Los Angeles native Connie Blackino is one of the original dancers of the early seventies Soul Train Gang. Her natural style and rhythm were a great treat for the eyes, and her excellent dancing prowess even got her into the finals of a Soul Train dance contest judged by both Don Cornelius and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Her story is a triumph of the spirit and in this exclusive interview, she shares her powerful testimony.
Soultrain.com: Thank you so much for your time, Connie. My first question is, way before Soul Train, did you always love dancing?
Connie: Yes, I started dancing when I was six. I took tap and ballet lessons up until I was ten.
Soultrain.com: How did you become a Soul Train dancer?
Connie: Before the show began taping in Los Angeles, [show coordinator] Pam Brown went around gathering different kids and promoting the show. I remember the day I went to Dinker Park, where Pam was the parks recreation director. The kids went to the auditions and different records were played, and everyone was trying to out-dance the other. She picked certain ones to be on the show.
Soultrain.com: What are your memories when you first went on the set of Soul Train?
Connie: I remember the excitement and the disbelief that we were dancing on television! When Soul Train came about, it was an unexpected good thing. It was like a dream that you were actually dancing on television. Now that I look back, we had no idea we were becoming a part of history.
Soultrain.com: Indeed. None of the early dancers had a clue about the ride they were about to embark on. My next question is–and I always ask dancers this–did you get your share of the chicken and soda during breaks?
Connie: I did! (Laughs)
Soultrain.com: A lot of famous people performed on the show. Who were some of your favorite artists that performed on Soul Train during the time you were a dancer on the show? Who stands out in your memory?
Connie: I think Stevie Wonder for me was one of the most impacting artists as I reflect today, because he was a part of that era and as time has gone on he is someone who is still here.
Soultrain.com: Do you remember when all of the dancers stood around him as he sang a tribute to Soul Train while playing his piano?
Connie: Yes! I remember that day because I couldn’t get to the front where Stevie was. Several others made it to the front, such as Vicki Abercrombie and Thyais Walsh. All of us girls tried to get to the front. We were all trying to squeeze in to get near Stevie.
Soultrain.com: I spoke to some of the dancers about dealing with jealousy once they became well recognized. Did you ever deal with jealousy during your time on the show?
Connie: Yes. It wasn’t malicious jealousy. Quite naturally, everybody wanted to have their time to shine. Some would always shine more than others. So jealousy was there but it was at a time and an era where people really demonstrated their class. So even if you were more popular, everyone got their little moment in the sun at some point. Certain dancers, like Patricia Davis and Damita Jo Freeman, were the shining stars. Damita could get down but Pat was signature. Pat had signature moves and came up with stuff that no one else was doing and some couldn’t stand her for that.
Soultrain.com: You got down yourself. You could hold your own on the dance floor. I’ve seen footage of you. You were doing your thing!
Connie: Well thank you! Dance was my first love, then singing was my second love.
Soultrain.com: There were so many dances back in the seventies like the Breakdown and the Funky Chicken. Did you have any favorite dances?
Connie: I don’t think I really did. I had to learn to dance. I studied tap and ballet until I was ten, then I stopped. There was a time I was losing my rhythm and I had two cousins who could dance really well, who told me I couldn’t go around the neighborhood dancing like I was and saying I was their cousin! They took me to the skating rink where people would skate and dance and they could really get down, and they helped me get with the groove of dancing. Also [former Soul Train dancer] Wanda Fuller was my best friend and a great choreographer, and we used to do talent shows and things like that. My cousins and Wanda were natural dancers. I just developed a love for dance. So I was able to incorporate the little bit of training I got as a young child. I wasn’t a natural dancer but I learned to get with the groove of it.
Soultrain.com: Do you remember those long, endless Soul Train tapings?
Connie: That was all the fun! We used to bring a couple of outfits to change and all of us girls would be primping in the bathroom trying to look better than the others.
Soultrain.com: Did you ever do the Scramble Board?
Connie: Yes. I got the Johnson Products. I also received a plaque from them that said, “Reach for the stars because you may fall upon a mountain.” I lost the plaque, but it is a motto I always remembered.
Soultrain.com: Did you have a favorite dance partner on Soul Train?
Connie: Lamont Peterson, Eddie Cole and Tyrone Proctor. Those three guys I have my loving memories of dancing with on the show.
Soultrain.com: There was a dance contest on the show that James Brown and Don Cornelius judged and you, Lamont, Patricia Davis, Gary Keys, Damita Jo Freeman and Jimmy Foster competed against one another in the finals. You and Lamont gave the others a run for their money. Do you remember that?
Connie: Oh yes! I had forgotten about that some time ago, after I went through some really hard times in my life. One day my son called me and said I needed to Google my name. So I did and I came across that clip from that dance contest, and that was a mindblower and was one of the most exciting times at that stage of my life. I was shocked to find that clip. It brought tears to my eyes. I needed to be reminded of where I began. That’s how far removed I had become from all my dilemmas in life. I don’t know how many people Don has touched but that was a big uplift for me to remember. This is how important Don Cornelius was to me in my life and I regretted that I never got to see him again.
Soultrain.com: That’s really great because all of you were personally chosen by Don and James Brown to be the finalists in that dance contest.
Connie: Yes. They are true legends.
Soultrain.com: You and several other Soul Train dancers were a part of the Soul Train road tours. When I interviewed former Soul Train dancer Freddie Maxie she told me that you and she almost were not a part of the tour, and at the last minute Don Cornelius wanted a couple from New Orleans to be a part of the tour.
Connie: I do remember that there was some kind of controversy over who the final team was going to be that was going on the tour. This was also when I began my downfall in life. I was young and began to fall off the wagon. I was pregnant. No one knew. When I first accepted to do the tour and started in the process of rehearsing for the tour, I found out that I was pregnant but I still went on that first trip to New York City. I knew after the first trip I was not going to able to continue with the tour.
Soultrain.com: So you knew during rehearsals for the tour you were pregnant?
Connie: Yes. I knew I wasn’t going on the rest of the tour. At that stage of the game, we were rehearsing a lot. I told one of the guys that was a part of the tour about my condition and during rehearsal we were doing some steps that he thought were kind of dangerous for me, and he told me I wasn’t going to be able to do these steps and that I didn’t even need to go. But I told him I was going on the first trip and then I am going to drop out. I knew when I got back to Los Angeles I wasn’t going to be able to continue because a month later the news came out that I was pregnant.
Soultrain.com: Despite all of that, Pam Brown really put in a good word for you and Freddie and insisted that you two were going on the tour. As it turned out, the couple from New Orleans was unable to be a part of the tour. Do you remember the overall excitement of being a part of that tour, traveling with The Sylvers, The Whispers and other artists?
Connie: It was a real exciting time for us all. This was at the time Don Campbell, who was also a part of the tour, was getting recognition for his locking and Freddie was one of the better girls who did locking. But for me personally, it was a bittersweet time because I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to fight the battle to continue. This is how I fell off the scene. I went home and had to tell my mom I was pregnant.
Soultrain.com: You still danced on Soul Train afterwards for awhile, right?
Connie: Yes. I came back to dance on the show for a little while but it was a real lonely time for me. The sad part was when I had my baby and came back to the show, Pat, Eddie, Wanda and Scoo B started working with Diana Ross and Tom Jones, and Don Campbell had developed the Lockers dance troupe. It was a real bittersweet time for me because just at the time when I needed to be available to be in the mix I had a baby, and everyone else went forward. All of the people I had been exchanging with up to that time had started out on their journeys and were living their passion. After I danced on the show for a little while longer I started working in music.
Soultrain.com: Tell us about your journey after leaving Soul Train.
Connie: After I left Soul Train, I worked for awhile then went to school for awhile. When I was about 19, I started working in a lot of different bands. I traveled back east and to Canada. I got with a group called 24 Karat Gold. They got some radio airplay but never got really big, and then I came home for awhile. My mom would take care of my son while I was on the road. When I started to fall in life I was in my mid-20s and a lot of bad things happened. My mother died around that time. I fell into a bad place and for years I forgot about anything artistic I had done. I just fell into a bad place. That’s why when I saw that clip on YouTube, it brought me back to a place where I said to myself, “That’s right, I used to sing, I used to dance.” It reminds me of the scripture that says when you train a child in the way he should go he will not depart from it. Seeing that clip was at a very important time in my climb back to life.
Soultrain.com: What are you doing currently?
Connie: I am working on a project called Convicted that I hope to have finished in June. It’s a gospel message, but not gospel music. It’s a testimony and the songs that are a part of the project are all new school flavor. The songs focus on the fall of life, the prayers of life, God’s love that carries you, surrendering to God, becoming His warrior and being a testimony of life. So the project is a testimony of my life. It’s my journey and I am doing it as a testimony. I wasn’t supposed to be here but God left me here for a reason. I’m at this stage of my life that you should always tell your testimony because you never know who it’s going to help. Tell the story the way it really happened or as close as it can get. If you don’t tell the truth it’s not a testimony.
Soultrain.com: Very true. Your daughter is in show business as a singer, right?
Connie: Yes, Eulalia was raised by her grandmother from 4 to 15. When she came back into my life that’s when I remembered how I used to sing and dance. At 15 she worked with Sade and when she was 16 she worked with Macy Gray. I took her in the studio to help her develop her project that she put out last May called Internal Lullabies. She worked The House of Blues here in Hollywood in December and February, and she goes back in July. She’s a sultry singer like Sade. She’s my real project today. All the things I have done through Soul Train and on my own journey when I was young have been a real good catalyst for her to have a platform to begin from.
Soultrain.com: This month is the first anniversary of Don Cornelius’ passing. Do you have anything you want to say in his memory?
Connie: I hate that I never got to see Don again to say thank you. Don, to me, didn’t get his propers at the end. His Soul Train was deeper than the world thinks. The man had a very deep true soul. We won’t judge his life because we really don’t know. I would challenge everyone that was a part of the Soul Train era in the 70s, 80s and 90s and who was a part of Don’s personal journey to not let time pass and forget what his journey has done for many people. Don’t look at Soul Train and Don Cornelius in terms of the glitz, lights and glamour, but remember how deep of a soul this man must have had that may have been truly misunderstood at the end to have touched so many lives even after he is gone. When people say Soul Train, don’t think of the worldly part but think of that man’s dear sweet soul.
Soultrain.com: Do you have a word of wisdom you want to share with the readers?
Connie: Whatever your goals are in life, be careful of your choices. Remember your choices because choices always have consequences. The consequences can be good things or bad things. Sometimes you can make a choice that you can never get back from, so always remember to make good choices and if you don’t know the answer, be still in God until you do.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, former Soul Train dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music and movie historian.