The following post is an excerpt from the book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America's Favorite Dance Show: Soul Train" reprinted with permission from Hal Leonard's Backbeat Books. For more information and for upcoming book signings and events you can visit the Facebook Fan Page.
Don Cornelius got the idea to call the show "Soul Train" from his traveling to and from high school record hops. He reached out to his list of contacts from Chicago's radio station, WVON, and from the artists he'd been promoting in high school auditoriums. Joseph Hutchinson, the father of the Emotions singers, was the first person he contacted, then Jerry Butler, and the Chi-Lites. He booked all of them for the first show.
He approached his buddy, WVON deejay Joe Cobb, about doing promotions for the program while in the studio at the radio station. Cornelius was holding the copy for promotion of the show and he asked Cobb to read it. "Channel 26, will be airing the Sooooooooouuuul Traiiiiin!" Cobb sung into the microphone. He was just joking, but Cornelius told him, "I like that. Do that again for me." The name stuck, as did the bombastic approach to stretching it out. He also reached out to his colleague at WVON, Don Jackson, the first black advertising sales manager at the station, as well as the youngest, to help him develop the show. Cornelius told Jackson that the show would have the hippest dancers from around town and first-class acts from the Chicago music scene.
"Man, there's no way in hell a show called 'Soul Train' will ever make it. Thank you, but no thank you," Jackson said with an affable smile.
Meanwhile, Cornelius still had to get a show together. The first thing he needed to do was to find dancers--but not just any dancers. He needed the kind that would keep the attention of an audience used to seeing the latest dances at the clubs around town.
At first, he simply advertised for dancers in the black newspaper, the Chicago Defender. But it would take a chance meeting with a childhood friend to get the personnel that would make a name for the show.
A diminutive teenaged smooth talker named Clint Ghent danced nightly at Southside clubs. When he went to college on a basketball scholarship, he caught the attention of a dance professor at Central State University in Ohio. Every time he passed her classroom after basketball practice, the sounds of soul music drew him in and he'd dance in the hallway outside of her class. She noticed his talent and helped to enroll him in a six-month program at Juilliard. Ghent returned to Chicago with a certificate in choreography from the program and would eventually choreograph for the Emotions, the Chi-Lites, the Whispers, and the Jackson Five before they signed with Motown.
One night after coming back to Chicago from the program at Juilliard and deciding to drop out of Central State, Ghent went to dance at the Guys and Gals club on Sixty-Ninth Street and ran into Don Cornelius. Don was always checking out the dancers in the clubs and on the streets--he wanted to capture the same uninhibited, boisterous joy they exhibited dancing there and translate it to the show.
"Clint, baby, I want to see you before you leave," Don said.
"What's going on?" Ghent asked, leaning against the door leading out of the club.
"Hey, man, I'm putting together a dance show. I need the best dancers. Can you get them together?"
Ghent got right on it. The dancers he found turned out to be the baddest dancers from clubs around town, performing the latest crazes like the Monkey, the Funky Broadway, and the Bop. The idea was to capture the real-life energy of a smoky, hole-in-the-wall club--a place where people came to dance until the sun rises . . . and sets again.
On August 17, 1970, Soul Train, the local Chicago version, premiered on a set the size of a small dining room. One camera was manned by a cockeyed cameraman who was physically unable to use the viewfinder. He had to move around to catch different angles of the artists and dancers. Only one camera had a zoom lens. Filmed live, there was no opportunity for mistakes. The dancers were paid only a lunch of Kentucky Fried Chicken and grape soda, it being standard practice at the time for dancers on dance and variety shows not to get paid.
The show opened up with a clip of a real train coming down the tracks. Then it cut to Don Cornelius, who wore a low-cut tank top, accented by chains and leather. His hair was done in an Afro that he parted neatly on the left-hand side. He talked to the audience in the rhyming style he had learned from working at WVON, using lines like "We'll be dealing some good feeling for the next sixty minutes."
For the rest of the show, the dancers angled for airtime, throwing out wild dance moves that would hopefully keep the camera trained on them for a minute. Jerry Butler came on and sang "For Your Precious Love." The Emotions sang a few of their tunes that didn't chart, including "I Can't Stand No More Heartaches" and "So I Can Love You," but the songs were well known locally from the sisters singing them at the Regal Theater, where they had won many talent shows, and at the Mount Mariah Baptist Church, where their father served as a pastor. But it was the dancers who stole the show, with their cool, laidback gliding and strutting.
The show went off smoothly, remarkably without any glitches. At the end, Cornelius signed off with what would become his signature line: "And you can bet your last money, it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey! I'm Don Cornelius, and in parting, we wish you love, peace, and soul!"
Despite the show running flawlessly, after the first episode aired George O'Hare was skeptical.
O'Hare Jr., a tall, expressive, Irish Catholic man with a gentle spirit and a buoyant smile, was working as a volunteer with Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH, while serving as a manager at Sears, Roebuck and Company.
The size of the set, the cheap quality of the programming and equipment, and the minimum visibility of a UHF station all signaled disaster. There was no way a station like this could garner any kind of popularity. He'd put his neck on the line with his boss, Gordon Metcalf, and now he worried that his boss was going to think he was a failure.
"It's not gonna work," O'Hare told Cornelius gently. "You're not gonna keep this show. Let's go have a drink."
But Cornelius was insistent that O'Hare just be patient, that the show would strike a chord, particularly with teenagers.
Two days after Soul Train had been on the air, Cornelius walked down the streets on the South Side with O'Hare. They were heading to a bar for a drink. As they talked, they walked into a bar on Sixty-Third and Cottage Grove. Heads turned as they sized up Cornelius. Then several people at the bar called out in unison: "Sooooouuuuuuul Traaaaain!"
O'Hare's eyes grew wide as he turned toward his friend.
Cornelius eased out a confident smile, thinking, "This is going to be bigger than I ever imagined."