On the fifth national episode of Soul Train that aired October 30, 1971, a segment was introduced that became a mainstay of the show and has become synonymous with the word “legendary.” That segment was the famous Soul Train line.
Soul Train host and creator Don Cornelius said that the Soul Train line was popular in parties he attended in Chicago, so when the program debuted locally in Chicago on August 17, 1970, Cornelius presented the line dance on his show. However, only local television viewers in Chicago could enjoy watching the black and white images of the dancers doing their stuff down the line in that small enclosed studio to the popular soul songs of the time, such as James Brown’s “Sex Machine” and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed , Sealed, Delivered.”
Cornelius had no idea what he started when he began showcasing the Soul Train line when it was aired nationally in seven markets in the U.S. before reaching over 25 markets by the end of 1972. The first Soul Train line song played on the national broadcast of the program was the popular Staple Singers’ hit “Respect Yourself.” As the beat of the song kicked in, couples grooved enthusiastically down the Soul Train line, wearing brightly colored suits and outfits, platforms, high heels, bell bottoms, mini-skirts and sneakers while sporting perfectly coiffed large and small afros.
Pam Brown, the first dance coordinator for the national version of Soul Train, pointed out in the documentary The Hippest Trip in America that it was hard for people to actually dance while going down the Soul Train line. Indeed, on this particular Soul Train line, the majority of the dancers just simply went down the line clapping their hands while moving steadily to the beat, not doing any particular dance routines, although some couples did execute the popular dance the Breakdown while going down the line. Nevertheless, the Soul Train Gang kept in time to the beat of “Respect Yourself” while displaying the true soul and natural rhythm that is deeply entrenched in the roots of African American culture.
The popular regulars that Soul Train fans would become accustomed to seeing on later broadcasts—such as Patricia Davis, Damita Jo Freeman, Don Campbell and others—did not appear on this broadcast since they were not dancers on the show yet. Patricia Davis, for instance, did not appear on the program until its seventh episode, while Damita Jo Freeman and Don Campbell would not appear until the show’s tenth episode. One dancer who went down the line on this episode and would go on to become an accomplished singer and musician is Patrice Rushen, who sported a huge afro and a purple vest/mini-skirt outfit.
On future Soul Train lines, the dancers would “cut up” more and get more creative, doing splits, tumbles, cartwheels, locking, roboting and every other popular dance move one could think of. By the eighties, the line would feature skits with popular regulars Louie “Ski” Carr, Tom Evans and Odis Medley, aka the man with 1,000 costumes.
Since the broadcast of that first national Soul Train line, many gatherings and functions over the years such as wedding receptions, cookouts, family reunions and class reunions regularly feature Soul Train lines. Even stuffy, corporate parties and events have been known to have a Soul Train line once in a while, with corporate executives attempting to do the running man (after having a drink or two). Undoubtedly, since its inception, the Soul Train line has become a cherished part of pop culture that will forever, in the classic words of Don Cornelius, be “a stone gas, honey!”
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. He is featured in the Soul Train documentary Show Me Your Soul and is also featured in the new book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train by Ericka Blount Danois which is available on Amazon and in bookstores.