SOUL TRAIN STARTED ITS RUN IN CHICAGO
Soul Train was the hippest trip in America. No truer words were ever spoken.
Produced By Sal Amato
Before I get into it here, I put this segment together on Wednesday night. When I woke up Thursday morning, I had to do a story on another icon and legend of the industry, Aretha Franklin.
The Good Lord called the Queen of Soul home. Her music moved me in so many ways. Carole King penned You Make Me Feel (Like A Natural Woman) and Aretha gave it life. Ahmet Ertegun and his brother signed Aretha Franklin to Atlantic Records where Jerry Wexler brought it all together with her in the studio to create some of the most memorable music of the era. What a body of music and in the years, it would all be performed and interpreted by the amazing dancers of Soul Train. The music brings to mind so many soul-enriching experiences for me.
Her music, the production, the sound, the era she came onto the scene still stirs emotions and feelings in me that run deep. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, ’nuff said. Read about Aretha Franklin’s passing HERE. And now… on with the show.
As a kid, I grew up a little different than most in the neighborhood. My mother was in the business and my father while a businessman was one helluva horn player. I grew up in a house where there was jazz, soul and more.
I was exposed to so much great music from the day I was born. Stan Kenton to Sinatra, Dion, The Platters, The Grass Roots, CTA, Nancy Wilson to Ella, Sergio Mendes & Brazil 66 to Mantovani, Santana, Jo Stafford to Blood, Sweat & Tears, Carmen Miranda, Ramsey Lewis, Tony Orlando And Dawn, Mongo Santamaria, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Evans, Bread, Miles Davis, Helen Reddy, Wes Montgomery, The 5th Dimension, Elvis, James Brown, Three Dog Night, Antonio Carlos Jobim, James Taylor, Buddy Miles, Motown, Philly Intl., Stax, Vee-Jay (my mother was the last artist signed to Vee-Jay before it folded). Man, the list is endless!
I wasn’t the normal kid listening to just The Beatles or Zeppelin, that stuff was all over the radio – easy to find, I was interested in the stuff that wasn’t on all the radio stations. To me, that was like “cool, it’s on the menu and everyone eats it, what else you got?” Like a great meal, I loved to discover new things, new music, different music that wasn’t being force-fed to me, I was never one to sit around and wait to be marketed. I’d ‘hear’ things in songs that would help later in life to determine talent and/or a ‘hit’ for people I served at labels that signed Taylor Dayne, 311, Adventures Of Stevie V, 311, Tony Toni Tone, Hootie & The Blowfish, Live, Crystal Waters and others. If there were rhythm sections or great singers and musicians, I found it, felt it and fell in love with it.
Back then, I wasn’t a bad kid but my mom and dad would get hauled into school starting in Kindergarten for not paying attention or questioning everything. That got me in trouble and grounded… ALOT! I knew it was going to be really bad when my mom took away my Close N’ Play record player AND my radio. That was a major trauma for me!
As a pre-teen, my AM transistor radio and one little ear piece were my best friends along with my copy of Red Foxx’s album “You Gotta Wash Your Ass” (which got me in a whole lotta trouble). I found all my favorite music on great stations including WVON, WGLD, WSDM, WJPC. Sure there was WFYR, WLS, Super CFL and others but that was the typical stuff, I wanted something different, special, something they didn’t play and if they did it was months after the stations I really liked played it.
Music was my escape for so many things. Mostly, I was interested in how it opened up a dialog with people, how people were affected by it, how it moved them, touched them, spoke to them, for them and how it crossed so many boundaries. Of course, I didn’t understand that at that time but I felt all that – I just couldn’t explain it until I grew up to know how to put it in those terms.
On Sunday morning I was tortured by this Magic Door show that would come on, I had my Bob Luce wrestling and then, Jubilee Showcase. I had to be the only white kid in the world watching and loving it all. I’d wake my mother up after she had worked a long night as a lounge singer (before she began her 40 plus year career in jingles) to watch the show with me.
Then, one day summer day in August of 1970, Chicago’s channel 26 [a UHF TV station you needed a major technological degree to receive – at that time] broadcast a new show called Soul Train and I was hooked. Who woulda thunk it! Of all places, this TV show came from Chicago’s Board Of Trade where they trade bonds and stuff. The C.B.O.T. was a place I’d wind up later in life as a broker and then, after that with an internet business.
I was honored to have met Don Cornelius once, it was a brief encounter. I am the furthest thing in the world from a person who ever gets starstruck but, I have to admit, I had such an admiration for the man because he was truly a visionary, he had an idea and it made history. I’ve lived my life in that manner. You aim high, you never quit, you never stop, you never let someone tell you it can’t be done. To meet a man who had such a positive and profound impact on the lives of millions and millions of people was truly one of my greatest honors to date. It’s inspiring to be around successful people. No one told him how it had to be done, he DID what had to be done HIS way and it worked. No one was telling him you need this person or that person, he found a way to be the person he needed to make it all happen.
Don Cornelius did things and made things happen no one even thought about. He did so many things before so many others and against all odds. He believed in the music and most importantly, he believed in himself. It’s a friggin’ shame we have fewer and fewer people telling others it’s in their hands, there are choices, there are obstacles but you can’t use them as a crutch into perpetuity. Don Corneilus is living proof, you can navigate the shit storm and win if you persist. Today, we get others telling them they can’t do shit without some magic Genie (elected official) who will toss some crumbs at them to the ‘peasant’ while the Genie lives high on the hog.
Cornelius was born on Chicago’s South Side on September 27, 1936, and raised in the Bronzeville neighborhood. After graduating from DuSable High School in 1954, he joined the United States Marine Corps and served 18 months in Korea. He worked at various jobs following his stint in the military, including selling tires, automobiles, and insurance, and as an officer with the Chicago Police Department. He quit his day job to take a three-month broadcasting course in 1966, despite being married with two sons and having only $400 in his bank account. In 1966, he landed a job as an announcer, news reporter and disc jockey on Chicago’s WVON.
Cornelius joined Chicago the UHF TV station WCIU in 1967 and hosted a news program called A Black’s View of the News. In 1970, he launched Soul Train on WCIU-TV as a daily local show. The program entered national syndication and moved to Los Angeles the following year. For a little trivia… Eddie Kendricks, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Bobby Hutton and Honey Cone were featured on the national debut episode.
I’ll share this thought with you and how Elvis relates to Don Cornelius in an abstract kind of manner. When touring Graceland, at the end of the tour, there’s this “trophy” room. It houses all of Elvis’ achievements. It’s what was once a racquetball court. Every square inch of those walls was covered with awards. Now, think about this… do you think Elvis ever once stopped and looked and said, Wow, I did all that? The same could be said about Don Cornelius. All the man’s achievements, broadcasting-wise, industry-wise and most importantly for humanity… I don’t think he ever took a minute to see just how much he accomplished or how important it all was. The show and the man were one of a kind, it was all so ground-breaking and it had an amazingly positive effect on people.
As the times changed, the show changed with them. Funk and soul gave way to disco, rap, and hip hop, and still Soul Train stayed true to its personality, character, and style. After 35 years of wishing audiences “love, peace, and soul,” Soul Train’s run came to an end in 2006
As for Don Cornelius (God rest his soul), his health was in decline and in Feb. 2012 he was found unresponsive in his home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. What a true American icon.
Today, The Beat Staff and I wanted to pay our respects to the music, the show, and the man who made it all happen.
Hopefully, somewhere up there, Don Cornelius is watchin’ my Dad meticulously care for his horn as Don prepares to play a little three on three with Marvin, Jackie, Sam, Luther, Otis and Teddy, listenin’ to Aretha, sayin’ “nice work Sal.”
Watch this amazing documentary you may have missed or not seen in years, it really sums everything up about the show and the cast that came into all of our living rooms back in the day.
Check out the interviews, line dances including Walter Payton dancing on Soul Train and so much more of the amazing history including all of Aretha Franklin’s live performances below.
For more on the show, the history and to really be transported back in time, CLICK HERE.
Watch The Beat TV in here on our website when you click HERE.
Photo Credit From Ari Ehlert on Pinterest