SOUL TRAIN

U.S. Music-Variety Show

Soul Train, the first black-oriented music variety show ever offered on American television, is one of the most successful weekly programs marketed in first run syndication and one of the longest running syndicated programs in American television history. The program first aired in syndication on 2 October 1971 and was an immediate success in a limited market of seven cities: Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Initially, syndicators had difficulty achieving their 25 city goal. However, Soul Train's reputation as a "well produced" and "very entertaining" program gradually captured station directors' attention. By May of 1972, the show was aired in 25 markets, many of them major cities.

The show's emergence and long standing popularity marks a crucial moment in the history of African-American television production. Don Cornelius, the show's creator, began his career in radio broadcasting in Chicago in November of 1966. At a time when African Americans were systematically denied media careers, Cornelius' left his $250-a-week job selling insurance for Golden State Mutual Life to work in the news department at WVON radio for $50.00 a week. It was a bold move, and clearly marked his committed optimism. By seizing a small opportunity to work in radio broadcasting, Cornelius was able to study broadcasting first hand. His career advancement in radio included employment as a substitute disc jockey and host of talk shows. Radio broadcasting techniques informed Cornelius' vision of the television program Soul Train.

By February 1968, Cornelius was a sports anchorman on the Black oriented news program, "A Black's View of the News" on WCIU-TV, Channel 26, a Chicago UHF TV station specializing in ethnic programming. Cornelius pitched his idea for a black-oriented dance show to the management of WCIU-TV the following year. The station agreed to Cornelius' offer to produce the pilot at his own expense in exchange for studio space. The name Soul Train was taken from a local promotion Cornelius produced in 1969. To create publicity he hired several Chicago entertainers to perform live shows at up to four high schools on the same day. The caravan performances from school to school reminded the producer of a train.

Cornelius screened his pilot to several sponsors. Initially, no advertising representatives were impressed by his idea for black-oriented television. The first support came from Sears, Roebuck & Company, which used Soul Train to advertise phonographs. This small agreement provided only a fraction of the actual cost of producing and airing the program. Yet, with this commitment, Cornelius persuaded WCIU-TV to allow the one-hour program to air five afternoons weekly on a trial basis. The program premiered on WCIU-TV on 17 August 1970 and within a few days youth and young adult populations of Chicago were talking about this new local television breakthrough. The show also had the support of a plethora of Chicago-based entertainers. As an independent producer of the program, Cornelius acted as host, producer and salesman five days a week. He worked without a salary until the local advertising community began to recognize the program as a legitimate advertising vehicle, and Soul Train began to pay for itself.

The Soul Train format includes guest musical performers, hosts, and performances by The Soul Train dancers. Set in a dance club environment, the show's hosts are black entertainers from music, television and the film industries. The dancers are young women and men, fashionably dressed, who dance to the most popular songs on the Rhythm and Blues, Soul, and Rap charts. The show includes a game called "The Soul Train Scramble" in which the dancers compete for prizes. The program's focus on individual performers, in contrast to the ensemble dancing more common in televisual presentation, has been passed down to many music variety shows such as American Bandstand, Club MTV, and Solid Gold.

 


Don Cornelius
Photo courtesy of Don Cornelius

The television show's success can be linked to the increasing importance of black-oriented radio programs taking advantage of FM stereo sound technology. With that support soul and funk music exploded in popularity across the nation. Black record sales soared due to the increased radio airplay, and the opportunity to view popular performances without leaving home became the appeal of Soul Train.

The popularity of the show in Chicago prompted Cornelius to pursue national syndication of the program. One of the nation's largest Black owned companies, The Johnson Products Company agreed to support the show in national syndication. Sears Roebuck & Co. increased their advertising support. In 1971 Cornelius moved the production of the Soul Train to Hollywood. The show continued to showcase musical talent and to shine the spotlight on stand up comedians. The program's presentation of vibrant black youth attracted viewers from different racial backgrounds and ethnicities to black entertainment. The show has been credited with bringing 1970s black popular culture into the American home.

In 1985, the Chicago based Tribune Entertainment company became the exclusive distributor/syndicator of Soul Train. In 1987, the Tribune company helped to launch the "Soul Train Music Awards." This program is a live two hour television special presented annually in prime-time syndication and reaches more than 90% of U.S. television households. The Soul Train Music Awards represent the ethos of the Soul Train program which is to offer exposure for Black recording artists on national television.

-Marla Shelton

PRODUCER    Don Cornelius

PROGRAMMING HISTORY
Syndicated, Various Times
1971-

FURTHER READING

Meisler, Andy. "For Soul Train's Conductor, Beat Goes On: A TV Show Sticks with its Niche and a Time-Tested Formula." The New York Times, 7 August 1995.

Reynolds, J.R. "Big Draw." Billboard (New York), 29 April 1995.

Rule, Sheila. "Off the Train." The New York Times, 20 October 1993.

 

See also Music on Television; Racism, Ethnicity, and Television