Soul Train History Book Presents: ‘Soul Train Christmas Starfest’

Soul Train creator and pioneer Don Cornelius was always looking for various ways to expand and evolve the Soul Train brand, such as when he created the annual Soul Train Music Awards and Lady of Soul Awards. In 1998, he found another way to keep the brand vibrant by creating a yearly Christmas special.

The first Soul Train Christmas Starfest aired in December 1998 and capitalized on the many traditional songs that are popular during the Yuletide season. The first special was hosted by Patti LaBelle, Natalie Cole and Brian McKnight, and featured performances by Cole, LaBelle, Yolanda Adams, Kirk Franklin, Lou Rawls, The Whispers and Luther Vandross.

Subsequent Christmas Starfests continued to feature a “who’s who” in R&B, music such as Smokey Robinson, Vanessa L. Williams, Boyz II Men, Chaka Khan, Peabo Bryson, James Ingram, Johnny Mathis, Dionne Warwick, Jeffrey Osborne, Donnie McClurkin, Mary Mary, Tyrese and many others.

The special was created mainly as a showcase for R&B singers to sing Christmas songs, many of whom would not have gotten exposure on other mainstream Christmas programs.

The specials were basically concerts taped before a live audience at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, with sets decorated in typical Christmas fashion and featuring a neon Peace on Earth sign hovering above the stage.

While all of the performances on the annual event were terrific, were absolute standouts: Patti Labelle’s brilliant version of “That’s What Christmas Is To Me;” Luther Vandross’ soulful take on “This Is Christmas;” Chaka Khan’s sultry rendition of “Christmas Only Once A Year;” Lou Rawls’ bluesy performance of “Merry Christmas Baby;” Take 6’s a cappella version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas;” Mary J. Blige’s cover of “Someday At Christmas;” and Natalie Cole’s smooth take on “My Grown Up Christmas List.”

The specials also featured taped holiday greetings from various celebrities, including Arsenio Hall, Steve Harvey, Beyoncé, Kobe Bryant, and even casts from TV shows such as The Bernie Mac Show, My Wife and Kids, and The View.

To perhaps make the specials feel more intimate to viewers, the last three Christmas Starfest specials were shot on sound stages without a studio audience. The 2003 Christmas Starfest was filmed on a set resembling the inside of a winter cabin, as performers including Lou Rawls, Michael McDonald and Kelly Rowland performed Christmas carols.  Several of the Soul Train dancers were seated around the performers as they sang.

The 2004 and 2005 Christmas Starfest specials were shot on Stage 31 at Paramount Studios, the same stage where the Soul Train weekly series was taped. The set was decorated with Christmas trees, life-sized toy soldiers and light artificial snow falling from the rafters, resembling a true Winter Wonderland. Several of the Soul Train dancers, including myself, were utilized for these tapings, as we were all decked out in white outfits in keeping with the “White Christmas” theme.

Performers during these Christmas Starfest specials included Eric Benet, who sang a very soulful rendition of “This Christmas,” the legendary Dionne Warwick, and Ruben Studdard. One of the top notch performances was from rising young star Tiffany Evans who sang a soulful gut-busting rendition of “Noel.” I can still remember how her melodic voice echoed throughout the entire studio.

Cornelius interacted more personally with the dancers during these intimate Christmas Starfest tapings, even complimenting me on my white derby and satin white shirt and slacks. The entire crew and the dancers were fed highly well during breaks in Paramount Studios’ commissary. It was like we were treated with Christmas meals before it was officially Christmas.

No more Christmas Starfest specials were produced after 2005, but the performers and their classic performances are all archived and are a cherished part of not only music and television history, but also Christmas history.

May your Christmas be merry and filled with much love, peace and sooooooooooooooooooooul!

– Stephen McMillian

Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music historian.

 

 

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