It was the little show that could. Beginning its ride as a local dance show on Chicago’s WCIU-TV, “Soul Train” chugged its way to Los Angeles and into pop culture history. The syndicated franchise’s impact is chronicled in the 40th-anniversary tribute “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America.”
Original Production Cel use to create the opening of Soul Train. This cel is part of The Museum of UnCut Funk collection.
Original Production Drawing used to create the original production cel to Soul Train. This drawing is part of the collection of The Museum of UnCut Funk.
Narrated by actor Terrence Howard with an original score by the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, the 90-minute documentary abounds with performance clips and commentary by former dancers and crew members as well as music executives (Clive Davis, Antonio “L.A.” Reid) and major performers who appeared on “Soul Train,” including Chaka Khan, Snoop Dogg, Aretha Franklin and Sly Stone. At the helm is “Soul Train” creator/producer/host Don Cornelius.
The special, produced by VH1 Rock Docs and Soul Train Holdings, doubles as entertainment and history lesson. The innovative show’s August 17, 1970, debut was bracketed on one side by the civil rights movement and on the other by the emergence of black empowerment.
“This is so much more than a story about a man with a vision for a music dance show,” says Kenard Gibbs, a co-principal in Soul Train Holdings with Peter Griffith and Anthony Maddox. “Had it not been for the social and political forces stirring the pot, the show probably wouldn’t have been as successful. It empowered African-Americans, showing our culture and creativity in a light not seen on TV. This was reality TV at its best.”
After its 1971 move to Los Angeles, “Soul Train” spun off award shows as well as a No. 1 R&B/pop hit in 1974, MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia”). The Gamble & Huff-produced single originally was billed as “The Theme From ‘Soul Train. Cornelius jokes in the documentary that the hit’s title change was his “one mistake.” During a recent phone interview, though, he said his fondest memory is the show’s early validation by major R&B talent.
Gladys Knight & the Pips helped us start out, but we didn’t know where it would go from there. We were just determined to make this happen, feeling it was the right kind of show for this country at the time,” he recalls. “Then one day James Brown walked onto the sound stage. A few months later came the Jackson 5 and then Stevie Wonder. So we’re thinking, ‘OK, this might work. The show later hosted performances by such pop stars as Elton John and David Bowie.
Tragically, since the airing of the Soul Train documentary Don Cornelius ended his own life on February 1, 2012. Below are pictures from his memorial service and video from a Soul Train line flash mob from Times Square in NYC. RIP Soul Brother Don!
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Contributor: Gail Mitchell