Soul Train History Book:  Soul Train’s Premiere

Don Cornelius and Curtis Mayfield on Soul Train in Chicago 1970On August 17, 1970, a new local dance show in Chicago entitled Soul Train made its debut on UHF station WCIU Channel 26.

Created and produced by former journalist and radio DJ Don Cornelius, Soul Train was shot in black and white and filmed live on the 43rd floor of Chicago’s Board of Trade Building in a room the size of what many dancers described as a living room. Since it was filmed live, that meant the dancers had to be on time and ready when it was showtime.

Since Chicago was bustling with musical talent, it wasn’t hard for Cornelius to gather talent for the program, and he didn’t have to reach for bigger name soul acts such as James Brown and Aretha Franklin (which would come later when Soul Train aired nationally). Guests on the premiere episode were Chicago artists Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, and the Emotions. As time went on, other artists from the Chicago area such as Curtis Mayfield, the Staple Singers, and Donny Hathaway—as well as lesser known artists and local talent from Chicago—made appearances on the local version of Soul Train.

The show’s opening credits showcased an old film of a train riding along a track as the words “Soul Train” appeared on the screen along with Joe Cobb’s trademark high pitched “the sooooooooul train.” This segued into the kids dancing to King Curtis’ “Hot Potatoes” as the guests, who danced in that tiny room with the dancers, were announced. Songs from a variety of artists, including The Jackson 5 and James Brown, played between each of the acts’ performances. Somehow, a Soul Train line managed to be formed in the “living room,” which appeared a bit disorganized; nevertheless, the kids all had fun.

Although Cornelius would later say that the local version of Soul Train was “terrible in every technical aspect,” the show caught on as it aired five days a week in Chicago. It caused a great air of excitement for kids and teens, who rushed home from school to see the latest dances as well as find out what artists were going to perform.

Assisting Cornelius was Clinton Ghent, a local dancer and choreographer who worked with several artists including The Jackson 5. Ghent worked behind the scenes on the program until Cornelius moved to Los Angeles in April 1974, and he became the new host of Chicago’s Soul Train until it went off the air in June 1976 (Cornelius still lived in Chicago when Soul Train aired nationally and still hosted the local version of Soul Train up until 1974, but flew to Los Angeles once a month to tape the national version of the program).

Even though Soul Train borrowed its format loosely from American Bandstand, it nevertheless had its own style and flavor and was only the second black dance show created by a black man. The forerunner was Jocko’s Rocket Ship, a local dance show in New York City hosted by popular radio DJ Jocko Henderson. Its format was similar to American Bandstand’s, featuring teens dancing to the latest songs as well as musical guests performing.

Whoever would have guessed that what started out as just a local dance program in Chicago would evolve years later into a worldwide phenomenon? Up until its final broadcast in 2006, Soul Train kept up with the times featuring the latest dances, fashions and guest stars. Other dance programs came and went after Soul Train aired, but they were no match for the “hippest trip in America.” Soul Train had staying power and had an undeniable appeal. It featured every black musical genre from soul, funk, and disco to jazz, gospel, blues, pop, and rap, even rock & roll (by way of the rare legendary appearance by rock & roll architect, Chuck Berry). Of equal importance, the program featured some of the best and most memorable dancers that would ever grace a dance stage, many of whom went on to have highly successful careers in the entertainment industry: Damita Jo Freeman, Don Campbell, Jody Watley, Jeffrey Daniel, Shabba Doo, Rosie Perez, and many  others. Moreover, many of the program’s former dancers, such as Patricia Davis, Tyrone “The Bone” Proctor, James “Skeeter Rabbit” Higgins, Tony A Go-Go, and Jimmy “Scoo B Doo” Foster, have been teaching dance classes around the world. Indeed, Cornelius opened doors for many young people to get exposure, which opened further doors for them to gain entry into other avenues of the entertainment industry.

By the same token, Cornelius put a spotlight on many black artists who may not have gotten exposure on other mainstream shows like The Tonight Show, Merv Griffin, or even American Bandstand. It’s interesting to note that, as the Ed Sullivan went off the air in June 1971, Soul Train came on the air nationally in October 1971. It was as if the universe was saying goodbye to one golden age of television and hello to a new era of television.

Soul Train’s brand would evolve into the annual Soul Train Music Awards (now simply called the Soul Train Awards), the Lady of Soul Awards, and the Soul Train Christmas Starfest. The mid-2000s saw the launch of the annual Soul Train Cruise and an up and coming Broadway play entitled Soul Train On Broadway.

None of this could have happened if Don Cornelius hadn’t pursued his dream. Imagine if he had called it quits after doing the local version of Soul Train and never dreamed of taking it to a national level.  Worse, imagine if Don continued selling insurance and dismissed his dream. Indeed, Don Cornelius is a representation of pursuing and sticking to your dreams and seeing them through, and that he did from Chicago to Hollywood.

—Stephen McMillian

Journalist, actor, filmmaker, dancer, performer, writer, poet, historian and choreographer. That’s Stephen McMillian.

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