When one thinks of Soul Train and its dancers, some forget that the program started locally in Chicago first and had its own fantastic dancers just like the nationally syndicated program. Wayne “Crescendo” Ward was one of Soul Train’s best from Chicago. He became part of a dance troupe known as The Puppets and went on to do big things in the entertainment industry as an entrepreneur, dancer, choreographer, producer, writer and actor. In fact, Soul Train literally saved his life. Here is his story.
SoulTrain.com: What was your passion growing up as a kid in Chicago?
Crescendo: I wanted to dance. I always danced. I used to do The Twist and The Jerk as a kid.
SoulTrain.com: Who or what inspired you to dance?
Crescendo: My mother was a dancer as well as an opera singer. I would imitate anything I saw, like movies with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and I really admired The Lockers.
SoulTrain.com: When did you hear about this new show called Soul Train in Chicago?
Crescendo: I remember I was still a kid when it first aired. There were three things you watched in Chicago after school: Soul Train, Speed Racer and The Three Stooges. I knew you had to be a certain age to get on Soul Train, like 16 or 17. Don Cornelius was the host at that time. When I was a freshman in high school, Don left the show and Clinton Ghent took over.
SoulTrain.com: How did you get on Soul Train?
Crescendo: In my neighborhood, I was the best dancer. I used to enter the talent shows at Austin High School. The talent shows would mainly consist of bands and I was the only dancer and I would win. I knew I wanted to get on Soul Train. I knew some people that had been on Soul Train and they told me you had to stand in this long line at the Chicago Board of Trade building, and you had to have a partner. My best friend, Janice, was the most attractive girl in high school and she liked to dance as well. So we decided we were going to go on Soul Train and because she was so fine we were put in front of the line!
SoulTrain.com: What do you recall about that first day at Soul Train?
Crescendo: When you watch things on television, the sets seem much bigger than they actually are. I assumed Soul Train was this big studio set. My living room was bigger than Soul Train’s set! I said, “This is it?” [laughs]. Also, I met these guys that became a part of the group I danced with. They were like the kings of Soul Train. They were Melvin Shrunpert, Anthony Fairchild, Carlton Knight and Sammy Feltz and they were calling themselves The Soul Train Dancers. They were the best dancers on Soul Train and they patterned themselves after The Lockers just like me. I was trying to do what The Lockers were doing. We would later form a dance group The Puppets. So the first day Janice and I went on the show, we were placed in the back of the crowd. I didn’t come on Soul Train to be in the back. They only had one camera that just rolled in front of the people dancing. Later, a song came on and I asked one of the other dancers to give me some room and I did a split. The station manager said, “Hey, bring that guy up front!” That’s how I began dancing out in front.
SoulTrain.com: Did you meet the host Clinton Ghent on that first day?
Crescendo: Yes, I met Clinton and he said I was a pretty good dancer and asked if I was coming back and I told him I would come back. I became one of the regulars and one of the best dancers so I didn’t have to stand in that long line anymore.
SoulTrain.com: Do you remember the artists that came to perform on the show while you were a dancer?
Crescendo: I remember a lot of artists that came on to perform while I was there, such as The Chi-Lites, The Impressions, Blue Magic–mostly local Chicago talent, whoever was in town that needed to promote a show that they were doing at the time. The Chi-Lites did it quite a few times because they were a Chicago group.
SoulTrain.com: How did it feel to see yourself dance on the show?
Crescendo: Since the shows weren’t taped and they aired live, I never saw myself on Soul Train. By the time I got home, the shows had already aired. No one had a VCR to tape them because VCRs didn’t exist at the time.
SoulTrain.com: In the documentary Hippest Trip in America, you talked about how you nearly got beat up after a day of dancing on Soul Train.
Crescendo: On that day, I was taking my girlfriend home who happened to live on the north side of Chicago at the Cabrini Green Projects. I remember when we got off the L-Train and we heard gunshots. The closer we got to Cabrini Green, the louder the gunshots were. But then once we got in the courtyard, the shooting stopped. So we continued to her building and she went inside. As I left and walked towards the L-Train, four guys walked in my direction. I was like, “Oh crap.” They looked at me and said, “What’s up? Represent!” So I kissed my finger and put up the peace sign and said, “No love,” which meant you had no affiliation with any gang. So they were like, “Where you from? Where you from? You’re not from around here.” So they started patting my pockets and sure enough, they took my money and change and my gold chain, and then they said, “Get your punk a— out of here!” So then one of them recognized me and said, “Wait a minute, I know this mutha f—a. That’s that Soul Train mutha f—-a!” [laughs] He was like, “He can dance!” Then he asked me to cut a move and I did a James Brown split and he said how much he respected the fact that I could dance very well. They gave me back all of my money and what was so funny was that he told them to give me more money and informed me to take a cab home since this was a bad neighborhood!
SoulTrain.com: That is too funny! Soul Train definitely saved your life that day.
Crescendo: Yes, it did! That’s the kind of influence Soul Train had. When I got home, my mom was looking out the window and she saw me getting out of a taxi. I didn’t tell her what happened because she wouldn’t have told me that I wasn’t going to Cabrini Green anymore.
SoulTrain.com: Tell me about how you became a part of the dance group that would later be known as The Puppets.
Crescendo: On my first day at Soul Train, the guys I mentioned earlier were eyeing me and saying things like, “He think he can dance.” It was rivalry. So every time they would do a show in town with George, the security manager for Soul Train, or with Clinton, I knew where they were going to be because my friend Janice was dating one of them. They weren’t calling themselves The Puppets yet, just the Soul Train Dancers. They would be doing a show and I would just show up. So how I became a part of the troupe is that at one show, they introduced me as another great dancer from Soul Train and they referred to me as “Chicken Wayne” because I was so limber in my movements. So I went out on stage and did a backwards flip and a split. I did a lot of moves in a short amount of space. That’s when they said that they had to put me in their group because they couldn’t do gymnastics.
SoulTrain.com: So what happened after you became a part of the group?
Crescendo: When I joined, I realized that they weren’t getting paid and I said that we have to get paid. So I told them we can put on our own events. I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. We would perform on Soul Train as well as open up for Rufus, Earth, Wind & Fire and all the other groups that played in Chicago at the Arie Crown Theater. Perv’s House was a major nightclub on the southside of Chicago that every band came through such as The Spinners and The Pointer Sisters. The Puppets were the opening act for those groups. All of this came from Soul Train. Clinton even told us that we should branch out and start doing more shows and get paid.
SoulTrain.com: There is a story of how Wolfman Jack (host of the late night TV concert program Midnight Special) came to Chicago and you guys sneaked backstage and eventually became a part of the show.
Crescendo: This is what happened. I didn’t normally read Newsweek but one day I just happened to read it and I saw an ad that stated Midnight Special was making a tour of campuses across America, and they were going to tape at the University of Illinois. The ad also said that Wolfman Jack’s real name was Bob Smith. So I got the guys together and told them we were going backstage and ask for Bob Smith. I figured we would be let in because we knew Wolfman Jack’s real name. So I was sure we were going to be on The Midnight Special and I told everyone. We took the L-Train down to the university and we got backstage and told the security guard we were there to see Bob Smith. The guard asked, “Who’s Bob Smith?” We said Wolfman Jack, Bob Smith is his real name. The guard said, “Shouldn’t you kids be in school? Get out of here before I call the cops!”
We hid out in the campus library and the guys are cussing me out, saying I made them cut school for this. So I had an idea. We had our costumes and we put them on–our striped socks and knickerbockers. We looked like a combination of Sly & The Family Stone and Ronald McDonald! We went backstage again, and the security guards changed shifts. There was a younger security guard and we walked up to him in our wild outfits and the guard saw us and said, “The Ohio Players?” And we said, “Yeah, we’re the Ohio Players.” We were escorted to the Ohio Players’ dressing room, which had a Craft Food Service inside. We threw down and ate all that food! So when we finished, we realized we had to find Wolfman Jack. But suddenly, the real Ohio Players showed up and they were high. The security guard told them that he already checked The Ohio Players in.
SoulTrain.com: Oh-oh. You guys were in deep trouble!
Crescendo: We took off running but we were caught and security escorted us over to Wolfman Jack. He saw us and exclaimed, “The Lockers!” And we played along saying, “Yeah, we’re the Lockers!” The security guard let us go. So Wolfman Jack’s manager, Don Kelly, walked up to us like an endearing father after the security guards left and said, “You guys aren’t The Lockers. We know The Lockers. Who are you?” He then told us he did the exact same thing we did when he tried to see Frank Sinatra when he was a kid. He knew what our hustle was! Wolfman was flattered that we snuck backstage to see them. We told him we wanted to dance on The Midnight Special. But we didn’t that time. But the first two rows of people sitting on the floor moved and we sat in front and watched The Ohio Players perform. Right after that, The Ohio Players hired some dancers that everybody thought was us.
SoulTrain.com: Wow. So did The Puppets actually ever perform on The Midnight Special?
Crescendo: Yeah, but the episode we did was never released. But the pinnacle of this whole thing was that Wolfman was getting ready to do a big tour and a TV special in Canada and the producers wanted to hire The Lockers, but at the time they were at the height of their career and they couldn’t afford them so guess who they hired? Us, The Puppets! And that’s how we broke into the entertainment business. I was 17 at the time and I had a tutor. I finished high school on the road. I actually got shot twice by two different guys with .32 and .22 caliber guns in Chicago before I went back out on the road with Wolfman Jack, but I healed up pretty fast. I was told it was remarkable that I survived. So Don Kelly told me that I didn’t need to go back to Chicago.
SoulTrain.com: The Puppets became a disco vocal group for a while called Dream Express, right?
Crescendo: Yeah. We came in on the latter part of trying to enter the disco scene. It wasn’t our idea. The Midnight Special producers wanted to change its theme song and at that time a lot of good music was being buried under the gluttony of a lot of bad disco music out there. A deal was cut with some producer named Wes Ferrell, who was the producer of The Partridge Family, to do a disco album and they needed a group to represent it. So they told Wes that we, The Puppets, can sing and dance. Actually, only two of us could sing and I wasn’t one of them. So we had a two record deal and I couldn’t sing a lick! Wes wanted to do with us what was done with The Village People, where they only had one real singer. Because we were so visual when we danced, it made for great television. We did every major show such as Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin and American Bandstand. In any event, the music on the album was terrible! This was right before the Disco Sucks movement, where people burned a bunch of disco records on a baseball field. By the way, the theme song we did for Midnight Special was called “Midnight Dream.”
SoulTrain.com: Did you ever dance on the national version of Soul Train?
Crescendo: Yes. I had grown up watching the original Lockers on Soul Train and I had always wanted to be on the L.A. version. So in my early twenties, I danced on the national version of Soul Train just to have the satisfaction to say I danced on the L.A. version. But by this time, the video age, I was a choreographer–the youngest choreographer out there–and I was choreographing everybody. I even choreographed a major Diana Ross special in the early 1980s. The one group I worked with when they came to Soul Train regularly was The Pointer Sisters. I staged their act and I danced with them during one of their performances. By this time, there were other major projects I was involved with.
SoulTrain.com: What were those projects?
Crescendo: One of them was a lip sync show called Puttin’ On The Hits. I helped to sell that show. This came out of lip sync contests I would enter. I was also involved with another show called FTV. After MTV broke, I was a regular on that show along with Khandi Alexander who later played on CSI. I was also the talent coordinator for the dance section of Star Search. During that time in the early 1980s, all of these things were happening, one thing after another.
SoulTrain.com: Did you ever perform on Star Search?
Crescendo: The first year I got all of the dance acts for Star Search. The second year my friend and I were on the show as a dance team, Crescendo and Diamond. We were finalists. We won four shows in a row. So we qualified for the semi-finals. In the finals we were up against a dance team, The Williams Brothers, who were extras in the movie The Cotton Club. The producers of the show wanted the finalists to talk about what we were doing professionally since Star Search. I had a pilot, a TV series coming up, and I was a choreographer, but they wanted me to say that all of that happened as a result of me being on Star Search. I felt like I was being pimped. I felt used and it didn’t sit well with me. They wanted me to smile and grin and say Star Search was responsible for the things I was doing in the business, but when it came time for the interview, I just said I did a commercial and that was that. After the competition, Diamond and I just knew we won since The Williams Brothers messed up during their performance, but they wound up winning the finals. Diamond said the “F” word on national TV and walked off the stage! In hindsight, I could have given in to what the producers wanted me to say, but I let my ego get in the way.
SoulTrain.com: You also were in several movies such as Body Rock, Naked Gun, Five Heartbeats and others. You were part of a group that competed against the Five Heartbeats in that movie, right?
Crescendo: Robert Townsend and I knew each other. He called me and said he needed a rival group called The Ebony Sparks for his movie Five Heartbeats. I told him I would love to be a part of it. So I choreographed the Ebony Sparks and another person choreographed The Five Heartbeats so we wouldn’t look similar and then it would really be a competition.
SoulTrain.com: What other movies have you done?
Crescendo: I had a small part in the Chris Rock movie CB4. But the biggest film I did was Earth Girls Are Easy with Damon Wayans and Jim Carrey, right before they became big. I actually auditioned for Damon’s part and the director was going to give it to me because I was pretty funny and was good at physical comedy, but it was decided that I was going to be a dancer named Damone that competed against the alien in the movie, played by Damon Wayans. But when shooting the scene, the director realized Damon couldn’t dance! They just assumed he could dance because he was black. [laughs] So I got my old dance partner, Diamond, to be a stunt double for Damon for that dance scene. But I told the director I wanted a credit for choreographing that scene.
SoulTrain.com: Tell us about your company, Wardance Entertainment.
Crescendo: I started producing street dance events and festivals. The first one was the American Street Dance Championship. This was way before the TV programs Dancing With The Stars, America’s Best Dance Crew, So You Think You Can Dance. My celebrity judges were legendary street dancers like Don Campbell, who invented locking, and Boogaloo Sam, who invented popping. I formed my company Wardance Entertainment to produce live events. I was shooting these events on betamax technology to preserve them. This was before the Internet got really strong. I also began editing people’s reels and pilots for TV shows. So my company branched out and we are now a multi-faceted entertainment company specializing in live events, live web streaming, film/TV production, writing and facilitating anything in entertainment. The latest thing we are doing is producing crowd funding videos for kickstarter.com.
SoulTrain.com: Did you ever meet Don Cornelius?
Crescendo: Yes. I met him quite a few times, not at Soul Train, but at a few live events. I met him at the taping of the Hippest Trip in America documentary and before that at an event I produced, an Oscar screening party, which was for people who couldn’t go to the Oscars. I would always see Don and his son Tony at these parties.
SoulTrain.com: What would you like to say in Don Cornelius’ memory?
Crescendo: He left an impact not just on the urban community, but on entertainment as a whole period.
SoulTrain.com: Do you have a word of wisdom you want to share with the readers?
Crescendo: Don’t follow any rules you had nothing to do with making up. If you have a passion for something, do it your way.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer/performer, Soul Train historian and soul music and movie historian. He is also a former Soul Train dancer.