When Chris Lehman set out to write the story of Soul Train, he didn't know he'd be writing an obituary. But in April, just as McFarland published his A Critical History of Soul Train on Television, Reuters carried Don Cornelius's first public acknowledgment that the show he'd created 38 years before had ceased production. Anyone actually watching Soul Train knew Cornelius hadn't presented a new episode in two years, instead airing popular reruns, and many fans already assumed the curtain had descended. But the fiercely independent mogul, notoriously stingy with interviews, had until that point been mum on the subject.
Cornelius wouldn't talk to Lehman for his book and didn't respond to my request for an interview either. His silence only stoked Lehman's curiosity about Soul Train's history. An associate professor of ethnic studies at Minnesota's Saint Cloud State with a couple books about screen culture under his belt, he knew where that history started: Cornelius had launched the show on Chicago television in 1970 before moving production to Los Angeles in 1971. But when he started digging here, Lehman was surprised by what he found.
"All I knew about the local Soul Train was that it started a year before the national show," he says. "I had the idea that when it moved to Los Angeles the Chicago show stopped. As I discovered, that's not the case at all."
From August 17, 1970, to June 11, 1976, local Soul Train ran every weekday after school on WCIU, Channel 26, and reruns continued to air every Friday until July 27, 1979. And for over 1,000 episodes, Chicago's African-American youth turned to local Soul Train to see top R&B musicians, leading black political figures, and maybe most important, themselves.
Soul Train wasn't the first black dance show, or even the first one on Chicago television. In the 1950s deejay Jim Lounsbury hosted Bandstand Matinee, inspired by the success of Philadelphia's Bandstand, which became American Bandstand. Lounsbury, who was white, also hosted Record Hop in the 1960s, giving airtime to Chicago's great black musicians. Other local dance shows included Time for Teens, Spin Time, and The Swingin' Majority. But the two most idiosyncratic programs, the ones that really paved the way for Soul Train, were WCIU's Kiddie-a-Go-Go and Red Hot and Blues. Kiddie-a-Go-Go, which unlike its teen-oriented counterparts featured preteen dancers, started in 1965 and ended only months before Soul Train debuted. The show welcomed black dancers, though they rarely came.
In 1967 WCIU debuted Red Hot and Blues, another dance show for adolescents, hosted by local "black-appeal" deejay Big Bill Hill and featuring only black dancers. Though it was exciting to hear black music on TV, local Soul Train dancer Wayne "Crescendo" Ward recalls in Lehman's book, Red Hot and Blues was far from the hippest trip in town: "No one really cool was on his show."
In 1967, Don Cornelius was already over 30. Born in Chicago in 1936 and raised in Bronzeville, he attended DuSable High School, whose rich arts programs also produced Nat "King" Cole, Von Freeman, and Redd Foxx, among others. An aspiring cartoonist, he joined the marines after high school and spent his 20s trying his hand at numerous jobs, including insurance salesman and cop. With encouragement from customers—and, according to Lehman's book, WVON news director Roy Wood, who remarked on Cornelius's rich baritone when Cornelius pulled him over for a traffic violation—he took a broadcasting course and had soon become an auxiliary member of the legendary Good Guys, the influential black deejays who made Leonard Chess's WVON (the Voice of the Negro) so popular in the 60s. He read the news, pinch-hit for sick deejays, and began reporting on sports for WCIU's A Black's View of the News.
In 1969, with only three years of broadcasting under his belt, Cornelius decided he was ready to launch his own TV show, based on a series of high school record hops he had hosted. Because he'd brought a "caravan" of stars from school to school, he had called this traveling event the Soul Train. He lined up Sears as a sponsor and used his WVON connections to book local R&B stars, including Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, and the Emotions, for the premiere episode. When Soul Train became a local hit, Cornelius took it to Los Angeles, where in 1971 he launched the syndicated national version, fully owned by his production company.
The show debuted in the middle of a magnificent era of black music and fashion, and it quickly challenged its venerable Saturday-morning colleague, American Bandstand, in the ratings. It continued to be popular through the 80s, and the dapper and deadly serious Cornelius hosted it himself until 1993, when he turned the mike over to a rotation of B-list black stars (including future A-listers Jamie Foxx and Tyra Banks). They were followed by several long-term hosts, most notably Shemar Moore, a former soap star who now plays agent Derek Morgan on Criminal Minds. But though he was off camera, Cornelius was always on the set, writing, producing, and overseeing every episode.
In 1987 he launched the annual Soul Train Awards, which gave high-profile exposure to African-American artists that they couldn't otherwise get on mainstream television. But after MTV surprised itself with the success of Yo! MTV Raps in 1988, black artists found themselves more welcome on cable and network TV. And when Robert Johnson sold his Black Entertainment Television cable network to Viacom in 2000, Soul Train was suddenly up against a behemoth that included, starting in 2001, the spectacular, big-budget BET Awards. The weekly program too was struggling to book big names, and fans seemed more excited than upset in 2006 when new episodes were supplanted by reruns from the show's golden era.
Compared to the national version, Chicago's Soul Train was low-rent. WCIU was a notoriously frugal operation. The UHF station—Chicago's first, founded by John Weigel (the father of the late sportscaster Tim) in 1964—attracted niche ethnic audiences by airing Mexican bullfights, Amos 'n Andy reruns, and talk shows in Polish, Greek, and Lithuanian. Current owner Howard Shapiro, head of the group that took over in 1965, says that though the diverse programming could be considered a social mission of sorts, it was really just good business: "The two things sort of went hand in hand," he says, "but what really prompted us was that there was a variety of small markets that nobody was serving."
The shows were produced mostly live in a cramped studio on the 43rd floor of the Board of Trade building on Jackson. The studio measured about 30 by 40 feet, but some of that was used for storage, and virtually everyone who describes the space compares it unfavorably to whatever room in their house or office they're in at the moment. The lobby was the size of a large closet, and the dressing room actually was a closet. Shows were shot with one or two cameras, and as Bruce Ballard, who helped run the station in its early days, recalls in The Golden Age of Chicago Children's Television, the inexperienced crew included a cockeyed cameraman who was physically unable to use the viewfinder. Most memorably, WCIU remained black-and-white for the duration of the 1970s, long after other stations were broadcasting exclusively in color.
Early episodes followed the basic dance-show formula. Cornelius would introduce recordings of hits and the 10 to 15 couples crammed into the studio would dance to them. The hour-long program also featured musical guests who would lip-synch in front of a low-relief sculpture of an oncoming train. "It looked good on TV," says Nate Pendleton, who performed on the show in 1971 with his vocal group, the Dontells, "but up close it looked like cardboard propped up by two-by-fours." And while Cornelius's sharp suits became his signature when the show went national, early publicity photos show the host in bolder attire: despite being in his mid-30s, he wears a low-cut tank top accented by chains, studs, and leather.
There was one key figure Lehman wasn't able to track down while he was writing his book: Cornelius's right-hand man, Clinton Ghent, who became the host after he left for LA. Ghent, who grew up with Cornelius in the section of Bronzeville known as the Valley (bordered by 47th Street, Cottage Grove, 51st, and what's now King Drive), was ubiquitous in Chicago in the 70s, appearing on TV every weekday, emceeing concerts, and dancing nightly at south-side nightclubs. But nobody Lehman could find had spoken to him in years. Musicians, deejays, and promoters who'd been tight with Ghent back in the day offered shrugs or bad leads, and as it turned out, any account of Soul Train in Chicago—including Lehman's and my own in my 2005 book TV-a-Go-Go—was bound to be incomplete without his input.
This time, after weeks of frustration, I was able to track down Ghent with the help of his brother, Peter Pan Ghent. He's far from a recluse, but after becoming frustrated with the state of the entertainment business in the 80s, he made a point of losing touch with his showbiz associates.
The first thing people talk about when they remember Ghent is his anatomy—after all, he was a dancer. "Short fellow, very long legs," deejay Herb Kent recalls. "Very gifted, he could dance his butt off. Everybody loved him." Despite his small stature, Ghent was also a standout basketball player. As a teen playing for nearby Tilden Tech, he made all-city, and after a disconcerting campus visit to a Colorado college caused him to turn down a scholarship ("There were three blacks on campus, me and two Africans—I wasn't ready for that") he spent the summer playing pro-am, which led to scholarships at Wilberforce, a historically black university in Ohio, and then nearby Central State University. Goofing around outside a mambo class near the gym there, he caught the attention of a dance professor who helped him get a scholarship for a six-month program at Juilliard. When he returned to Chicago in 1967, though he hadn't completed his college degree he did have a certificate in choreography instruction.
Ghent took a job teaching dance to kids through the Park District and became a fixture at south-side nightclubs, particularly the storied Budland at 64th and Cottage Grove. "That club had the baddest dancers in the city," he says. "I don't care how fine a lady was, how sharp, how stacked... if you did not know how to dance you were going to get no action at Budland." Along with Ronnie Paul Johnson, an early regular on the Soul Train set, and another friend, Ghent formed a group called the Budlanders. They worked up funny pantomime-dance routines to popular records, and soon they were opening for musical acts at local clubs. After seeing them open for the Jackson 5 at the High Chaparral, Joe Jackson approached Ghent about choreographing routines for his sons.
Jackson initially paid him just $15 per song, but over the next decade and a half Ghent would go on to choreograph routines for the Emotions, the Chi-Lites, the Stairsteps, the Whispers, and others and continued to work with the Jackson 5 after they signed with Motown. By then he earned $250 a routine.
In 1969 Ghent was hanging out at the Guys and Gals club on 69th and Green when he ran into his old friend Cornelius. "I called him Donald Duck, because he could draw cartoons," Ghent says. "By this time he was on the radio. ...I said, 'Donald Duck!' He says, 'Hey man, I'm putting together a TV show. I need the best dancers, can you get them together?'"
The Soul Train pilot was shot at WCIU, and thanks to Ghent it was stocked with ringers—not the usual teenyboppers but the "baddest dancers" from Budland. When Sears exec George O'Hare saw the sample episode that he eventually was able to convince his bosses to sponsor, he was watching a group of adults re-creating the smoky, sexy atmosphere of a south-side club.
"I'm thinking I'm through," recalls Ghent. "I done helped a friend out and that's it. But later Don calls me and says, 'Man, where you been?'" Cornelius was preparing to launch live daily episodes of Soul Train in the summer of 1970 and had initiated the process of recruiting teenage dancers, visiting high schools and placing ads in the Chicago Defender. Ghent helped choose the music and coordinated the dancers, sometimes reconfiguring couples if they didn't look right together.
From the first episode the show was a sensation. Chicago still had a healthy recording industry, with the Curtom, Mercury, and Brunswick labels in town; early guests included the Staple Singers, B.B. King, Tyrone Davis, and Curtis Mayfield. Almost instantly there were lines around the block of black teens eager to ride the Train. "I tried to go by if they were good-looking, intelligent, had the best personalities," says Ghent. "I wanted to put together a group that would have a sense of togetherness, feel like a family while they were in the studio."
When dancers and musical guests would take the elevator to the 41st floor of the Board of Trade then walk up the fire-escape-like staircase to the 43rd, they really were becoming part of a family—an influential one. Because they had self-released the record they performed on Soul Train, the Dontells saw how dramatically sales were affected by their appearance on the show. The group knew Cornelius from his days as a clerk at the Foremost liquor store in their neighborhood. Though the half pints of whiskey they bought from him were often sent up to WVON deejays to convince them to spin Dontells records, Ghent says he made sure that no money or favors were required for a Soul Train appearance. (James Brown claims in his 2005 memoir, I Feel Good, that American Bandstand appearances cost $1,000 a pop.)
Nate Pendleton recalls that appearing on the show helped him bridge the race gap at work. "Manuel Seal and myself were among the few black letter carriers at the Hawthorne post office. Someone put a sign over the clock that Nate and Manuel were going to be on the Soul Train, and when we came back to work five white guys were doing our routine. I thought it was hilarious!" (Seal's son Manuel Jr. is an R&B hit maker who's written for Usher, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, and others.)
And that wasn't all. Dancers became neighborhood celebrities—teachers even favored them in class. Crescendo Ward even swears that Soul Train saved his life: After walking a girlfriend home to Cabrini-Green, he was assaulted by members of the Vice Lords gang. Mid-mugging one stopped, Ward told Lehman, declaring, "Yo, wait a minute, that's that Soul Train motherfucker!" After that they gave him bus fare home.
Not satisfied with a local hit, Cornelius immediately began working toward the national show. Less than a year after the show's launch he was visiting Los Angeles, armed with impressive local ratings, star-packed sample episodes, and generous commitments from Johnson Products, the Chicago-based, black-owned hair care company, which was (accurately) betting that sponsoring Soul Train would double its business. That summer, as production began in LA, Cornelius would fly out on Friday, shoot four episodes over the weekend, and return to Chicago in time to host Monday's show. On the morning of Saturday, October 2, 1971, Soul Train debuted in its weekly syndicated form.
Though the new show was in color, perhaps the most striking difference between it and the local version was the dancing. Though Chicago's teens were adept at new dances like the Errol Flynn, the Cowboy, and the Spank, their foundation was always the cool, laid-back style now known as stepping. The LA teens favored a more dramatic style, punctuated by broad, staccato movements, and were more sophisticated about playing to the camera. This moving, grooving sea of youth framing stars like the Jackson 5, Gladys Knight, and Joe Tex made for terrific music television.
Many members of LA's Soul Train Gang—including Rosie Perez and Jody Watley—parlayed the exposure into professional careers and in the 80s into prominent roles in videos. (Cheryl Song memorably flips her butt-length locks around in "Super Freak" and receives a dramatic kiss at the beginning of "Beat It.") Many dance revolutionaries debuted on the syndicated Soul Train, including pop-lock pioneer Don Campbell (who recorded as Don "Soul Train" Campbell) and members of his crew the Lockers, including Adolfo "Shabba-Doo" Quinones (from the Breakin' movies) and Fred Berry (Rerun on What's Happening!!).
The influence of these dancers made its way back to the cramped WCIU studio on Jackson, and soon the smooth steppers were infiltrated by crews of dancers specializing in different styles. The Kicks, masters of flamboyant wacking (known as punking in LA, and closely related to vogueing), featured Jermaine Stewart, who recorded "We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off" in the 80s. Another crew, the Puppets, specialized in the Campbell Lock and even wore the clownish knickerbockers, suspenders, and "pizza" hats made famous by the Lockers.
Crescendo Ward recalls standing in a block-long line outside the Board of Trade in 1974 hoping to get on the show. "There were these guys that were always passing the line. The best dancers on Soul Train didn't have to wait in line, and I remember thinking, 'I'm just as good as these guys.'"
Ward soon joined the Puppets crew, and a supportive Ghent frequently let them perform routines on the show. This led to opening slots for national groups. "Being on Soul Train got us, all underage, onto the stage of [Pervis Staples's] Perv's House, the hottest nightclub on the south side.... We opened for the Spinners, Blue Magic, the Stylistics." Emboldened by their success, the group snuck backstage at a Chicago appearance by Wolfman Jack, host of the national music show The Midnight Special; the legendary disc jockey soon brought them to LA to become the house dance troupe on that show. (They also briefly became a disco vocal group, Dream Express.) In the 80s Ward came in second on Star Search and in the 90s he appeared in several movies (including Robert Townsend's The Five Heartbeats). He currently produces dance festivals in California. "If it wasn't for Soul Train in Chicago," he says, "I wouldn't be doing any of this today."
Another dancer who made the move from Chicago to LA was Nieci Payne, who became a regular on the national program in the 80s. "I was 13 in 1974 when I danced in Chicago," Payne recalls, "but I told them I was 16." That was the show's official minimum age, though even the initial Defender ads allowed that exceptions would be made. "They had a contest, and I won some platforms from Chaka Khan's store," says Payne. (At 16 she lied about her age again and won a contest to become the Commodores' Miss Brick House.) Payne says she bonded with Cornelius in LA despite his reputation for keeping his distance from the dancers. "Cheryl Song and I would go to dinner with him and the guests. He knew that unlike some of the other dancers we wouldn't use it try to further our careers."
The aspirations of the dancers were not the only difference between Chicago's and LA's shows. One signature element of the national show, the "Soul Train Line," could hardly ever be done in WCIU's tiny studio. Big ensembles like Earth, Wind & Fire couldn't fit in there either. While in Chicago acts like the O'Jays and Funkadelic pantomined to a single camera, in LA the camera crew was able to capture the occasional live performance by acts like James Brown, Mandrill, and Stevie Wonder. And of course, filling five hours a week instead of just one necessitated booking some sub-superstar talent, including the all-convict band the Escorts, Herb Kent (who rode circles around the dancers on a bicycle), and Alfred Fairley, the one-legged "Dancing Fanatic."
The local show also booked another kind of guest entirely: Reverend Jesse Jackson made semiregular appearances, using them to address the younger constituents of Operation Breadbasket, the local branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and then his own Operation PUSH. Father George Clements of Holy Angels Catholic Church, who harbored Black Panthers wanted by the police and gained national notoriety in 1981 as the first Roman Catholic priest to adopt children, made many appearances on the show, including one in 1972 appearance to discuss his church's controversial altar honoring Martin Luther King.
Another activist who appeared several times on the show was Black Panther Bobby Rush, the future congressman. "The early years of Soul Train represent a time when we could effectively blend entertainment and activism," he recalls. "That type of programming was important for young organizers like me who needed media outlets to command public attention and inform the people in our community about police brutality, health care, education, and economic issues."
After Cornelius's syndicated success, guest hosts often filled in for him in Chicago, including Big Bill Hill from Red Hot and Blues and deejay La Donna Tittle. Cornelius convinced a reluctant Ghent to become an occasional guest host as well, and in 1973 handed the whole show over to Ghent so he could devote his energy to west coast operations.
"I didn't have ambitions to be on TV," Ghent says. But under his stewardship local Soul Train became its own show. Cornelius could seem standoffish; Ghent got in there and danced with the kids. "He was approachable," Crescendo Ward recalls. "Don wasn't that approachable, but Ghent was like an older brother." Every day he would allow two hours for his 15-minute commute so that he could sign autographs, engage fans, and interact with dancers.
But Ghent wasn't the businessman Cornelius was. Though the show, with Sears and Coca-Cola as sponsors, was a moneymaker for WCIU and Cornelius (and Ghent, who received a $350 weekly salary from the station and 15 percent of ad sales), without Cornelius it wasn't particularly ambitious. After the LA show launched, Ghent appears to have taken no publicity stills and sent out no press releases. Virtually every Chicago Defender mention of Soul Train concerns the LA production.
Ghent's first love was still sports; he would practice softball before the show and play games after. When the job conflicted with his extracurricular activities he would schedule reruns. But the program, despite a curious adjustment to a 45-minute slot—from 4:15 to 5 PM—was still popular in 1976 when Ghent got a 3 AM call from a desperate Cornelius. "He said, 'These people out here don't know where I'm coming from,'" he recalls. Ghent flew out to Los Angeles to become Cornelius's assistant, effectively ending Chicago Soul Train's run. WCIU aired reruns until 1979, when the local show went off the air entirely.
Like Cornelius, Ghent found Angelenos harder to trust than Chicagoans. He was especially struck by the difference in the dancers. "Once those dancers out there hit TV they thought they were great. I didn't like their attitudes," he says. "Here they were happy to be on, politely asking if they could come back. And as long as they conducted themselves they could. It was great to be surrounded by close-to-home-type people."
Ghent nonetheless stayed in Los Angeles for eight years—which was enough to sour him on showbiz. After returning home he briefly worked for the post office, continued to work for the Park District, and redevoted himself to athletics, playing when he could and establishing himself as a softball umpire and basketball referee. Today Ghent, at 62, still officiates several games a week for the Chicago Public Schools and independent leagues.
You might be wondering now how you can see episodes of the Chicago Soul Train. Well, so far you can't. Tapes probably exist, but there are no episodes at Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications. Lehman came across none in his research, and there's nothing on YouTube. No video collectors have even hinted at existing clips. Nate Pendleton recalls having a Super-8 film of the Dontells' performance but can't locate the reel, and among Chicago's home-movie archivists (including my wife, Jacqueline Stewart, who runs the South Side Home Movie Project) footage has yet to emerge from any proud parents who might've filmed their children on the TV screen.
From the 1950s to the 1970s local live television broadcasts often went undocumented, their ethereal existence recorded only in the memories of home viewers. Kinescoping (a special process to make a 16-millimeter film of a live broadcast by filming a television monitor) was prohibitively expensive. Because the only compensation many producers received was the razor-thin remainder of sponsorship money after production costs, few were willing to add even an extra hundred bucks to the weekly budget after three-quarter-inch U-matic videotapes were introduced in the early 70s. (Sears's original Soul Train sponsorship deal was $100 per episode.) Those who did record shows often recorded subsequent shows over them to save on tape stock. Only three episodes of Kiddie-a-Go-Go were preserved, and there are likely no episodes of Red Hot and Blues. WCIU ran local Soul Train tapes for years, but Howard Shapiro says he doesn't think the station still has copies. And as I searched for footage while preparing this article, Cornelius, historically tight with material even from the national show, seemed an unlikely benefactor.
In fact it seemed like it was about to become more difficult to see any Soul Train footage at all. In December 2007, soon after his purchase of the Tribune Company, Sam Zell shuttered the Tribune Entertainment division, which had syndicated Soul Train since 1985. "The Best of Soul Train" reruns continued in their weekly slots with a logo for Trifecta Entertainment, but a representative of Trifecta explained to me that they'd "simply assumed the remaining barter advertising sales representation of the property from Tribune for the balance of this broadcast season." (That season ended on Saturday, September 20.)
But on June 17 it was reported that Cornelius had sold the entire Soul Train enterprise (for an undisclosed amount) to a fledgling entertainment company called MadVision, whose best known production is Showtime's stand-up comedy showcase White Boyz in the Hood. A representative of MadVision told me that while the original pilot was not included in the deal, several other episodes of Chicago Soul Train were.
The black-owned company, anchored by young media execs who cut their teeth at Chicago's Johnson Publishing, Vibe, and Sean Combs's Bad Boy Productions, plans to explore the possibilities of the archival material. Reportedly DVD, video-on-demand, and Internet content are all on the table, though obviously MadVision will have some music licensing issues to sort out. A Soul Train movie Cornelius announced back in April is allegedly still in the works—a "buddy comedy" about the adventures of two male dancers that Cornelius promised would feature "lots of music, lots of comedy... a little bit of violence" and would be "more than slightly sensual." What's more, MadVision plans to produce brand-new episodes. So perhaps Lehman's history is less an obituary than a way to mark the end of an era.v