Q&A: Drew Leach–Soul Train’s First Director

Don Cornelius ST ChicagoDrew Leach is a deejay in South Bend, Illinois who has a lot of directing and production work to his credit. One of those credits is that he was the very first director for a local Chicago dance show called Soul Train, which became a nationwide phenomenon in later years. In this exclusive interview, Leach gives valuable and fascinating insight into the early years and production of the program and working with Don Cornelius.

SoulTrain.com: Tell us about your background in broadcasting.

Drew Leach: I worked at a TV station in South Bend right out of high school. Me and another person in production were allowed to have our own TV show, which revolved around a teen dance show which featured local high schools. I worked my way up at the station to assistant director.

SoulTrain.com: How did you get the job with Soul Train?

Drew Leach: Basically, I was the top director at WCIU. I was 22 at the time and had been at the station for four and a half years. Previously I was directing a show Monday through Friday called Kiddie-A-Go-Go, which featured kids that were 12 years ago. They played games and danced to bubblegum music. The star of the show had health problems and the show went off the air so that time period was open. They tried to fill it with a couple of other kids’ shows but nothing quite worked out. I was then called down to the production office on a Friday and was told about this show they had coming up called Soul Train. All they had was the set work and that was it. I had to come up with the format and the basic script of the show. Don Cornelius was going to be the host. So I got it all set up over the weekend. I became the first director and that’s how I got involved in it.  I was the director for the six months.

SoulTrain.com: What was the format of Soul Train in those early days?

Drew Leach: It was a five day a week show and it aired live from 4:30 to 5:30. We recorded it on Tuesdays and we played half of it back on Saturdays and half of it back on Sundays. The show was filmed in black and white.

SoulTrain.com: Wasn’t there another dance program on WCIU before Soul Train?

Drew Leach: Yes. The program was Red Hot Blues, which was a Friday night show I directed. Dick Van Hale was a DJ on WVON and he hosted the program. Every 15 minutes there was a sponsor and in those 15 minute segments they would have groups of three, four or five kids that would dance and do routines to songs by James Brown or The Jackson 5. It was really a neat show and it aired live from 10:30 to midnight.

SoulTrain.com: Do you think that show inspired Soul Train?

Drew Leach: Yes. The host always closed out his show at night with “love and peace.” Basically, when I put together the script for Soul Train I came up with the saying as, “always in parting we wish you love, we wish you peace, and we wish you soul.” That was the original line that we used.

SoulTrain.com: So you’re the one that came up with that line for Don Cornelius to say to close out his show and Don modified it?

Drew Leach: Yes. When Soul Train went into syndication, he changed the closing line to “love, peace & soul.”

SoulTrain.com: Do you remember when you first met Don Cornelius?

Drew Leach: When I met him he was a sports broadcaster on a show called Black View of the News, which I was a floor director on. He was brought into the studio by Roy Wood, who was the news director at WVON. Roy basically took Don under his wing and taught him the ropes of being a radio DJ. Don had a great voice, no doubt about that. He was the one that requested I direct his show.  I had a talk show like Johnny Carson and the host was Marty Fay, who goes back to the early days of TV. This show aired on Saturdays and his producer was Ken Ehrlich, who now produces the Grammys. I was the director of that show and basically Don had asked if I would direct his show as well.

SoulTrain.com: What do you remember about the first day Soul Train aired? I learned that it was shot at the Chicago Board of Trade Building on the 43rd or 44th floor and the studio was like a living room! What was that like?

Drew Leach: We had old equipment. We had two cameras in the studio, one with a turning lens and the other with a zoom lens. There were no special effects so we had to create our own. We would take pieces of cardboard and slide them so we could split the screen in front of the camera.

SoulTrain.com: I read that the set had a Soul Train sign made out of cardboard or something.

Drew Leach: Right. The set was in front of a diesel train, which was on the east side of the studio and on the west side of the studio was where the kids would dance.

SoulTrain.com: How many kids were there approximately in the studio?

Drew Leach: I’d say at least 30 kids.

SoulTrain.com: Really? In that little space? Was the Soul Train line being done at that time?

Drew Leach: Yes, it was. I didn’t want the show to be like American Bandstand, whereas everyone sat in the bleachers and watched the artists perform and then Dick Clark would interview them. I always felt if the artist was doing songs people could dance to, why not have the artists perform with the kids dancing around them? We had a four by eight riser on the floor and the artists would sing on that riser and the studio audience danced around them. It was a neat way of setting up so the dancers would enjoy what the artists were performing up close.

SoulTrain.com: Jerry Butler was the first guest on the pilot. What other guests do you remember performing on the local version of the show?

Drew Leach: A lot of the Chicago artists such as Gene Chandler, who performed “Groovy Situation” on one show. Marty Fay and Ken Ehrlich would bring a lot of the artists to the show such as Ramsey Lewis Trio and Young Holt Unlimited. There was a lot of talent in Chicago and a lot of talent came to Chicago, and we were able to bring them to the show.

SoulTrain.com: Being that Soul Train aired live, were there any goofs that occurred?

Drew Leach: We only had one turn table. Certain songs we had already set up to play during the broadcast. Sometimes during the live show Don would decide to change the rotation of the music and unfortunately since our engineers were union, it was difficult to change the record during a live show with only one turntable. So at times the wrong records were introduced.

SoulTrain.com: What was Soul Train’s opening and closing themes?

Drew Leach: The opening sequence of Soul Train was a piece of film we used where the camera laid on on a train track and a train came towards the camera. Roy Wood’s voice would yell out “Soul Train.” The closing theme song was a jazz instrumental version of a song called “More Today Than Yesterday.” The dancers would not dance during the closing segment but the credits would just roll while this song played.

SoulTrain.com: Do you know why it was decided that Soul Train would be shot on a high floor like the 44th floor? Was that the only space available?

Drew Leach: WCIU’s studio was on the 44th floor before I started working there. There was only one elevator available up to that floor.

SoulTrain.com: I hope no one ever got trapped in that elevator on the way to or coming from Soul Train with all the crew and dancers you had.

Drew Leach: Yes. The elevator was stuck several times with people, but not with Soul Train. One time the elevator was stuck with kids after Red Hot Blues was finished shooting and the fire department had to be called. Soul Train did receive a bomb threat once.  The bomb threat occurred right during the actual show. We had to evacuate the studio and the top three floors in the Board of Trade building and we put on a video tape on the station that we had to leave and we just let that entire tape run.

SoulTrain.com: So viewers at home had no idea what was going on at the time?

Drew Leach: No, not at all.

SoulTrain.com: What did you do professionally after leaving Soul Train?

Drew Leach: I worked for ad agencies throughout my entire career. I handled Coca-Cola for about 15 years. I produced and directed a half hour TV show in South Bend which included Billy Nicks’ trio. Billy Nicks was a drummer who played for Jr. Walker & The All Stars. We got really high ratings on it and it ran prime time. Coca-Cola picked up the production costs and it worked really well. I also did a lot of commercials such as for a bus company called United Limo that went to and from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and Kentucky Fried Chicken for the regional area. I won awards for my spots as well. I also had a radio disco program that ran for three years when disco was big and a jazz radio program.

SoulTrain.com: Do you still deejay?

Drew Leach: Yes. I deejay parties at different clubs and I’m also working on doing a radio program that involves vocal bands that were big here in the 1960s. Right now, I deejay at the Linebacker by Notre Dame and have been here 24 years.

SoulTrain.com: Over the years did Don ever contact you?

Drew Leach: When he went out to L.A., I never heard from him anymore.

SoulTrain.com: What do you think of the Soul Train dancers of Chicago versus the Soul Train dancers of Los Angeles?

Drew Leach: Well, the Chicago dancers had their own style.

SoulTrain.com:  How did you feel about Soul Train moving to Los Angeles?

Drew Leach: I felt Soul Train should have never left Chicago, even when it went into syndication.

SoulTrain.com: Is it your view that although Soul Train’s production values were better in Los Angeles, the heart and soul of Soul Train was in Chicago?

Drew Leach: Yes. I think it should have stayed in Chicago like American Bandstand should have stayed in Philadelphia.

–Stephen McMillian

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.

3 Comments

  1. Drew says:

    S Baker, Your father (whom I’ve never heard of) was probably the first director of the syndicated program, but he was not the first director of Soul Train in Chicago. I have the original script and format of the show that I put together. I was requested to direct this show by Don who did not have any idea of how to put a show together. Also, Sears was the first sponsor of the show. J&J never picked up on it until it went into syndication. What you said “C. Brian Smith, a WHITE, Canadian immigrant was the original director of the Chicago based Soul Train before Johnson & Johnson purchased the contract to syndicate the show and move it to California.” is incorrect.

  2. S Baker says:

    Um, I really hate to break it to you all but my father: C. Brian Smith, was the FIRST Director of Soul Train.
    He’s been glazed over for decades and I’m actually sick and tired of having to correct people.
    C. Brian Smith, a WHITE, Canadian immigrant was the original director of the Chicago based Soul Train before Johnson & Johnson purchased the contract to syndicate the show and move it to California.
    I still remember Don taking the train from the city out to our Far West suburban home just to tell my dad the news. J&J had decided to take on a black director when they moved the show to California.
    Don and my Dad were heartbroken but my dad understood the reasoning behind it. It was still a highly volatile time for race relations in this nation and J&J’s decision was meant to showcase black talent.

    I just hate that my dad’s name has basically been eradicated from the history of the show. He was so proud of the show, loved Don, the Chicago Dancers and everyone involved. To think that his work and support of cultural equality has been nearly wiped out makes me angry and sick!

    I ask this article be retracted and corrected IMMEDIATELY!!

  3. Drew says:

    Steve, The host of Red Hot and Blues Was Big Bill Hill. Also South Bend is in Indiana not Illinois. Kiddie A Go-Go and Red Hot and Blues the studio audience was always under 12 years of age. All these shows were live.
    Great article, Thanks, Drew

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