Soul Train was a big influence on generations of American teens (and their younger siblings and older relatives). So, the news today of host Don Cornelius’ death is jolting many people, no more so than here in the Midwest. Famous people, ranging from Jesse Jackson to Quincy Jones, are paying tribute.
Soul Train began as dance parties at local schools, then became a local program on Chicago television. It featured dancing and performances in the mode of American Bandstand, but with an urban flair exemplified by Cornelius’ deep, smooth voice. And of course, the highlight of every show was the Soul Train line dance, along with Cornelius’ sign off: “Wishing you peace, love and souuulll.”
At a time when television aimed at a black audience was just coming into its own, Soul Train had a big time sponsor: Sears, Roebuck, and it soon picked up Johnson Products. When it first went into syndication, it was picked up in seven cities — Detroit and Cleveland among them. (I watched it on WJBK-TV, Channel 2, where it ran right after Bandstand.) By the end of its first season in syndication, it was in 17 markets, and then it went national.
Many black artists with Midwest roots appeared on the show, including Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, as well as the Jacksons, while Michael Jackson was on many times as a solo artist.
Soul Train stayed on the air from 1971 through 2006, although Cornelius hosted only through 1993. Last year, Soul Train marked its 40th anniversary with a month long celebration in Chicago. On Aug. 31, our partners at WBEZ talked to Cornelius as part of a series of broadcasts.
As you think of Cornelius, take a look at the clip — the first time he danced on the show. That’s Mary Wilson, one of the Supremes, at the beginning.
Do you have memories of Soul Train? Share them with us. We wish you peace, love and soul.