There’s likely no single Black-owned brand that elicits a collective smile more than Soul Train, the nationally syndicated dance show that premiered 50 years ago this fall. Host and founder Don Cornelius’s adage of “Love, Peace, and Soul” resonated for generations, unleashing what Nelson George has called the civil rights movement’s secret power: “Black Joy.” Yet embedded within the funky rhythms, ethereal harmonies, and Day-Glo body suits was a desire for something more elusive: Black Power.
Black music was a potent force in the drive towards civil rights, from the activists that repurposed spirituals and labor songs into protest anthems to groups like Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions urging folk to “keep on pushing’,” Aretha Franklin demanding “Respect,” and James Brown saying it loud about being “Black and Proud.” The year of 1971 was a coming out of sorts for politically charged messages in Black music, with Aretha Franklin’s Live at Fillmore West, Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On all making their debuts. The national broadcast of Soul Train was born in and of this moment.
A local version of Soul Train had already launched in August of 1970 in Chicago on WCIU-TV, with sponsorship from the Sears and Roebuck Company. The broadcast featured legendary Chicago vocalist Jerry Butler, as well as Chicago-based groups the Five Stairsteps, riding the waves of their breakthrough hit “Ooh Child,” and the Chi-Lites, whose own mainstream breakthrough, “Have You Seen Her,” would be a year away. Fellow Chicagoans Syl Johnson (“Is It Because I’m Black”) and Gene Chandler of “Duke of Earl” fame were among the acts who would appear on the program’s second episode. This ability to draw on “local” talent and the value of the show as a platform for up-and-coming acts would be important to Soul Train’s success. Eventually, an appearance on Soul Train would provide a kind of street cred for Black artists—even those who had achieved national crossover success.
Soul Train hit nationally syndicated airwaves in late October of 1971. The first show featured the Honey Cone (“Want Ads”), Eddie Kendricks, newly solo after a decade as the co-lead of The Temptations, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. But it was the energy of the teenagers who populated the soundstage introducing the nation to the Get Down, the Hi-Low, and the Breakdown that made the show an immediate hit. In her book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train, Ericka Blount Danois described it as “black radio on television.” More to the point, Soul Train was an electronically mediated version of the chitlin’ circuit—the informal networks of theaters, night-clubs, and after-hours joints that sustained Black performers who were denied access to integrated venues prior to the civil rights movement. One of the linchpins of the Black entrepreneurial class, the chitlin’ circuit was the closest thing to a national Black culture.
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The Chicago Defender noted at the time of its premier that the new dance show “was one of the most fantastic presentation of a black production and was even better than most well-known TV musicals often seen on Network stations.” The Defender might have been simply gassing up to a local homeboy, who by then had moved the show’s operations to Los Angeles, but aesthetics of presentation was important to Cornelius—and to his primary sponsor, the Black-owned Johnson Products, best-known for the haircare products Ultra Sheen and Afro-Sheen. One of the company’s ads from that period featured Frederick Douglass chiding a Black teen for his messed-up Afro.
Johnson Products was one of the first Black-owned businesses to trade on the American stock exchange, and, as Blount Danois observes, “Soul Train was able to continue its programming with a level of autonomy that would not have been possible if it had had to rely on a national sponsor that had to cater to Southern affiliates.” Company cofounder George E. Johnson was emblematic of a generation of so-called self-made Black men that Cornelius took cues from: Berry Gordy at Motown Records, John H. Johnson of Johnson Publishing, Al Bell at Stax Records, and James Brown, the “hardest-working man” in show business. These were not men who would necessarily raise a Black Power fist or quote Stokely Carmichael or Angela Davis, but were activists nonetheless, who doubled down on the ideas of Black respectability and Black excellence as counters to the racial stereotypes that circulated widely in American media and popular culture. Cornielius himself was hypersensitive to negative racial stereotypes; in the program’s popular word-scramble segment, he wanted to make sure participants actually knew how to spell—even sharing the word beforehand—to guarantee that they wouldn’t show up on national television reinforcing ideas of Black illiteracy.
Part of Cornelius’s success lay in his valuation of Black culture as something desirable to mass audiences—and his devout belief that Black culture should be in the hands of Black people. This valuation wasn’t new: Ahmet Ertegun and Leonard and Marshall Chess built musical empires at Atlantic and Chess Records, respectively, largely on the promotion of Black blues and rhythm & blues artists.
Accordingly Soul Train’s breakthrough success soon caught the attention of Dick Clark, the man behind the hugely popular dance show American Bandstand. American Bandstand set the industry standard for teen-based dance programs, and though Clark’s platform was important for emerging soul artists in the 1960s to reach white audiences, even Clark knew he couldn’t compete with Soul Train. When Cornelius rebuffed Clark’s efforts to buy Soul Train, the latter responded with an ill-advised attempt to create his own version: Soul Unlimited. The show lasted only a year, in large part because of a behind-the-scenes campaign, led by music industry pioneer Clarence Avant—aka the “Black Godfather”—and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Whether Soul Unlimited could deliver a product that could compete with Soul Train was beside the point, and apparently beyond Clark’s grasp. What resonated for Black viewers were vibrant and authentic expressions of Black culture that were produced for and by Black people. According to Nelson George in his book The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style, “Many in the black community felt that having a black-owned show on television wasn’t just cool TV, but an extension of the Civil Rights Movement. The idea that Clark, with whom blacks had always had an uneasy relationship, could kill Soul Train led to threats of an ABC boycott.”
Cornelius viewed Soul Train as a recognizable Black-owned brand that would transcend changing taste and time. But with the advent of music video programs like BET’s Video Soul or Ralph McDaniels’s independently produced Video Music Box—a show that was largely indebted to the spirit of Soul Train—challenging his show’s singular role, Cornelius launched The Soul Train Awards in 1987. As music industry recognition lagged for R&B and rap in the 1980s, Cornelius offered the gravitas of the Soul Train brand to affirm what mattered to his core audience. The show became a litmus test for what young Black audiences valued—and what they didn’t, as when Whitney Houston was famously booed during the awards show. Snoop Dogg perhaps best described the enduring power of Soul Train in 1994 when—holding up his Soul Train Award—he quipped on stage, “I ain’t mad I ’cause didn’t win no Grammy…. This the Black folk’s Grammy.”
Soul Train survived until 2006, though Cornelius relinquished the hosting reins in the early 1990s. When Soul Train finally derailed after 35 years, it did so as the longest first-run syndicated series in American television history—until it was surpassed by Entertainment Tonight in 2016. Nearly 50 years after the local version was launched in Chicago, a new generation was drawn to the series American Soul—a loosely based account of the rise of Cornelius and Soul Train featuring many contemporary artists who leapt at the opportunity to portray iconic figures, like Kelly Rowland appearing as Gladys Knight and Bobby Brown as Rufus Thomas.
In an article by the late journalist Greg Tate in 1994, Cornelius suggested that Black culture was “one of the few things as an American of African descent that you can depend on. It’s one of the few things that you can call yours.” For Black Americans, Cornelius made sure we could always call Soul Train ours.