From a very young age, Los Angeles native Bobby Washington was determined he was going to somehow use his talents to be seen as well as heard. His eye-catching, enthusiastic energy as a Soul Train dancer and his career as part of a gospel choir and as a professional photographer gave Washington the opportunity to see the world. He is also responsible for bringing the legendary Jody Watley on board the Soul Train. Here is his story.
Soultrain.com: What were your aspirations growing up?
Bobby: Dancing was one of them. My sister and her friends always danced around the house. I also wanted to act. I did an audition for a commercial but I didn’t get it. I always wanted to be on TV and I loved to dance. Music and dance are my life. I expressed myself through dance.
Soultrain.com: How did your journey with Soul Train begin?
Bobby: I met Joe Chism (popular regular on Soul Train) in 1971 at a club in Los Angeles. He said he was going to get me on Soul Train so he told me to go to Dinker Park where the auditions were held. I went out there and danced and [dance coordinator] Pam Brown noticed me.
Soultrain.com: What do you remember about your first time going to Soul Train?
Bobby: I remember being impressed by the stage set. I also remember my first time on the show being somewhat intimidating because I did not know what to expect. I didn’t even have a partner, but Joe told me not to worry.
Soultrain.com: Who eventually were your dance partners?
Bobby: A girl named Doris was one of my first partners, and then a girl nicknamed New York was another partner. Ella Walker, Queen Turner, Rhonda Brown and Jody Watley were also my partners.
Soultrain.com: Who were your favorite dance partners?
Bobby: I would say Jody, Queen, and Rhonda were my favorite partners.
Soultrain.com: Speaking of Jody Watley, you were responsible for getting her on Soul Train. How did that come about?
Bobby: Jody’s mom and some of her family and friends and I were part of the same church. I made contact with Jody and I brought her to Soul Train. She was real nervous when she first came on the show, but I loved her energy and attitude.
Soultrain.com: Being that you were instrumental in Jody’s first nationwide exposure, how do you feel about all of the success she had later with Shalamar and as a solo artist?
Bobby: It was like a sister or cousin made it big! I was so proud of my former dance partner. When I saw her at the memorial for Don Cornelius, my eyes lit up.
Soultrain.com: What are your memories of Don Cornelius?
Bobby: Don was strange to me but in a good way. He stayed within his parameters. He was low-key and quiet. I remember he would be off to the side as the make-up lady would touch him up and he would go over his script.
Soultrain.com: Did you ever do the Scramble Board?
Bobby: I never did the Scramble Board. I once raised my hand to do it but Don said that I already knew the answer. (Laughs)
Soultrain.com: Did you have your share of the fried chicken and soda?
Bobby: (Laughs) Yes! We (the dancers) stood in line waiting for that GoldenBerg chicken and we put our hands down in those cold buckets of ice to get our sodas.
Soultrain.com: Did you ever fall victim to Pam Brown’s gum ritual?
Bobby: Yes. Twice! (Laughs). She would come to me with that paper cup and say, “You know what I want!” Pam was adorable.
Soultrain.com: What was it like for you going down the famous Soul Train line?
Bobby: It was intimidating! You didn’t know what you were going to look like on TV but after awhile you do what you do and make the best of it. You also wanted to make sure you looked your best.
Soultrain.com: Is there any funny or special memory that stands out from Soul Train?
Bobby: We had been in the studio for five hours into the second show. We had a break and all of a sudden music came on. The dancers got up from the bleachers and started partying, but the cameras weren’t on (laughs). One song kept playing after another. No one ever told us to sit down and no one ever explained what that was all about.
Soultrain.com: Several Soul Train dancers also danced on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Did you ever dance on his show?
Bobby: Yes, I did. When word got back to Don that his dancers were on Bandstand, he did not like it at all. He was not pleased. Dick was very happy we were on his show, but it didn’t last long.
Soultrain.com: You and many of the other dancers were featured extras in the wedding scene of the movie Five On The Blackhand Side. What was that experience like?
Bobby: It was a fun experience. The shoot took all day. Virginia Capers, who was a star of the movie, gave us some advice and told us about her experiences in movies. The producers were very pleased with what we did.
Soultrain.com: Did you ever do any other films or projects while you were a Soul Train dancer?
Bobby: Some of the other dancers and I did a commercial shown only in Japan for a brand of wine or champagne. We all did the bump dance move and were pretending we were drinking.
Soultrain.com: Wasn’t there some sort of book or magazine that was published about the Soul Train Gang?
Bobby: Yes. It was sort of a gossip type book about the dancers–what the dancers were wearing or how certain dancers wore their hair. (Not to be confused with Joe Chism’s “That’s The T” column from Right On! magazine).
Soultrain.com: What are your favorite memories of stars that came to Soul Train?
Bobby: Patti Labelle! I was really impressed by her and her group Labelle. They had on those space outfits and the feathers (laughs). Patti was very personable and she took the time to talk to us dancers during a break. Also, I had a chance to talk personally with Eddie Kendricks. He was on stage getting ready to perform and he took the time to talk with me. I also have great memories of when Diana Ross, The Supremes and The Jackson 5 came to Soul Train.
Soultrain.com: Have you done any other film work since leaving Soul Train?
Bobby: I was an extra in a Halle Berry movie in the early 90s. I was in a church scene and I sat in the audience right behind Halle. Also, I was shown during an old Soul Train line segment in a Halle Berry movie called Frankie and Alice.
Soultrain.com: What else have you done professionally over the years?
Bobby: I sang with a local choir in Los Angeles called the Pentecostal Community Choir. We appeared on a Grammy Awards ceremony with Albertina Walker singing “Spread the Word,” the same ceremony where Michael Jackson won many awards. We also sang with Albertina Walker in Disneyland. We also backed up Mariah Carey, Patti Labelle, and Luther Vandross as well as Dionne Warwick at the Minority AIDS Project and we toured the Holy Land and Africa in 1993. In September 1995, thirteen people from the choir backed up a popular recording artist from Italy. I am still part of the choir and we continue to do benefit concerts.
Soultrain.com: You were also part of the Millennium Choir, right?
Bobby: Yes. The Pentecostal Community Choir became a part of this large interdenominational choir comprised of different races. We went back to Italy and we were in this concert hall in front of a large audience and it was televised. It was a wonderful moment for us.
Soulrain.com: You are also an established photographer. How did this come about?
Bobby: I was always interested in all kinds of cameras and I started doing more camera work in high school and college. I’ve done a few shots for albums for artists like Billy Preston, Reverend James Cleveland, Albertina Walker, the Kurt Carr singers and other local artists and for local papers. I also did work for Bishop Blake’s church, Magic Johnson and Denzel Washington. I submitted work for the Smithsonian Institute and it is still on display.
Soultrain.com: Generally, what kind of subjects are you most interested in photographing?
Bobby: I love photographing people at large events such as weddings and reunions. I also would love photographing animal wild life. I would eventually love to expand my photography.
Soultrain.com: What was your overall experience with Soul Train?
Bobby: Soul Train was and still is a wonderful family. I had such a positive experience. It was a party all day. It was a real great place to be for 8 to 10 hours. It was the happiest place on earth and was a way of life. Wherever you travel, people recognize you. Whenever I hear certain songs of the 70s I think of Don, Pam and the dancers. I still keep in touch with various dancers to this day.
Soultrain.com: Don’s passing was shocking and very tragic. Is there anything you would like to say about Don’s untimely death?
Bobby: Don’s passing was extremely sad. We lost our leader, friend and father. Despite him not communicating with us, we still looked up to him for bringing people and music together for a positive part of the black community. Even though we were not paid, he gave us the opportunity.
Soultrain.com: If you could say something personally to Don, what would it be?
Bobby: Don, thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to display our talents.
Soultrain.com: Is there anyone else you want to give thanks to?
Bobby: A big thanks to Pam Brown. She gave all the dancers tremendous support. I also want to thank you, Stephen, for helping to keep Soul Train alive and remembering us.
Soultrain.com: Thanks! The dancers deserve recognition for all they have done. What was it like to reunite with the dancers at the party celebrating the life of Don Cornelius and Soul Train?
Bobby: It was like seventh heaven! To have Pat Davis and Damita Jo Freeman in the same room and to see Jimmy “Scoo B Doo” Foster and Vicki Abercrombie made for some very touching moments. We laughed. We cried. It was quite a high. We hugged and kissed. I am honored to know these people. It was a happy moment for us all.
Soultrain.com: Many of the dancers also gathered for the memorial for Don Cornelius at Forest Lawn Cemetery. What was it like for all of you coming together for a man that helped give many of you your big break?
Bobby: I remember Pat, Tyrone Proctor and myself walking towards the entrance and we were happy to see the other dancers but then the reality of Don’s death came upon us. He was gone. It hurt just like Joe Chism’s death. After the memorial, 25 or 30 of us went to a restaurant just eating and remembering.
Soultrain.com: Do you have a word of wisdom you want to share with the readers?
Bobby: Always be yourself. It pays off. If you just be yourself, you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish. Whatever you are into, do the right thing and be yourself and it will pay off.
Groove down the Soul Train line with this classic clip featuring Bobby Washington!
In addition to being a journalist, Stephen McMillian is working on developing creative projects within the entertainment industry.