The Hippest Trip in America

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    For those of a certain age, Soul Train was a Saturday morning essential, eagerly anticipated from one Saturday to the next. It was one place guaranteed to showcase the hottest Black music acts of the day. Stevie Wonder one week and Earth, Wind & Fire, or Gladys Knight & The Pips the next. There had never been anything like it. Who among us has never danced down a Soul Train line at a wedding reception or any dance party? Soul Train was guaranteed to put a dip in your hip and a glide in your stride. Once that theme music started, all other activiites stopped. Let's take a nostalgic ride on the Soul Train. 

Day 19 - S is for Souuuuul Train

Soul Train Facts

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    • Soul Train started in 1970 as a local Chicago show that aired daily in black and white.
    • The first multi city syndicated show aired in October 1971.
    • Gladys Knight & The Pips were the first guest performers on Soul Train.
    • Kurtis Blow was the first rapper to appear on the show in 1980.
    • Don Cornelius retired as host in 1993.
    • The show ran for 1100 episodes, from 1971-2006, the longest running syndicated TV show in history.

The Dancers

  • The dancers were the heart of Soul Train. They were just kids from the block who wanted to dance on TV. Some went on to become big stars.



    Damita Jo Freeman, one of the original Soul Train Gang.



    Sharon Hill & Tyrone Proctor, original Soul Train Gang members, who also won the American Bandstand dance contest.



     Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel went on to form the group Shalamar, scoring hits with Second Time Around and Make That Move, and Watley found solo success with Lookin' for a New Love and won a Best New Artist Grammy. Jeffrey Daniel taught Michael Jackson to moonwalk.



    Rosie Perez went on to choreograph videos for Janet Jackson and Bobby Brown, among others, and was nominated in 1993 for an Academy Award.



    Cheryl Song, with the legendary hair, was the first Asian dancer on Soul Train. 

    Rules for Dancers

    • No one under age 15 could audition for the show.
    • No cussing, negativity, perverseness in dance or language, no disrespect, no attitude.
    • No gym shoes; don't look sloppy.
    • Be on time, be tactful, be creative, be funky, be yourself.
    • Put your best foot forward.
    • Have fun.



    80s Style. Flashier fashion meant more camera time.



Don Cornelius

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    Don Cornelius: "One day I want to be the next Black Dick Clark.’”  Tony Cornelius says his father was tired of the depictions of Black people in the media. “My father initially just wanted to do a show that presented Blacks in a positive light, because there was nothing like that going on. I mean, the only thing that you saw about African Americans were the news where they were being arrested or something.”  Finding the right dancers was instrumental to Soul Train. “His vision was to make sure that our dancers were beautiful, that they could dance, and they could dress. 

In The Beginning: The 1970's

  • In 1971, when Soul Train first aired in just 6 cities, it was the first time that many people had ever sen Black people at the center of an entertainment television show. Tensions from the social unrest of the 60's, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were still fresh. Soul Train offered a unifying magic. Affirmations of Blackness were everywhere, in the music, the dancers, the clothes, and the hair. It was must see television in Black households. Nowhere else could you see the lineup of Black performers that Soul Train featured.



              Marvin Gaye, 1974



              Al Green, 1973.                                                                          Aretha Franklin, 1976


    Just as important as the Soul Train experience were the commercials, run by Johnson Products, makers of Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen hair products. Black people had been conditioned to be ashamed of their natural hair. Soul Train and the Johnson company destroyed that narrative with affirming commercials like the one below.


Black Hair is Beautiful

The 80s & 90s

  • Sould Train continued to evolve throughout the 80s and 90s with a flashier set and new dancers, but continued to feature the hottest Black musical acts. Hip hop made its debut with Kurtis Blow performing The Breaks in 1980, followed by future superstars Salt N Pepa, Public Enemy and LL Cool J.. Cornelius made it clear that while he didn't share the kids' enthusiasm for hip hop, he knew he had to deal with it, and he did. 



              Salt N Pepa, 1988





              TLC, 1992

    When Don Cornelius left Soul Train in 1993, the show continued with a series of guest hosts. He stayed on behind the scenes, producing and directing, and writing. He had opened the first clear window into the world of Black music and Black culture. Its authenticity is what made it special. Soul Train lives on via YouTube, where you can watch dancers strut their stuff down the Soul Train line and rewatch iconic performances by the stars who made the show great. It was Don Cornelius, though, who had the vision to change the hearts and minds of Americans about who and what Black people were. Spend some time with the old Soul Train footage. "You can bet your last money, it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey."