Tyrone Swan was one of Soul Train’s most desirable male dancers in the mid-seventies. His looks, his style and charisma were eye candy to many female admirers, from his together afro to his stylish outfits. He appeared in several issues of Right On! Magazine and received thousands of letters from fans. Indeed, this Soul Train heartthrob had the “it” factor that earned him a place among one of the show’s most memorable dancers.
SoulTrain.com: As a child, did you like to dance? What was your passion growing up?
Tyrone Swan: When I was nine or ten years old and was around my family, I couldn’t dance at all. I couldn’t quite get the rhythm and they would make fun of me because I was a fan of the Beatles. All of my cousins and other family members liked the Temptations and the Miracles, but I was a fan of the Beatles. Then I started watching Soul Train and the dancers looked like they were having such a good time. I just started dancing as I watched the show and all of a sudden I thought I could dance.
SoulTrain.com: How did you become a dancer on Soul Train?
Tyrone Swan: I guess it was the power of will because when I was 12, 13 and 14, I was like “Wow it would be so much fun to dance and be on TV every week.” I just kept thinking it. Then a friend of the family, who was six years older than me, told me he had a friend named Gary Keys who was a regular on Soul Train. Gary asked him if he wanted to dance on the show and he said no, but had a family friend who would love to go on there and he’s really good looking and is 15 but looks 18. Next thing I know I was connected with Gary Keys and he picked me up and brought me in to the show.
SoulTrain.com: What do you remember about your first day on Soul Train?
Tyrone Swan: I was terrified! It was like stage fright. When the lights came on, I literally froze. The only thing that kept me from freezing on camera was that I just kept moving, but inside I was frozen! The very first person I danced with was Patricia Davis. She was so sweet. I didn’t expect the dancers to be so nice. Everybody was really nice to me. I was only 15. I wasn’t a young man yet and not even an old man yet, and everyone was really nice.
SoulTrain.com: What were your impressions of Don Cornelius when you first saw him in person? Several other dancers felt he was intimidating.
Tyrone Swan: I’ve never really been intimidated by people so I can’t say I was intimidated by him. But having seen him, he was a figure larger than life. He was so sharp all the time with all the wide-collared suits. When I came to the studio and we were all waiting to get in, he pulled up in a drop top Cornish convertible. When you pull up in that, everyone knows what time it is!
SoulTrain.com: Who were among your best friends at Soul Train?
Tyrone Swan: I was so much younger than everybody and I never had a lot of friends. Everyone was nice to me. But one of the people who was the nicest to me was Little Joe Chism. He was about seven or eight years older than me, but he was so kind to me. I remember one time when I was 16 or 17, me and my girlfriend were at a club called The Speakeasy and there was a dance contest and I entered it. I did my little thing—which I thought was something, but Little Joe entered that dance contest and when he finished, the dance floor was completely shredded. That boy ate that dance floor up! I just thought, ‘I’m way out of my league!’ Little Joe could dance his ass off! But I really wasn’t doing a whole lot of hanging out back then. I was sometimes able to go to Maverick’s Flat when my mother allowed me to have the car.
SoulTrain.com: You were considered a Soul Train sex symbol. You did photo spreads for Right On! Magazine and female admirers wrote many letters to you. What was all of that recognition and adulation like?
Tyrone Swan: I didn’t really understand it. In hindsight, I wish I could go back and capitalize on that. I remember one time at a photo shoot with six or seven of the dancers, fan mail was given to us. They gave about 40 letters to one dancer, then another stack to another dancer, then they gave a small shoebox to another dancer. Little Joe and James Phillips had two shoeboxes of letters. Then when they gave me my mail, it was in two big giant boxes. I was like, “Whoa!” If that was now with social media, that kind of draw would be so tremendous. I opened every letter. There were several thousand. Some fans would leave their phone numbers in the letters and tell me to call them collect, which I did. The adoration was cool! I never figured it all out.
SoulTrain.com: Were you ever recognized in public from dancing on Soul Train?
Tyrone Swan: One time when I was 17, me and my girlfriend and some other friends went to Disneyland. There was a bus of kids around my age who lost their minds when I walked into Disneyland. Girls were screaming, “Oh my God! It’s Tyrone Swan from Soul Train!” My buddies started making fun of me and laughing calling me “Mr. Pretty Boy from Soul Train.” I didn’t really get it. People were really fans of the show. I remember traveling to Texas and girls lost their minds like I was a rock star or something.
SoulTrain.com: Did you ever have an OMG moment when seeing a celebrity?
Tyrone Swan: On the way to my very first interview for Right On! Magazine, I was driving up Santa Monica Boulevard near Century City, I looked up and I saw Diana Ross with her two little girls in a canary yellow convertible with the top down, driving the other way. I’ve never been a groupie type or gone crazy over celebrities but I remember screaming in my car, “Oh my God! It’s Diana Ross!” I lost my mind! I thought seeing her was some kind of omen that I was going to be a big star someday.
I remember another time I was walking up LaBrea Avenue and Marvin Gaye pulled over in a Cornish convertible with his girlfriend, who later became his wife. He gave me a ride since he recognized me from Soul Train. He asked me where I was going and I told him I was just going up to Coliseum and he said, “Hop in and I’ll give you a ride.”
SoulTrain.com: Who were some of your favorite artists that you enjoyed seeing perform on Soul Train as well as memories of those artists on the show?
Tyrone Swan: Gino Vanelli sticks in my mind because everyone said I looked like him. I went home and shaved my moustache so I could look more like him! I enjoyed Al Green and the other artists that came and really put it down on the show. I remember when James Brown came on and showed out. Al Green has so much charisma. He even did the show with a broken arm and tore it up. He brought his band on and did it live. I remember Graham Central Station had this sexy singer named Chocolate, and she wanted to dance on the show and she asked me to dance with her so I danced with her. Patti Labelle came to the show in this gold lamé suit and she was so beautiful and so curvaceous. I had a crush on her! I remember she was waiting on the sidelines of the stage and I asked if I could have her phone number. She looked at me and said, “My phone number? You ain’t nothing but a baby.” I also got a lot of autographs from the stars. I remember when the Chi-Lites were on and I got their autographs from them for my mom. I told them that one time when she was ill they were on some TV show and when she saw them she got better.
SoulTrain.com: Who were your favorite dance partners when you were on Soul Train?
Tyrone Swan: Diane Bruner, who was a sweetheart. There was also this pretty, classy girl from Pasadena whom I enjoyed dancing with.
SoulTrain.com: You were also a very sharp dresser on the show.
Tyrone Swan: I can remember being nine and ten years old and my mother would buy me more clothes than toys. I was always into clothes growing up. In my teens, I dressed pretty well. On Soul Train, you had a whole month to get your outfits together. I had a girlfriend who sewed. There’s one outfit in which I had on some knickerbockers and some knee socks and gold metallic shoes, and the knickerbockers had “Soul Train” spelled out in gold studs with gold patches on the knees. My girlfriend at the time made those for me. Another time, my mom and I were on Sunset Boulevard and we saw this gold lamé suit. She paid $95 for that suit and that suit became a huge hit when I wore it on the show. I just had my own natural style.
SoulTrain.com: Did you ever experience jealousy or pettiness from other dancers?
Tyrone Swan: I had a fight on the set with a dancer named Karl Grigsby (another popular regular who was an up and coming comedian). It was actually a one punch fight. I hit him and he hit the ground. He had been dancing on the show with a girl I had dated in high school named Lisa Baldwin, who was very pretty. I wasn’t mad because I wasn’t involved with her any longer, but for some reason he was saying derogatory things to me. I don’t know why. I was only 16 years old and he was a grown man, about 22 years old. At one Saturday taping, he just really kept on nitpicking at me. So at the Sunday taping, when we were filming the Soul Train line, I was coming down the line and there was a technical difficulty and the taping stopped for some minutes and they made us start all over. I said out loud, “Aww shucks! I was just getting started.” Karl, who was on the other line, said out loud, “They cut the line because they didn’t want two bitches coming down the line together!” Everybody just sort of went, “Ooh!” And in the sea of all those dancers, all I saw was Karl Grigsby. I remember parting all the way through the line going over to his line and hitting that dude dead in the jaw and knocking him to the ground. I knocked him out cold. Bam! His brother Leonard, who was very buff and danced on the show also, picked me up and pulled me away. Next thing I know, Don called me and Karl to the back. I thought for sure we were going to get kicked off the show. Don said, “Man, why do y’all want to f—k up my show?” I told him I didn’t want to hit Karl but that he kept saying derogatory things to me. Don said, “Needless to say, if you weren’t who you are” and then he looked at Karl and said, “And if you weren’t who you are, you guys would both be out of here for good. You guys think you can get along on the set?” I said, “I’m fine.” After that, Karl Grigsby treated me with love from that day forward.
SoulTrain.com: When you stopped dancing on Soul Train, did you just get tired of it or you just wanted to move on? What was the reason?
Tyrone Swan: It was a bad move for me to stop because I had so much notoriety and I didn’t really know what to do with it. I should have continued on there because it was free exposure. I could have branched right off into acting. When I turned 18 I just stopped dancing on there. I figured I wasn’t making no money at it so I just stopped.
SoulTrain.com: What did you do after leaving Soul Train?
Tyrone Swan: I did some college. I went to New York and attempted modeling in my late teens and early twenties which was pretty unsuccessful. I had a few jobs here and there. In my early twenties I did a little art direction and had a calligraphy business. I still do calligraphy and write poetry. But I thought I was too good to work a regular job and time just kept passing by.
SoulTrain.com: You are now involved in fitness. How did that come about?
Tyrone Swan: I had a major injury in my late twenties, which had a lot to do with me being a vegetarian. My body was breaking down. I was a vegetarian for 24 years. When I stopped being a vegetarian in February 2002, my body started breaking down. I was a skinny vegetarian. I didn’t like the way my body was looking. I started having pains for no reason and injuries from nowhere. So I started eating fish again but it was difficult because the mindset you have to support your vegetarian philosophy was all wrong for me. I was literally breaking down. I’m a devout carnivore now. I eat chicken and fish ninety percent of the time. I eat beef at least once a week or two or three times a month. I’m lean and cut and look very athletic, long and lean like a wide receiver. I’m strong, healthy and fit.
SoulTrain.com: Who do you credit with helping you get to where you are now physically?
Tyrone Swan: I met a young man named Mykel Shannon Jenkins from Texas in 2004. He worked with the Dallas Cowboys and the LSU track team. His son Bryce is performing on Broadway. Mykel taught me how to train, how to rehabilitate my body and how to eat properly. I eat four to five small protein meals a day, I drink protein shakes, I drink a lot of water and I take my herbs. It was an evolutionary thing for me.
SoulTrain.com: So now you have your own business as a physical fitness therapist.
Tyrone Swan: Yes. In my late twenties, I became a physical therapist as an apprentice to the program they had me in. Because I had gone through so much with my back, they offered me an accelerated program and I accepted it. I also learned deep tissue massage, which really heals injuries. I eventually evolved into a healer. I have many letters from clients that have been dealing with injuries for years and after seeing me for short periods of time, they went into 83% recovery. Now I have my own business called Power Performance. All of my business is done from referrals. I’ve been doing very well for the last 15 or 16 years. I’m also going on commercial auditions and I’m taking voice lessons. God always puts you where you are supposed to be.
SoulTrain.com: How would you describe your overall experience with Soul Train?
Tyrone Swan: It was one of the most fun times I ever had in my life.
SoulTrain.com: What would you like to say in memory of Don Cornelius?
Tyrone Swan: His death broke my heart. I’ll never forget one time Pam Brown (the show’s dance coordinator) was going to make me leave because my name was not on the list. Don walked up to her and said, “Pam, he can stay.”
SoulTrain.com: What word of wisdom do you want to share with the SoulTrain.com readers?
Tyrone Swan: When I see my peers who have let themselves go and get in a rut and become comforted by the fact they are of a certain age and have an excuse to be overweight and not take care of themselves, I say to them you have to keep dreaming, keep reaching, keep aspiring, keep striving. To try is to lie but to strive is to arrive. You have to strive to be better. I have a reason to love myself and take care of myself and I’m still aspiring. You’ve got to keep reaching, aspiring and loving yourself. The best thing you can do is live well and take care of yourself.
Photo of Tyrone Swan courtesy of Tyrone Swan. Photo of Tyrone Swan and Diana Bruner courtesy Soul Train Holdings.
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 book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train which is available on Amazon and in bookstores.