Ever since its debut in 1952, fans of American pop music could tune in weekly to American Bandstand and keep themselves current on all of the latest artists and trends. But it would be almost two decades later before fans of rhythm and blues were given their own weekly outlet. They would forever owe their thanks to a Chicago DJ named Don Cornelius, the creator of Soul Train, for letting their voices be heard. Soul Train showcased all of the up-and-coming artists of the genre, put a spotlight on all the current dance moves, and, very quickly, became an enduring hit.
Don Cornelius was the host of a local urban radio show on Chicago’s WVON when he came up with the concept for Soul Train. He produced a pilot for his new television series in 1969 and it attracted the attention of two sponsors, the Sears Roebuck Company, which wanted to promote their record players, and Johnson Products, makers of Afro Sheen hair care products. The show launched on WCIU in Chicago, with Cornelius acting as host, where he featured and interviewed the latest R & B acts and introduced dance numbers performed by the show’s own “Soul Train Gang.”
Soon, Soul Train was demonstrating increased popularity and making the move into national syndication. They debuted in six cities initially, but as word-of-mouth spread about the show, it was quickly expanded from coast to coast, and by the mid-70s, its reputation as the premiere show for soul music was undeniable. Cornelius became an icon of the generation for his cool demeanor and for giving African-American music an equal opportunity on the television airwaves. Artists were eager to appear on Soul Train, for an appearance offered them major exposure and, in most cases, substantially increased their sales and recognition. Here’s a small offering of some of the talent that appeared on this iconic show over the years.
Into the 80s, Soul Train kept chugging away without any signs of slowing in popularity. Chicago’s Tribune Entertainment became the exclusive distributor of the show and created The Soul Train Music Awards, which soon became an institution in its own right, handing out accolades to the top artists in the genre each year. Its success would eventually spawn The Soul Train Lady of Soul Annual Awards Special and The Soul Train Christmas Starfest.
Don Cornelius finally passed the torch in 1993, after almost 20 years at the helm. The hosting duties were taken over, first by Mystro Clark, then Shemar Moore, and then to actor Dorian Gregory, who would host until the show stopped producing new episodes in 2006. Soul Train boasts that it is “the longest-running, first-run, nationally-syndicated program in television history.” And through the course of that history, it never failed to deliver on its promise of delivering some of the finest soul music to its many fans across the nation.
If you used to love to tune into Soul Train for all the great music, maybe even to learn a few new dance moves, we’d love for you to share your memories of this iconic show in our comments section.
“…We wish you love, peace… and SOUL!”