Soul Train creator Don Cornelius said at the time that the timing was right for the special. “We thought of doing a 10-year and 15-year special, but 25 years is special and this was the right time to celebrate the program.”
Aside from celebrating the program’s 25-year run, the program’s centerpiece was the induction of a number of artists into the Soul Train Hall of Fame. Inductees were Al Green, Barry White (who could not attend due to health reasons), Diana Ross, MC Hammer, Patti LaBelle, Bill Withers, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Curtis Mayfield, and Marvin Gaye.
The special was hosted by comedian/actor Arsenio Hall, who briefly danced on Soul Train at one time. This was Hall’s first major television appearance one year after his popular late night talk show was cancelled. As usual, Hall kept the momentum going throughout the special with his energetic persona. Citing O.J. Simpson’s recent acquittal, Hall stated, “If O.J. can get off, I can get back on TV.” This led to Hall’s hilarious imitation of Simpson’s lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran’s closing argument in the court case, right down to the famous line: “If it don’t fit, you must acquit.”
Hall also debunked the mass media’s stance that only 400,000 black men had attended the recent Million Man March, as opposed to over one million, causing the mostly black audience to applaud in agreement.
The broadcast featured top notch performances by the inductees, as well as a video montage of each of their careers, including a Soul Train performance clip for some of the artists preceding their performances.
Al Green had the audience on its feet with his rousing performance of “Love & Happiness,” prompting Debbie Allen and former Soul Train dancer Rosie Perez to dance in the aisles.
Diana Ross, looking sexy in a mini-dress, performed her uptempo hit “Take Me Higher” before returning later in the show with a heartfelt ballad entitled “Voice of the Heart,” during which she went out into the audience and hugged and kissed fellow honoree Whitney Houston.
Stevie Wonder had the audience rocking in their seats with a medley of his hits, while Patti LaBelle stirred up the audience with her fantastic rendition of “Forever Young.”
MC Hammer dazzled the audience with his dance skills and rapping talents during a medley that included his 1994 hit, “Pumps and A Bump.”
Whitney Houston did not perform during the ceremony, but in her acceptance speech acknowledged that Soul Train had been an institution in the African American community for 25 years and that “we as African Americans must keep working.” She wowed the crowd with a few lines from her number one hit “I Will Always Love You.”
One of the evening’s highlights was a videotaped message from then President Bill Clinton honoring Soul Train’s 25 years and the honorees, where mentioned that he was a “longtime fan” of the program.
For some reason, Michael Jackson’s performances were videotaped on a separate night apart from the other honorees. He performed “Dangerous,” which was the same lip-synched track utilized during the 1993 American Music Awards ceremony and the recent MTV Video Awards, with the addition of a snippet of his hit “Smooth Criminal” and brief voiceovers from his sister Janet included in the track.
During Jackson’s second performance, “You Are Not Alone,” a fan rushed onto the stage to hug him tightly (Jackson’s crew pre-planned this “mishap” was pre-planned to generate excitement from the audience). This performance was also lip-synched, with the exception of the last minute of the song in which he was joined by Alexander Hamilton and the Voices of Inspiration choir. Many in the audience felt somewhat cheated that they were not treated to a total live vocal performance from Jackson, especially after having to attend his solo performances on a different night apart from the taping of the other honorees’ performances, all of whom performed their vocals live.
Bill Withers closed the show with his hit “Lean On Me,” and was joined on stage by the other honorees (Jackson did not appear during the finale).
There was one thing noticeably missing from the special: no mention or appearances by any of the Soul Train dancers, who helped to make the show popular. Although a video montage was shown of The Lockers dance group (all of whom began their dance careers as Soul Train dancers) and The Electric Boogaloos (none of whom danced on Soul Train before forming their group), none of the other dancers who added to the program’s legend—such as Patricia Davis, Damita Jo Freeman, Jody Watley, Little Joe Chism, Jimmy “Scoo B Doo” Foster, Jeffrey Daniel, Cheryl Song, Tyrone Proctor, Sharon Hill, Odis Medley, and Louie “Ski” Carr—were mentioned at all. In fact, the special’s opening montage featured a number of anonymous dancers (none of whom were Soul Train Dancers due to rumored union issues), performing a routine choreographed by ex-Soul Train dancer Rosie Perez. And while several of Soul Train’s current dancers were in attendance for the taping, the Soul Train dancers as a whole were not mentioned at all during the special, which was unfortunate.
Also missing from the program were Soul Train staples such as the Soul Train Scramble Board and the Soul Train Line, and popular clips from the show such as when Don Cornelius went down the Soul Train Line with the Supremes or when he played a one-on-one basketball game with Marvin Gaye. Thankfully, the special did include a montage of the artists who performed on both the weekly TV show and the Soul Train Awards over the years, which illustrated the diversity of the genres of black music that were featured on Soul Train over the years.
Although all of the honorees were great choices to be inducted, how could one have a Soul Train Hall of Fame without inducting the Godfather of Soul and the Queen of Soul, James Brown and Aretha Franklin? After the opening dance montage set to a karaoke performance of Franklin’s 1971 hit “Rock Steady,” Arsenio Hall even acknowledged, “Aretha’s not here, but she is a hall of famer.”
While it is impossible to induct every soul act, one would have expected Gladys Knight, who appeared with the Pips on the program’s first nationwide broadcast, to be inducted. And no groups were inducted at all into the Soul Train Hall of Fame, such as arguably the greatest soul group of all time, The Temptations.
Glaringly missing as well was Don Cornelius, who stayed behind the scenes during the taping. The show would have been even more special if he had come out on stage, if only briefly to make a speech on behalf of the show’s silver anniversary.
Despite a few missteps, the Soul Train 25th Anniversary Hall of Fame special was very entertaining, even though it didn’t wholly celebrate Soul Train or its dancers.
Download the Soul Train 25th Anniversary Hall of Fame album on iTunes, or purchase the physical 3-CD set from Amazon.
Journalist, actor, filmmaker, dancer, performer, writer, poet, historian, choreographer. That’s Stephen McMillian.