Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Tracks Of My Years: The Legend of DON CORNELIUS and SOUL TRAIN

Spaz waxes poetic on the iconic TV show’s history and gains a little insight from the ‘Soul Conductor’ himself!

By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

It’s 2010 and do you know where your music video and dance shows are? In an age when TRL is a distant memory and nobody can actually find any music videos on MTV anymore, it becomes painfully obvious that the music video revolution is dead, buried and deleted in TV land (although it thrives on the internet). But it wasn’t always that way…

When American Bandstand brought Rock ‘n’ Roll into American living rooms in the ‘50s, it helped to usher in one of the most exciting periods in music. From bobby-soxers to greasers, every teenager in the U.S. tuned in to view the latest dance crazes, listen to the latest hits and watch host Dick Clark introduce some of the hottest acts on the planet. While not technically a ‘music video’ show (it was more of a dance show), American Bandstand was a cultural phenomena. It spawned many copycat programs throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, yet none of them lasted more than a season or two.

Nearly two decades later, in October of 1971, a fairly similar weekly music television show hit the airwaves which would ultimately change the playing field; that show was called Soul Train. Instead of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Soul Train featured the absolute best in Soul, Funk, and R&B, all performed by the hottest black artists on the scene. Similar in format to American Bandstand, Soul Train was an hour long program that featured dancers groovin’ to the latest hits, live and/or lip synched performances by new artists and veteran performers plus host Don Cornelius, who may not have been as suave as Dick Clarke, but he was certainly twice as cool!

Cornelius came up with the idea of the show while he was a disc jockey in Chicago. While he has always denied that the show was based on the American Bandstand format, the shows were destined to be compared, even four decades later. But the real difference was in the musical acts, many of whom performed live on Soul Train while AB’s musical guests would lip-synch to their latest recordings.

“There were certain artists that didn’t want to lip-synch”, says Don today. “If we wanted them to do the show, we had to do it the way they wanted to do it… even though it wasn’t the tradition with the dance show format. We tried things with the Barry White Orchestra, James Brown…”

From Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin to The Isley Brothers and Sly & The Family Stone, Soul Train was both a platform for new artists and a showcase for the veteran performer.

While many acts were initially eager to hitch a ride on Soul Train, it wasn’t that easy at first to snag some of the bigger acts.

“It took a little while for some of the major people like James Brown, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five and Aretha Franklin.” remembers Don. “It took awhile to get that caliber of guests. Once we started to see those artists come in, we knew that we were going to make it. Those artists in particular were the ones that started to put us on the map, so to speak.”

The show received an overwhelming response not only from Soul/Funk fans but also from those who followed Rock, Pop and Jazz. While parts of Middle America may still have been feeling racial tensions in the early ‘70s, music fans were generally color-blind. Most Top 40 stations played Soul, Pop, Rock and Country, not bothering to base airplay on skin color. Soul Train helped in knocking down those racial barriers and brought the music home, literally and figuratively.

By the time MTV premiered in August of 1981, the local and syndicated dance/music video shows suffered and began disappearing from television programming. Thankfully, Soul Train stayed on track and flourished. Since MTV didn’t showcase any of the popular black artists of the time, the Soul/Funk/R&B musician’s only real shot at television airtime was via Don and Soul Train. Even when MTV broke the color barrier in 1983 and began featuring videos from black artists, Soul Train thrived. And it continued to do so for a few decades more, coming to its final destination in 2006, thirty five years after it began its journey.

While the legend of Soul Train lives on, the actual episodes of the television show remained elusive for all but the hardcore collector/bootlegger. Now, that has changed with Time/Life’s Best Of Soul Train DVD collections. There’s a three DVD set which features amazing footage from the show’s most acclaimed era (1971-79) including performances from Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, The O’Jays, the Chi-Lites, Sly & The Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson Five and many others. Alongside these performances, you’ll find popular segments of the show (the scramble board, commercials, etc) and plenty of the smooth coolness of host Don Cornelius. The episodes are crisp, clear and are visually stunning. In my brief conversation with the man himself, he assured me that all episodes of Soul Train look as beautiful as those featured here.

There’s also a single disc DVD that features the best of these performances, including some sizzling work from The Isley Brothers, Gladys Knight & The Pips and many others. For the novice, this may be your best introduction into the fast-paced and funky world of Soul Train.

Because of his work with Soul Train, Don Cornelius himself has become a Pop Culture icon and his name has become synonymous with the Soul music that he helped bring to the masses. Modestly, the ‘Soul Conductor’ doesn’t quite see it that way.

“That would be presumptuous to think that on my part… but if that’s the case, I’d like that very much!”

Thanks to Don Cornelius
Special thanks to John McCormack, Maureen O'Connor, Michael Mitchell and Thomas Hemesath.

Soul Train Promo Reel from Saguaro Road on Vimeo.

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