. But all of the production staff had each other’s back. As the audience coordinator, I laid out ground rules: no gum chewing, look and dance the best you can, and don’t interact with the entertainers. If anyone didn’t adhere to the rules, they would have to leave.
Soultrain.com: I remember when I was a dancer on the show in its final years, you always went around to all of the dancers with that paper cup asking that if they were chewing gum to spit it into the cup. Most of the dancers over the years have been caught at least once. I remember one time you thought I was chewing gum, but I was just pretending, honest! (Laughs)
Pam Brown: (Laughs) Chewing gum while dancing doesn’t look right on camera. There were times kids would be so involved in their dancing that they would nearly choke on gum. Also, some kids would spit the gum out onto the floor when they finished chewing it. So aside from being sure that the dancers looked professional on camera, we also wanted to keep the studio clean.
Soultrain.com:You really had a deep concern and care for the kids who came to the show.
Pam Brown: Exactly. From the very first episode, I was concerned as to what the kids were going to get out of doing Soul Train. All we had before that was American Bandstand so being that this was a show featuring black kids, I wanted to be sure that they were getting the most out of their experience with the show and it did open doors for them and gave them many opportunities. For instance, George Johnson (president of Johnson Products company) used many of the dancers for the Afro Sheen/Ultra Sheen commercials and the show gave an outlet for the dancers to grow in different areas of show business. Although the dancers were not paid, the show helped the dancers to not only dare to dream but prepare to dream and make their dreams happen. Getting paid is not always about money.
Soultrain.com: Did you ever have to personally throw any dancers out that didn’t adhere to Soul Train’s rules?
Pam Brown: We never really had to eject anybody, but we did tell some dancers that they can sit down for not adhering to the rules.
Soultrain.com: I was told that in the early days of Soul Train, tapings would not be over until the early hours of the morning. Being that most of the dancers on the show were underage, how was this dealt with?
Pam Brown: We would let kids call their parents to tell them at what time the show would be finished taping. Usually, the show would finish taping around 2AM. If their parents didn’t come to pick them up, we had buses that would take them home. I would also drive the dancers home. We always had a set time that the show would finish so that the dancers could tell their parents what time they would be home.
Soultrain.com: What are some of your memories of recording artists that came to the show?
Pam Brown: There are so many! Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson were such nice people. Teddy Pendergrass was a wonderful person. I remember Teddy’s wife and I were expecting babies around the same time. I had my baby first so Don always called my baby the “Soul Train baby.” (Laughs) Don, Teddy and I would always joke about that.
Soultrain.com: There were things done on Soul Train that hadn’t been done before on TV, such as when James Brown bought all of his JBs to the show and when Barry White bought his whole orchestra to the show. What do you remember about that?
Pam Brown: Don was always an innovator. He had a 40 piece orchestra to set up for Barry, which was unheard of for a television show, but Don got it done. Tony Sabatino would help develop the different stage sets for the show over the years and for the artists that would perform.
Soultrain.com: Do you have memories of any artists that were new when they came to the show but became big stars after doing Soul Train?
Pam Brown: A lot of people got their big break on Soul Train. I can remember Al Green being unbelievably shy when he first came to the show wearing buccaneer boots, a hat and shorts. I introduced myself to him and told him if he needed anything to let me know, but he couldn’t even look at me because he was so shy. But after his performances, he overcame his shyness.
Soultrain.com: What about Michael Jackson? What are your memories of him coming to Soul Train?
Pam Brown: Michael was also very introverted. I remember him being in the green room with his tutor doing his lessons before he came out on stage. He was very friendly though and so were his brothers.
Soultrain.com: I remember when I was on the show, a dancer went into the dressing room of one of the groups and you had a rap session with all of us dancers. You told us she was asked to leave and warned us against doing what she did. Did you have that problem often over the years on the show?
Pam Brown: Well sometimes the dancers wanted to wander off and talk to the entertainers in their dressing rooms, but we told them they had to stay on the set. A lot of the dancers were underage so this was a liability if they went to the artists’ dressing rooms, and we always informed the dancers about this.
Soultrain.com: Soul Train was so popular that it had road tours featuring popular recording artists and the Soul Train Gang in its early years. Were you ever a part of these tours?
Pam Brown: Only one time, when we did a show in Oakland, California. We had the dancers flown to Oakland and they were picked up by a limousine. That was the only time I went on the Soul Train road tour.
Soultrain.com: In the later years of Soul Train, the clothing of a lot of the female dancers was somewhat provocative. As coordinator, how did you deal with making sure that the clothing worn would be suitable for television?
Pam Brown: I worked with the girls to make sure that what everyone wore was tasteful. So if something didn’t look right on one of the dancers, I would ask her if she had something else to wear.
Soultrain.com: Soul Train was also a family affair in that you had relatives that worked on the show as well, right?
Pam Brown: Yes. My brother Alonzo Brown was a stage manager for ten years in the 1980s. My brother Rick was an electrical engineer for the show. My father would even pick up the boxes of chicken for the dancers, crew and guests for lunch breaks.
Soultrain.com: While you were working with Soul Train, did you realize that it was going to be a phenomenon?
Pam Brown: I really didn’t look at it in that way. My main objective was to make sure that the dancers got as much exposure from the show that they could get and that they put their best foot forward. I was looking out for the kids primarily. The entertainers were there working but I’ve never been star struck–always businesslike and professional. Don told me he appreciated my approach to doing this job.
Soultrain.com: You also saw the show evolve on different levels, particularly with the look and feel of the dancers.
Pam Brown: Yes! I saw the evolution of the show from the very beginning. We began the show with teenagers and in later years we had dancers in their 20s, even in their 30s.
Soultrain.com: Was there some sort of announcement made to the show’s staff that Soul Train was going to cease production?
Pam Brown: No. There was no announcement made to us at all that the show was ending. The tapings ended in early 2006 and then we had the Soul Train Awards in March 2007. After that, the staff and I heard the show was sold so everyone moved on.
Soultrain.com: Soul Train was definitely like a family. The many reunions of the Soul Train dancers held since 1997 are indicative of that.
Pam Brown: Absolutely. A lot of people on the show formed friendships over the years. Many of the dancers stay in touch through these reunions and this is a great thing.
Soultrain.com: What was your overall experience with Soul Train?
Pam Brown: I was so privileged to be a part of it. It was a learning experience for me working with the youth and with all kinds of people.
Soultrain.com: Don Cornelius’ death must have been devastating for you since you worked closely with him for 36 years. What would you like to say in his memory?
Pam Brown: I wish he could have reached out to someone. I am going to miss him. He had become a legend in his own time. He was someone who had great vision, intuitiveness and sticktoittiveness.
Soultrain.com: Do you have one special memory of Don that stands out?
Pam Brown: When the community building at Queen Ann Recreational Center was named after my mom Hattie Williams Brown, Don spoke at the event. He got emotional while he was speaking because he really liked my mom. He said he wished he had a mother like mine.
Soultrain.com: What would you say is Don Cornelius’ legacy?
Pam Brown: Don would dare you to dream. He would say nothing beats a fail but a try and to always have a Plan B to Plan E.
Soultrain.com: Do you have a word of wisdom you want to leave with the readers?
Pam Brown: Life is about doing the best you can. The bottom line is to do right.
In addition to being a journalist, Stephen McMillian is also developing projects within the entertainment industry.