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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Photo courtesy of Don Cornelius
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.
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.
Syndicated, Various Times
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.
J.R. "Big Draw." Billboard (New York), 29 April 1995.
Sheila. "Off the Train." The New York Times, 20 October
also Music on Television;