It would be virtually impossible to overstate the importance and impact of “Soul Train,” which came to the end of the track in 2006, although reruns continued to air for an additional two years.
Much more than just a TV program, it became a musical and cultural icon — showcasing an array of African-American (and later, some White) artists, influencing how people danced, and what clothes they wore. One famous designer admitted that he got some of his ideas from studying the dancers on “Soul Train.”
When the show, created and executive produced by Don Cornelius, went national in 1971, it became an instant phenomenon. (It had previously been a local Chicago program.) Millions of people made a point of being home early Saturday afternoons when “Soul Train” aired — sponsored by Johnson hair care products (Afro Sheen, Ultra Sheen, etc.) and Sears.
The show was exciting and we were all amazed at how just about everybody on the show was a good dancer.
Of course, teenagers and people in their early twenties dancing on television was not a new thing. The roots of that can be traced all the way back to the 1950s when “American Bandstand,” hosted by the legendary Dick Clark, made its national debut, the show lasting to the late 1980s. But “Soul Train” added a new dimension to an old formula. At the risk of sounding corny, it had s-o-u-l.
As for longevity, “American Bandstand” was a network show (ABC) whereas “Soul Train” was syndicated, thus can lay claim to being “the longest-running, first-run, nationally-syndicated program in television history.” More than 1000 episodes. Few and far between are the recording artists who never appeared on “Soul Train.”
IRONICALLY, at one point some of the most popular regulars on “Soul Train” began also dancing on “American Bandstand.” Cornelius was not thrilled about that, but there was really nothing he could do about it since the dancers were not paid and not under contract. To ban them from “Soul Train” would have been a bad move since they were such an integral part of what was described on each telecast as “the hippest trip in America.”
But on one occasion, Cornelius, in a joking-yet-serious manner, said to one of the “Soul Train” regulars (Lil’ Joe Chism) right on the air, “How come you’re not wearing your Dick Clark button?” Chism, one of those dancing on both shows, quipped back, “I left it at home.”
Nothing can compare to the 1970s “Soul Train” regulars, better known as “the Soul Train gang.” They literally became stars, and the two biggest were Damita Jo Freeman and Patricia Davis.
Freeman had a style like no other. Eyes would be riveted to the TV, checking out Damita Jo’s latest moves. On at least two occasions she was chosen to dance onstage alongside a guest star, specifically James Brown as he performed “Super Bad” (this can be seen on YouTube) and Joe Tex when he sang “I Gotcha.”
On one program, Gladys Knight & the Pips — who were, by the way, the first guests when “Soul Train” went national — were taking questions from the audience, but Bubba Knight announced that he wanted to ask a question. He pointed to a grinning Damita Jo Freeman and said, “I want to ask that girl where she gets her dances from.”
Freeman, who also became one of the most popular dancers on “American Bandstand,” went professional after leaving the show.
Her credits include choreographing the closing number at the Winter Olympics, traveling with Lionel Richie as a featured dancer, appearing in the stage musical “Two Gentleman of Verona” starring Clifton Davis, choreographing the Daytime Emmy Awards and, as an actress, co-starring with Goldie Hawn in the hit movie “Private Benjamin.” She was also featured in the television show of the same name.
Patricia (Pat) Davis had a unique look and style. Among other things, she was noted for nearly always having a flower or a colorful, sparkling butterfly clip in her hair. She received a lot of fan mail and was among the “Soul Train” dancers chosen to appear on stage in one of Diana Ross’ elaborate concert productions.
Davis, who danced on the show from the beginning to the mid ’70s, seemed to have everything it took to be a big star outside of the show, but for whatever reason it didn’t happen. She did, however, appear in several made-for-TV movies, various aerobic and body building films, plus made a cameo appearance in the movie “Detroit 9000.”
AMONG THE other ’70s regulars were Tyrone “the Bone” Proctor, Sharon Hill, Mr. X, James Phillips (remember his headbands?), Thelma Davis, Tyrone Swan, Fawn Quinones, Karl Grigsby, Edward Champion, Vickie Abercrombie and Gary Keys. You may not recall all the names, but if you see a vintage “Soul Train” show, you will remember the faces.
Later on, there was a whole new group of regulars, some of whom became bona fide stars, four in particular: Jody Watley, Fred “Rerun” Berry, Darnell Williams and to a somewhat lesser extent, Jeffrey Daniel.
Jody Watley, an original member of Shalamar, became a highly successful recording artist, winning a Best New Artist Grammy in 1987. Her hits include “Looking For a New Love,” “Stilll a Thrill” and “Real Love.”
Watley’s partner on “Soul Train” was Jeffrey Daniel, who was also in Shalamar, the trio famous for, among others, “The Second Time Around” and “This Is For the Lover in You.” After leaving Shalamar, he continued to dance professionally and work as a choreographer.
Fred “Rerun” Berry, who passed in 2003, is best remembered for being a member of the dance group called the Lockers (who specialized in “poppin’ and lockin’”) and for his role on the long-running television sitcom “What’s Happening!” and the sequel, “What’s Happening Now!”
Darnell Williams is familiar to anyone who watches “All My Children.” For many years he has portrayed Jesse Hubbard and he has won two Daytime Emmy Awards for his work. He and Debbi Morgan (whose character is Angie Baxter) became recognized as “the first African-American supercouple” on daytime television.
ONE OF THE most popular features on “Soul Train” was, of course, “the Soul Train line,” couples dancing down the line as the others did the traditional step-and-move-down, leading up to their turn. People still do the Soul Train line at parties, family reunions, etc., and probably always will. It was a mistake for the show to alter the line format in later years.
Don Cornelius, who once danced down the line with the Supremes (first with Mary Wilson, then with Jean Terrell and Lynda Lawrence together), hosted the show until 1993.
The fact that he was no longer as interested in hosting showed in the lackluster way he had started doing interviews. At first the show used a different guest host each week, then settled on Mystro Clark, followed by Shemar Moore, who was in turn succeeded by Dorian Gregory.
Although “Soul Train” remained popular until the end, it was not the major attraction it had been before. Keeping up with the times was understandable, but some felt it went too far in the hip-hop direction. In the process it, to a degree, lost its direction and, whereas before people in many age groups watched, it was no longer of interest to many people in the 27-and-up age group.
But “Soul Train” is monumental and legendary. It will never be forgotten, just as Cornelius’ words at the conclusion of each show are firmly etched in our minds: “You come on and do it with us next week on these same stations, and you can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey. And as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!”
It was a nice ride.
Digital Daily Signup
Sign up now for the Michigan Chronicle Digital Daily newsletter!