The episode that this landmark event occurred was on a 1973 special salute to The Supremes. At that time, the lineup consisted of Jean Terrell, Mary Wilson and Lynda Lawrence.
Cornelius did not plan on going down the Soul Train line on that day’s taping; it was pretty spontaneous.
During an interview with Mary Wilson, she expressed to Cornelius about how she would “love to go down that Soul Train line.” She had asked him personally if she could dance with him then he said, “Yeah, you can dance with me but not on television.” But then he relented and asked the Soul Train Gang, “You think I can come up that Soul Train line?” The gang erupted in approving howls and cheers. He then introduced the Soul Train line song “Doing it to Death” by Fred Wesley & the JBs as all the dancers did their polished and eye-catching routines. And then the moment occurred: Cornelius and Wilson came down the line and the Soul Train Gang burst out in screams, cheers, applause and some laughter in seeing laid back and super cool Don Cornelius strut his stuff going down the line. It appeared he was trying to do the Funky Chicken at one point, causing more laughter.
Cornelius went down the line a second time with Lynda Lawrence and Jean Terrell. Cornelius was very smooth doing his thing with Lynda and Jean, but maybe he got too cocky when he attempted to do a split or something but sort of tripped and almost fell as he exited himself out of the Soul Train line amidst the Soul Train Gang’s uproarious laughter.
When the Soul Train line was complete, Cornelius was back at his podium with Jean Terrell. The Soul Train Gang applauded him thunderously for his efforts.
“How did you like those moves I put on you?” Cornelius asked Terrell. “When you reach my age, you can’t be out here doing a lot of jumping around.” Terrell shrugged off the comment. “Well, you haven’t reached my age yet.” Terrell just smiled and stated, “No comment.”
Cornelius then thanked Mary Wilson for giving him the opportunity to dance on his show for the very first (and last) time.
On the documentary Hippest Trip in America, Cornelius reflected on his one-time Soul Train line appearance, “I was never the worst dancer at a party,” he said. “I was one of the guys who could throw down.”
Soul Train dance coordinator Pam Brown jokingly stated in the documentary, “It’s hard to dance and come down the line in a forward fashion. Don found that out. He said cut and he never tried it again.”
Recalling Cornelius’ Soul Train line moment, Soul Train dancer Tyrone Proctor recalled, “We (the dancers) were stunned but we were elated at the same time. It was the first time any of the Soul Train Gang got to see Don dance.”
Other than going down the Soul Train line, Cornelius rarely danced in public. Soul Train dancer Patricia Davis got Cornelius to do the bump dance craze with her at a Soul Train Christmas party once, but he usually was just an observer in later years when he would frequent clubs, parties or social gatherings.
When I danced on the show, the closest thing I had seen to Cornelius doing any kind of dancing was when he would put his hands deep in his pockets and sort of slightly bounce up and down as he watched the girls go down the Soul Train line on the monitors as he would cue the cameraman to cut back and forth from the girls’ line to the guys’ line. However, he would wait a minute or so to cue the cameraman to switch to the guys’ line since he was obviously enjoying what he was seeing on the girls’ line.
Cornelius was a good sport going down the Soul Train line and had referred to that one time line appearance as a “classic piece of tape” during an interview on Good Morning America several years ago. Although future guest hosts of the show and permanent new host Shemar Moore danced on the program and went down the Soul Train line, there will never be anything like seeing the program’s original host “getting his groove on.” It was a moment that, to echo the words of Cornelius, was a stone gas that people could bet their last money on.
Indeed, the sight of the super cool, suave and reserved Don Cornelius strutting his stuff down the Soul Train line is truly a rare OMG moment that will forever be a cherished part of Soul Train’s history.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer/performer, soul music and movie historian and Soul Train historian as well as a former Soul Train dancer.