Rene Crowder was the adorable girl with the pretty smile who danced on Soul Train from the early to mid-1970s. She wasn’t trying to become famous—she just wanted to be on the show to dance and have a great time. Originally from Pasadena, California, she, along with her brother Allen, Thyais Walsh, Larry Jennings, and Randy Gardner, made up what was called the “Pasadena Crew” on Soul Train. They were noted for their fashionable dress attire, aka “Pasadena Swag,” which became influential on the show. For over 20 years, Crowder has been an educator and an artist but her memories of Soul Train are forever a part of her.
SoulTrain.com: When you were growing up in Pasadena, did you always enjoy dancing? Was that your passion?
Rene Crowder: Growing up, my father would bring home the latest R&B singles that were out. So when my siblings and I were little, there was always music playing in our house. We had an old victrola and we played 33s, 45s and 78s. But my father was the dancer. He taught me how to do the Jitterbug when I was a little girl. He would toss me around the living room and my mother would scream, “Put that girl down!” It was one of the great connections I had with my father. So dancing was just a part of our lives and our party regime long before we got to Soul Train.
SoulTrain.com: When did your journey begin on Soul Train?
Rene Crowder: Randy Gardner, who lived in Pasadena, used to hang out at Denker Park where Soul Train dancer auditions were held. He was one of the first people to go to Soul Train, so he helped me, as well my brother Allen, Larry Jennings, and Thyais Walsh get on Soul Train. Randy was very much a part of our social circle.
SoulTrain.com: When I interviewed Thyais, she told me you did fashion shows not too long before you came to Soul Train.
Rene Crowder: Yes. Thyais, Allen, Larry, and I were into this entrepreneurial thing and were heavily into fashion. We were putting on our own fashion shows with our company, Black Rose Odyssey. This was in 1972 or 1973. Allen and Larry spearheaded the company while Thyais and I were “eye candy.” We bought fabric, designed, and made our own clothes. We would also rent out ballrooms and host fashion show parties, which would turn into dance parties later in the evening. When we eventually started dancing on Soul Train, we were dressed to the nines! You can watch the shows and watch the transformation of the dancers on those early shows, when you see dancers with the pop-locking look and then this other group of people, us, which had people saying, “They’re not dressed like the other dancers.” We changed the whole aesthetic on Soul Train, coming in with a look that was fresh, innovative, and upscale. I don’t know who dubbed us the Pasadena Crew, but we came on Soul Train with what I call “Pasadena Swag” before the term swag was even used.
SoulTrain.com: Would you say that the Pasadena Crew was influential in terms of the look of the show?
Rene Crowder: Yes. We brought something different to the show. We could dance—not the way others on the show were dancing, but we brought a different flair to the show that Don and his staff admired and respected. At some point, we used to sneak out for lunch and come back and they would be angry at us for leaving because they wanted us on set so they can have our look on the show. So I have to say, in some respect, that we were given a little leeway.
SoulTrain.com: I noticed on the shows around 1974 and 1975 several of the dancers began to dress a little bit more upscale.
Rene Crowder: It may have taken two or three tapings for people to look at us and say, “Oh, I kind of like that,” and then the next taping some people began to change a little bit with their outfits. By end of the third season, many of the dancers began changing their clothing styles and trying to bring it. It became kind of a fashion competition—what were you going to bring, what was your style, what were you going to do to step up your game? Pasadena did that, mainly Allen and Larry, who eventually made clothes for different artists. Sadly, Larry and Randy passed away.
SoulTrain.com: Little Joe Chism would tell me about the Pasadena Crew on Soul Train.
Rene Crowder: Little Joe is the one that named us the Pasadena Crew. He was such a bundle of energy, so gracious, kind and sweet. I loved his laugh and beautiful smile, he was just a ray of light and the life of the party such high energy when he danced.
SoulTrain.com: Do you remember your very first weekend at Soul Train?
Rene Crowder: I was excited, of course! I was probably about 16 at the time, but there were things we had already done with our fashion company putting on our own fashion show productions, so there was no notion of being intimidated or fearful of being on television. Pam Brown was phenomenal, showing us the dynamics and walking us through how things went on the set. It was extremely organized and very controlled in the notion that you have this black show on television and all eyes are watching—as we as black people have always been overly scrutinized so there were certain guidelines that they had to adhere to. So our first shows were exciting, wondering who would be the guests appearing on the show. I couldn’t tell you who the guests were the first time I came on the show because I had seen so many phenomenal people.
SoulTrain.com: That leads to my next question. What are some of your favorite memories of artists who came on Soul Train?
Rene Crowder: Where do I begin and end? Aretha, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Diana Ross, The Four Tops, Temptations, and Smokey Robinson. The list goes on and on in terms of the phenomenal talent we saw and the culture they brought to American people. We saw everyone! They were beyond amazing and at the peak of their careers in numerous ways.
SoulTrain.com: Do you remember when Barry White was on the show and had his whole orchestra with him?
Rene Crowder: Oh my God, yes! I didn’t dance on the show for a very long time but I can say I had seen some phenomenal artists and musical performances on Soul Train. Then there were the in-between takes. For instance, there is a show where Stevie Wonder is improvising on the piano. There were a lot of fun times in between takes when the cameras weren’t rolling, just a lot of cool moments when the artists were on the set. I remember the first two times the Jackson 5 came to the show. The second time they were on, they were a little older and were becoming very popular worldwide and you didn’t have the greatest access to them. But I remember I had a $5 bill and I was able to get all of them to come over and sign it for me. I remember taking it to school and showing my friends and they would ask me how they could get on Soul Train to meet the Jackson 5 and the other artists.
SoulTrain.com: I was told that a lot of the dancers became friends and attended parties the artists gave or were attending.
Rene Crowder: There were a lot of artists we partied with after tapings, such as Sly Stone and quite a few others. We used to know who was going to be on the show so we would eventually pick and choose the tapings we would go to.
SoulTrain.com: Did you ever come to the show and just decided to leave early because the tapings were so long, not even doing the Soul Train line? I did this sometimes and so did other dancers I know.
Rene Crowder: Oh yes. We would come early and leave or we would come early, leave, and then come back later. The production staff became a little more flexible with us later on, but in the early years it was an all-day lockdown with that fried chicken and we would say to ourselves, “We cannot do this.” Larry was an amazing social networker and had wonderful aspirations to do fashion for people in the industry. So Larry was able to talk his way into and out of a lot of things at the time and we wound up gaining access to the studio people—not just Don Cornelius and Pam Brown, but the people who were with KTLA Studios where the show was taped. We made friends with them and branched out and broadened our base. We took our profession to the next level of where we wanted to go. So that opened doors for us to be able to come and go as we pleased.
SoulTrain.com: You did the Scramble Board once. Some people said they never got their Ultra Sheen or Afro Sheen products for solving the Scramble Board. Did you get yours?
Rene Crowder: Yes, Darryl Speights and I got our gifts from Johnson Products. As a matter of fact, I still have the letter that the Johnson Company sent thanking me for doing the Scramble Board. I also still have my two original Soul Train t-shirts. One was charcoal grey with the old image of a steamer-type train, and the second one is bright orange with the graphic of a newer train.
SoulTrain.com: Did you do the Scramble Board in one take?
Rene Crowder: No, not at all! Back then, Don was so concerned with rushing to interview you and asking your name and having you turn around quickly, time would run out before you could even solve the Scramble Board. Even though you were on the clock, the cameramen had to cut back and forth to the dancers. Rarely could you solve it that fast. So it would be done in a couple of takes to make sure the interview was like the production staff wanted, and so that Don could say what he needed to say to introduce the song and you’d be playing and figuring out the Scramble Board while the cameras are moving around getting shots of the dancers dancing. It was very rare that it was done in one take.
SoulTrain.com: Were you often recognized as a Soul Train dancer?
Rene Crowder: A lot of the people in Pasadena already knew us. Pasadena was a small city and the Crowder family was well known. My dad would come out of his work clothes and then would be amazingly sharp and dressed to kill! That sense of style and fashion came from my grandmother who was pretty fashionable.
SoulTrain.com: Did you ever experience jealousy from other dancers?
Rene Crowder: Here’s where I think the “hateration” began on Soul Train. They would take dancers and put them in certain spots. We would like to dance in or around the tunnel because this is where you could really see and hear the artists when they performed. This was also the way you would be seen or know where you were dancing, so you could point yourself out on TV and tell people for instance, “When Gladys is on, look for us standing here.” But during regular dance routines, certain people were placed on the stage and the risers, and certain dancers figured “This is my spot.” For me, it was never about that.
I never needed to be on top of the risers or the stage all the time. But every now and then they would pick a couple based on how they were dressed. We would come in with our fashions and they were like, “We want to put you here” because that’s what the production staff wanted the camera to pick up. I don’t think we were ever confronted with jealousy in that way, but being that I am a very observant person I used to sit back and watch as those certain dancers would battle to be in a certain spot or be in the Soul Train line at a certain place. That used to be particularly funny to me to watch. It wasn’t my dream to be the one right in the front and be seen on TV all the time. Here’s the interesting thing: the cameramen would capture you when you didn’t play to the camera so a lot of times we were getting camera time because we were too busy having fun dancing and we got picked up on camera because of that as opposed to certain other dancers with the notion of “I’m the one right here” or “this is where I dance all the time.” There were some dancers who were extremely territorial.
SoulTrain.com: After you stopped dancing on Soul Train, did you continue to pursue fashion?
Rene Crowder: No. I stopped dancing on the show because I had other dreams and aspirations. I am proud to say that I am an artist and teacher. I have been teaching for 28 years in high schools in the San Fernando Valley, the visual arts, humanities, and occasionally American literature. In 2014, I started to co-teach at the Cal State Northridge University in a course for teachers on educational psychology.
SoulTrain.com: What would you like to say in memory of Don Cornelius?
Rene Crowder: What a visionary he was. He was a game changer in a lot of respects, elevating black music, black style, and black creativity to new heights and new levels. Historically, I am a part of that and what a grand opportunity it is to be a part of that. Don brought all the artists from Motown, Philly International, and Stax to Los Angeles, like a united front collectively and collaboratively. So I am honored to be a part of that. Don was also very polite and professional and he’s always in my mind’s eye.
SoulTrain.com: What word of wisdom do you want to share?
Rene Crowder: Nothing’s promised. Give back. Mentor and educate our youth about who we are and where we come from. Kids of color need mentoring and they need the support. Also, change what you dislike about the system or go back and support what took you to that next phase of your life.
Journalist, actor, filmmaker, dancer, performer, writer, poet, historian and choreographer. That’s Stephen McMillian.