Episode #13: Soul Train: Peace, Love, and Soul in the Seventies
“Oh, Girl” (1972) by the Chi-Lites
“Backstabbers” (1972) by the O’Jays
“Hot Potatoes” (1971) by Curtis King and the Rimshots
“The Sound of Philadelphia” (1974) by MFSB Featuring The Three Degrees
“Love’s Theme” (1973) by Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra
“Here I Am (Come and Take Me) (1974) by Al Green
“Rock Steady” (1971) by Aretha Franklin
The Payback (1973) by James Brown
“People Gotta Move” (1974) by Gino Vanelli
“Second Time Around” (1979) by Shalamar
“The Breaks” (1980) by Kurtis Blow
01:05 Even though 90% of American households had a television by 1960, there were very few African Americans on TV that were not servants or criminals. Two exceptions were “Julia,” starring Diahann Carroll, and Bill Cosby, who starred opposite Robert Culp on “I Spy.”
02:15 There were African Americans on public access shows. These were important shows but they were local and the audience was small. Don Cornelius gave up his career as a traffic cop after he pulled over a music executive in Chicago. The executive told him that he had a voice for radio. Don wouldn’t be a cop much longer. Amy plays a clip of Don taking a phone call from a viewer of “A Black’s View of the News,” who said Jesse Jackson was the most influential black political leader in 1969.
04:23 Don was concerned about how African Americans were being presented on television news as a problem that had to be dealt with. He wanted to create a TV show that portrayed African Americans in a more positive way. He wanted to make the “black Bandstand.”
05:40 Matt Delmont published a book called “The Nicest Kids in Town” in 2012, which explained that American Bandstand was not racially integrated as early in Bandstand’s run as Dick Clark claimed. It was not integrated at all until the show moved to California.
06:33 Soul Train debuted on Channel 26 in Chicago on August 17, 1970. It wasn’t taped, though, so there is no video of the early days of this iconic show. Don had to ask “local talent” to be on his new show. Fortunately, local talent included bands and musicians like The O’Jays, B.B. King, and The Staples Singers. Amy plays a bit of “Oh, Girl” by the Chi-Lites, another local band.
09:15 The relationship between Don Cornelius/Soul Train and The O’Jays was a win-win. The O’Jays weren’t stars yet but they would be with the release of “Backstabbers” in 1972. Amy plays a clip of the song.
12:10 The first Soul Train theme song was “Hot Potato” by King Curtis, who was backed up by the rimshots. Don wanted a new theme song to go with the new fancy set in California. He got “The Sound of Philadelphia,” which was a #1 hit from the Philly Sound gods, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Don regretted saying that he did not want the name “Soul Train” anywhere in the song.
14:39 There is no denying that the dancers were the stars of the show. Don didn’t like the Los Angeles dancers as much as the Chicago dancers but the audience did.
16:21 Money was often tight on Soul Train. That meant that most performances were lip synced. It cost too much to pay live bands. Barry White was able to convince Don to pay for his 40-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra. Al Green gave one of the most iconic live performances, broken arm and all.
19:26 Amy discusses that it didn’t really matter that many of the performances were not live. The artists were still there and debuting new dances, like when Michael Jackson performed “the robot,” or simply giving it all they had.
22:09 Amy discusses how a local group in Pittsburgh worked to convince local television stations to give air time to “Soul Train.” There was still skepticism about putting shows geared toward African Americans on television, although African Americans watched “white” shows all the time.
23:46 A 19-year old Al Sharpton gave James Brown a “black record” for selling a million copies of “The Payback.”
26:00 Dick Clark tried to copy “Soul Train” with a miserable knock-off called “Soul Unlimited.” The “black godfather,” Clarence Avant, was very involved in killing “Soul Unlimited,” which could have been very damaging to “Soul Train” as the only black-owned TV show on the air at that time.
27:33 As the show grew in popularity, white people wanted to be on the show. Don allowed it. The first was Gino Vanelli, who performed “People Gotta Move.” Don admitted that he thought Gino was black until he met him.
29:15 Don wasn’t a big fan of disco but he couldn’t avoid it. Thankfully, the cheesy disco ball was only on for one season (1977). He even managed to help create the Shalamar, featuring a very young Jody Watley. She was a dancer on the show until Don put her in Shalamar. They had a big hit called “The Second Time Around” in 1979. See Episode 1 for Amy’s testimony on how disco does not suck.
33:07 Don couldn’t even pretend to like rap and hip hop. He told Kurtis Blow, who performed “The Breaks” on the show in 1980, that the song didn’t make sense to “old guys like me.” Kurtis seemed very dejected when Don said that, which made for a very awkward moment. Still more changes were coming as the music that Don knew as “soul” was pushed aside for the new generation’s music and Don stepped aside as host in 1993.
33:40 Amy cites Professor Laurence Ralph, who said that “Soul Train” showed young African Americans doing things that were “radically ordinary.” Just like American Bandstand.
Classic Soul Radio. “Don Cornelius, James Brown, Al Sharpton interview.” YouTube video, 03:19. Posted [February 1, 2012.] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_w-ByEzJ7qc
Democracy Now. “Despite Rep for Integration, TV’s Iconic ‘American Bandstand’ Kept Black Teens Off its Stage.” YouTube video, 10:28. Posted [March 2, 2012]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLgjNgkl5lY#action=share
George, Nelson. The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style.” New York: HarperCollins. 2014.
Library of Congress. “Moving Image Section: Television.” https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awmi10/television.html
Mims, Greg. “Local Group Supports Soul Train.” The Pittsburgh Courier, August 4, 1973.
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television. “WCIU Chicago Channel 26 - Public Affairs Program, with a Pre-Soul Train Don Cornelius.” YouTube video. 0:32. Posted [Feb. 1, 2012]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edMAkfy7VE0
Ralph, Laurence. "“Love, Peace, and Soul”." Transition, no. 108 (2012): 19-31. doi:10.2979/transition.108.19.
Vh1. “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America.” YouTube video, 1:05:05. Posted [May 18, 2016]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=3Gh2VKaJw3I