From the Archives: ‘Soul Train,’ a snapshot of black Los Angeles life
“Soul Train” was a seminal dance and music TV show that ran from 1971 to 2006. Now, the long-running series is getting a second look thanks to BET’s “American Soul,” which debuts Tuesday and takes a look at the drama behind the hit show. In 2012, after the death of series creator Don Cornelius, The Times looked back at “Soul Train’s” cultural impact. This story was originally published in The Times on Feb. 7, 2012.
“Soul Train” was a show unabashedly by, for and about black people: the artists who performed on it, the dancers and of course, host and impresario Don Cornelius, who died last week.
But it was such a rapturous, infectious house party, everybody tuned in when the show came on Saturday mornings, right after the cartoons. Including white Catholic schoolgirls like me, looking for new moves to try at the parish dance.
What many people don’t know is that the culture of “Soul Train” was largely the culture of black Los Angeles. A onetime Chicago DJ, Cornelius started “Soul Train” there in 1970 but the next year came to Los Angeles to put the show into national syndication.
The first “Soul Train” dancers came from local high schools: Dorsey, Locke and Crenshaw. Their sometimes outlandish outfits were pure ‘70s L.A. streetwear.
Those clothes! Men’s plaid pants as wide as pickle barrels at the ankles. Hot pants with matching bolero jackets. Some women dressed decorously, but their steps were so exuberant, they looked like they were about to dance right out of their nipped-in jackets and straight skirts.
The dances were West Coast too: popping, locking, the Slauson. “Soul Train’s” famous line dance, with couples competing to top each other’s strutting kicks and swivels, was also a local staple. Author and commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a Dorsey High graduate, said line dances were also the vogue at Sports Nights, sock hops that followed Friday football games at the local high schools.
In a Times blog post last week, musician and songwriter Patrice Rushen told how Cornelius recruited her, then a Locke student, and her teenage friends for the television program.
Cornelius dropped by a local park and told them, “Anybody who wants to go, we’ll have buses and take you to the TV studio. All you’ve got to do is come on the show and dance.” The next Saturday they were bused to the Paramount lot and later received a chicken dinner and a Coke, Cornelius’ standard payment.
Even into the ‘80s, when the show shifted to more of a clubbing vibe, “Soul Train’s” hoofers came from underground spots like Paradise 24, behind the CircusCircus disco, former “Soul Train” dancer Christopher Charles Mitchell from Erie, Pa., recalled.
“Some had classical training, but most were street-trained,” said Mitchell, who currently performs as Darth Vader at the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Even before “Soul Train,” Los Angeles had a rich legacy of dance music shows. In the wake of “American Bandstand’s” success, hundreds of local dance shows hosted by radio DJs sprang up all over the country, but Los Angeles was the undisputed hub of the short-lived genre.
Wink Martindale’s “Dance Party” broadcast from the pier at Pacific Ocean Park, a now-defunct beachfront theme park. Bob Eubanks took over the show, which was renamed “Pickwick Dance Party” and came out of the Pickwick Center in Burbank. “The Lloyd Thaxton Show,” which featured nutty production numbers, went into national syndication.
Host Sam Riddle’s “9th Street West” morphed into “9th-Street-a-Go-Go,” then “Hollywood-a-Go-Go,” which also went national. All featured kids from local high schools dancing.
The programs were low-budget and hokey, but with flashes of zany charm. Lip-syncing contests, the (much less annoying) ‘60s counterpart of karaoke, were big. My sister appeared on “9th Street West,” hiding with her girlfriends behind a velvet curtain while her boyfriend lip-synced James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”
Even at this pre-feminist stage, they found the song selection ludicrous and in their high hilarity, accidentally tore down the curtain.
Despite attempts to plug into youth culture, most of the shows were pretty square. Riddle said a dress code was strictly enforced: jacket and tie for the young men and “party” dresses for the young women. “Very clean-cut,” he said in a phone interview this week. “These were innocent times.”
By the time Cornelius came to town, the shows were dying out. Thaxton blamed his program’s decline on an outraged sponsor who protested it was just a bunch of teenagers.
Cornelius’ show was also just a bunch of teens, but it was anything but square. “Soul Train” was musically adventurous, aesthetically sophisticated and quintessentially hip.
The opening sequence, of an animated train zooming in and out of view, was in the spirit of artist Peter Max, and the theme song is one of the most-sampled tunes in R&B.
Cornelius himself, with his sonorous delivery and trademark sign-off, “Love, peace and soul,” was as cool as the artists he showcased. Many of them performed live, instead of lip-syncing as on the old shows.
One of the best episodes features James Brown’s performance of “Say It Loud I’m Black and Proud.” Some of the “Soul Train” dancers swarmed the stage, joining him in raising the black power fist salute.
But it was pure theater, not agitprop. Brown was endorsing Richard Nixon for president, for crying out loud. Entertainment always came first on “Soul Train,” not politics, and everyone was invited to the party.
“This was the creative genius of Don Cornelius: He took dances and songs so marginalized as black music, and as black audiences, and took them across all racial and ethnic lines,” said Hutchinson. “Don Cornelius said let’s give the nation a show. Everybody loves a show.”
So it’s no surprise that Cornelius’ passing last week was marked by a vigil at the Paramount lot, an impromptu “Soul Train” dance line in Leimert Park and at a club in Echo Park. Young hipsters waited behind a rope to get into a weekly party at the Echo called Funky Sole night and dance in front of a screen playing classic “Soul Train” episodes.
“Tonight we’re celebrating Don Cornelius,” DJ Clifton Weaver, 36, told the crowd. On the screen, Cornelius took a turn down the “Soul Train” dance line with Mary Wilson of the Supremes. Wearing a statement Afro, black velvet suit and a black-and-white polka-dot wide collar, his moves were suavely sexy.
The light from the screen bounced off the dancers’ faces. One gyrating guy tried to start a dance line, but the place was too crowded and he simply slid back into the pulsating human pack.
Even in death, Cornelius could still pack a dance floor.
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