Soul Train took us on a wild and strange journey for 25 years. From 1971 until 2006, viewers tuned in to hear the smooth sounds of R&B and hip-hop while watching fans of the show as they gyrated to their favorite songs. With such a long time span for the popular series, a variety of musical genres were explored including disco, funk, jazz, and gospel. Until 2016, Soul Train was the longest syndicated TV show in America, losing the title to “Entertainment Tonight in 2016.
Sears Made Soul Train Possible
Source: NY Daily News
Producing a new TV show is an expensive business and for Soul Train to get on the air via WCIU-TV, the program needed a sponsor. It was Sears, Roebuck & Co. which stepped into the gap and provided the money to make the magic happen.
Soul Train first aired on August 17, 1970, thanks to their sponsorship.
Radio Is Where Soul Train Really Began
WCIU-TV was an ultra-high frequency (UHF) TV station broadcasting in Chicago. It ran two dance programs for that genres younger audiences, “Kiddie-a-Go-Go” and “Red, Hot and Blues.” They featured in-studio dance groups and they caught the eye of Don Cornelius who was working for WVON radio station.
He began to promote live tours of local talent at local schools called “The Soul Train” which finally caught the eye of TV producers in 1970. Even with TV syndication, the show’s next partner was crucial in bringing it success.
Johnson Products Company Made Soul Train Huge
Soul Train might have begun and ended its time on the small screen as a local program if it hadn’t been for The Johnson Products Company. They saw the show and decided that it was the right vehicle for the company’s African-American hair products and sponsored its syndication in other markets.
Sears was the springboard for the TV show but The Johnson Products Company was its cash cow. Even with Sears and The Johnson Products company, there were hard times ahead for Soul Train…
Soul Train Missed Its First Syndication Target
When Soul Train went into syndication outside of Chicago there was a huge expectation for the show. It was targeted for release in 24 markets but was only picked up in eight.
By the end of the first series, the show had been picked up by the other 16 target markets.
Don Cornelius Hosted Soul Train for 22 Years
Don Cornelius was the original host of Soul Train and would be, by far, its longest-running host. He continued to host the show until 1993 before opting to move behind the scenes.
The show was then hosted by a number of guest hosts each week until 1997 when the show saw its second permanent host.
Cornelius Didn’t Like Rap Or Hip Hop
For a TV series that was so instrumental in bringing the sounds of rap and hip-hop to the masses; the TV show’s host wasn’t a huge fan of either form of music. In fact, he hates hip-hop and said he didn’t understand rap.
Cornelius was openly known to abhor the sexually suggestive messages in both types of music. Up next, a rigged gameboard meant to avoid controversy.
The Scramble Board Game Was Rigged
On each show, there was a “Soul Train Scramble Board” where two of the show’s dancers were given the opportunity to unscramble a series of letters that related to African American performers or history. The game was rigged to prevent any embarrassing failures.
The show’s producers wanted to avoid contestants not recognizing their ancestral history which they believed would cause the black community embarrassment. The next fact caused an uproar and rightfully so…
The Dancers Weren’t Paid
Despite being a critical element of the show’s format, the dancers who appeared on every single episode of Soul Train were never given financial compensation for their service to the show.
This became a minor controversy for the show when it was revealed by the media to the American public. And even more, controversy came forward after an ignorant comparison was made to American Bandstand…
A Black American Bandstand?
American Bandstand was a popular music show for mainstream music. The critics may have thought they were flattering Soul Train when they dubbed it “The Black American Bandstand,” but that’s not how Cornelius felt about it.
He snubbed the phrase and found it degrading to the show he had created. Despite the controversy, it was American Bandstand that tried to prove imitation is the best form of flattery.
American Bandstand Tried To Compete with Soul Train
Given that Soul Train had the moniker of “The Black American Bandstand,” perhaps it’s only natural that the producers of Bandstand tried to compete with Soul Train. In 1973 they launched a show called Soul Unlimited but it was a complete washout.
Jesse Jackson and Cornelius accused Dick Clark of trying to undermine TV’s only black-owned show and it never won the hearts of the audience. It was swiftly canceled.
Soul Train’s Second Long-Term Host
After Don Cornelius had hung up his presenter’s hat for the show, they used a series of guest presenters each week. Then in 1997, Mystro Clark, took over the permanent slot and was there for 2 years.
Up until taking over the hosting slot, Mystro had been a comedian. He was swiftly replaced by a hunky man you’ll probably immediately recognize.
Shemar Moore Was Next up To Present
Shemar Franklin Moore was the third long-term host of Soul Train. He took over in 1999 and he was there for four years until 2003.
Shemar is half-French and half-African American and he was a fashion model for much of his early career thanks to his exotic good looks.
Soul Train’s Final Host Was Dorian Gregory
Dorian Gregory joined Soul Train as its final host in 2003. He’d already had a reasonable acting career with minor parts in Beverley Hills 90210 and Baywatch and then got his first lead role in Baywatch Nights.
While he was on Soul Train he was also starring in the hit TV series Charmed.
Soul Train Clips Were Often Hard To Come By
Don Cornelius controlled the rights to Soul Train up until 2008 and in that period, it was very hard to find a single thing online or on TV relating to Soul Train. There were also no licensed third-party videos or DVDs of the show.
In May 2008, the situation came to a close when Cornelius sold the rights to the long-running series. Cornelius sold the rights to a famous NBA star as you’re about to learn… You’ll also learn of his tragic fate.
Magic Johnson Owns the Rights To Soul Train
Don Cornelius sold his rights in the show to MadVision but the deal didn’t last long. In 2011 they sold their rights to a consortium of buyers led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson. They plan to develop stage shows and a film relating to Soul Train as part of a revival strategy for the brand.
Can Soul Train prove relevant in the age of YouTube videos? Only time will tell.
Two of the Shows Dancers Hit It Big
The show’s dancers were a big reason for Soul Train’s success but two of the dancers went on to have great careers.
Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel were pulled from obscurity by Dick Griffey, the show’s talent booker, to take the place of two of the members of Shalamar, the smash-hit R&B group. They stayed with the band for years
Don Cornelius Committed Suicide
Things went downhill for poor Don Cornelius following the end of Soul Train on TV. In 2008, he appeared in court on a domestic violence charge when the Russian Model Victoria Avila-Cornelius, who had been his wife, obtained a restraining order against him.
In 2012, Cornelius died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Mystro Clark Continued Working In Show Business
Mystro Clark’s career didn’t take off in a blaze of glory following his departure from Soul Train. However, he did get a writer’s job on “Cousin Skeeter” and has starred in The Newz and Lovespring International as well as taking minor roles in other movies and TV shows.
The next guy on our list has had an amazing career since Soul Train ended.
Shemar Moore’s career took a few different routes post Soul Train. His biggest role to date was in Criminal Minds where he played Derek Morgan for the better part of 11 seasons.
He has also starred in countless other movies and in 2015 he won an Image Award for his role in Criminal Minds.
Dorian Gregory Went on to Become a Writer
Dorian Gregory’s life since Soul Train has been highly fulfilling. Not only has he continued to act and work in his own music group, but he’s also begun writing plays and poetry.
In addition, he’s done an awful lot of great philanthropic work with the Jeopardy Program with the LA police department and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.