Inside ‘Soul Train’ And Its Stunning Impact On American Culture In 29 Images
By Marco Margaritoff | Edited By Erik Hawkins
Published December 21, 2021
For 35 years, Don Cornelius and Soul Train brought Black music, dancing, fashion, and culture into living rooms across the country with the longest-running syndicated show in American television history.
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American funk band Cameo belting it out on Soul Train's 491st episode on Nov. 30, 1985.Soul Train/Getty Images
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After joining the U.S. Marine Corpse and serving in Korea, Don Cornelius became a Chicago police officer. Increasingly curious about the media landscape, he took a broadcasting course and was hired as a radio station DJ. It was his determination to improve Black representation onscreen that led him to create Soul Train and pitch it to WCIU-TV in 1970.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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Rick James performing on Soul Train after a particularly candid and humorous introduction by Don Cornelius:
"Our next guest is one of the most prolific songwriters, right?" One of the most innovative producers. Certainly one of the most exciting and talented performers. And also one of the strangest men I've ever met."Soul Train/Getty Images
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Viewers all over the country were happy to vicariously join the party every Saturday by watching the Soul Train dancers let loose onscreen and show off the latest fashion. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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Diana Ross graces the Soul Train stage for an unforgettable performance on Jan. 30, 1982. Soul Train/Getty Images
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Soul Train's taping schedule was so grueling that dancers commonly had to film an entire month's worth of episodes over a single weekend. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and the Fresh Prince (right; Will Smith) were the first hip-hop act to win a Grammy Award. Even after making it big, they took the Soul Train stage on Oct. 19, 1991. Soul Train/Getty Images
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White Plains, New York-based R&B band Atlantic Starr being interviewed by Don Cornelius after performing beloved hits such as "Always," "Secret Lovers," and "Send For Me" on March 22, 1986.Soul Train/Getty Images
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Herbie Hancock was more than a mere jazz pianist and keyboarder. Seen here performing on Soul Train on Dec. 10, 1983, Hancock had already cemented his legacy with his role in the Miles Davis Quintet and his contributions to jazz fusion, funk, and electro styles with a roster of synthesizers and electronics.Soul Train/Getty Images
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Soul Train became so popular overnight that even superstars like James Brown were clamoring to perform on its stage. The "Godfather of Soul" graced the Los Angeles production stage in 1971.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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Part of the motivation for Don Cornelius to create Soul Train was improving Black representation in the media amidst civil rights-era struggles and exorbitant police brutality. He's seen here interviewing Reverend Jesse Jackson on June 26, 1982.Soul Train/Getty Images
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Morris Day & The Time performing on Soul Train on May 10, 1986.Soul Train/Getty Images
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Some of the Soul Train Dancers posing for pictures in the colorful, contemporary fashion of 1974 Los Angeles.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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Initially hesitant to include hip-hop on his show, Don Cornelius couldn't deny the genre's skyrocketing appeal. Rapper Kool Moe Dee is seen here performing "Wild Wild West" on March 15, 1988.Soul Train/Getty Images
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Avant-garde American electro group Planet Patrol taking the stage on Oct. 29, 1983. Soul Train/Getty Images
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The iconic Soul Train tunnel led the show's dancers from offscreen onto the televised stage.Soul Train/Getty Images
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Rosie Perez was one of the many Soul Train Dancers who got their start on the show. She would go on to worldwide recognition as an actress cast in Oscar-nominated films soon after this appearance on Nov. 14, 1987.Soul Train/Getty Images
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Soul Train Dancers Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel get their moment to shine by strutting down the Soul Train Line on Aug. 21, 1976.Soul Train/Getty Images
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Aretha Franklin performed "Day Dreaming" on April 7, 1973, at the height of her career.Soul Train/Getty Images
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A Soul Train Dancer stuns his peers with a breakdancing headspin move in the mid-1980's.Soul Train/Getty Images
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Members of Soul Train Dancers pose for pictures during a day on the beach on June 26, 1977. As an essential part of the show with a taxing taping schedule, they surely earned their time in the sun.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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B.B. King, James Brown, and Bobby Bland performing together on March 15, 1975.Soul Train/Getty Images
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Soul music icon Pati LaBelle and her Labelle bandmates Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash performing on Dec. 7, 1974.Soul Train/Getty Images
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The Chambers Brothers performing on Soul Train's ninth episode on Nov. 27, 1971, to a full dance floor of overjoyed cast members.Soul Train/Getty Images
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Fan-favorite Soul Train Dancers Damita Jo Freeman and Pat Davis cut a rug on Sept. 23, 1972.Soul Train/Getty Images
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With a tie-dye tank top and a shirt reading "Keep On Truckin,'" these dancers put Soul Train fashion on full display.Soul Train/Getty Images
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The Temptations gracing the Soul Train stage with their heavenly harmonies on Nov. 24, 1973.Soul Train/Getty Images
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Two Soul Train Dancers strut down the Soul Train Line in 1972.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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Aired on June 29, 1974, the 105th episode of Soul Train featured Sly and the Family Stone — and offered viewers the exact kind of televised party they tuned in for.Soul Train/Getty Images
Inside ‘Soul Train’ And Its Stunning Impact On American Culture In 29 Images
Soul Train was initially created as a local showcase for the musical talents and dancers of Chicago. When it expanded into broadcast syndication in 1971, however, it beamed into homes across the United States — at a time when only one other commercial show made by Black people for Black people was airing on TV.
The pioneering program would become the longest-running nationally syndicated program in American TV history. Soul Train gave then-unknown musical acts and dancers a national platform they never had before, as fresh talents and fashion trends started reflecting the experiences of Black Americans at an unprecedented scale.
Soul Traindiscovered talents like Rosie Perez and Jeffrey Daniel who would star in Oscar-nominated films and teach Michael Jackson how to moonwalk. It allowed Black America to see itself onscreen in celebration of its culture — and provide a sense of ownership and authorship in how they were depicted.
The History Of Soul Train
Born on Sept. 27, 1936, in Chicago, Illinois, Don Cornelius served in the U.S. Marine Corps before taking a broadcasting course and becoming a radio station DJ. He transitioned to television in 1967 by appearing on WCIU-TV's A Black's View of the News — before channeling all of his energy into curating local Black talent.
Cornelius began by hosting "The Soul Train" at Chicago high schools. It saw people of all creeds and colors sing and dance together. A news anchor himself, Cornelius was frustrated at over-reported Black crime and underreported police brutality — and hoped to change how Black Americans were represented onscreen.
WCIU-TV was wise enough to note the traveling caravan's increasing popularity and decided to put it on TV. There was certainly a market for it, as the only other show on TV made by Black creators for Black viewers was Soul! Airing in black and white, Soul Train premiered on Aug. 17, 1970, as a weekday variety program.
The show's premise was nothing new. Cornelius himself pitched Soul Train as the "American Bandstand of color." The fact that Black citizens were being represented onscreen as something other than comic relief, pimps, or criminals getting arrested on the news, however, was revolutionary.
"Watching my babysitter get the opportunity to go on Soul Train was like a dream come true for her because Soul Train was the biggest thing then for the Black community," recalled rapper Common. "It gave ordinary, everyday people an opportunity to express themselves. It showed us that we, too, have a place on TV."
Cornelius had become one of the first Black Americans to create, own, and produce his own TV show. Lines of aspiring youths eager for a chance circled the network building. Soul Train turned into a national show filmed in Los Angeles by 1971 — and premiered on Oct. 2.
Soul Train Dancers And Soul Train Fashion
Soul Train became unmissable appointment viewing and a weekly party for millions every Saturday. Each episode featured the talented "Soul Train Dancers" peppering the dance floor — and deciphering the identity of that week's musical guest from the jumbled up letters on the "Soul Train Scramble Board."
"All of the sudden on TV, I saw young Black kids around my age, doing what I loved to do best — dancing and looking good while doing it," said Soul Train Dancer Jeffrey Daniel. "Up until then when we were seen on TV we were either being chased by police, or selling drugs, or engaged in some floozy type of comedy.
"From that moment on, it was my lifetime ambition to be on that program."
Daniel was cast as a fan-favorite dancer and became a regular on the "Soul Train Line" which saw dancers stand opposite another in two lines and each get a moment to shine by dancing in the middle. While the taxing schedule required dancers to film a month's worth of episodes in two days, Daniel came prepared:
"When I'm looking back at the tapings, what really stands out to me are the colors. I miss those knit pants and the tweed shirts and those crazy patterns printed on them. I miss the striped socks and platform shoes. The clothes were so comfortable, colorful, and expressive. The fashion really shows the era."
Superstars soon clamored to be on the show. Aretha Franklin appeared at the height of her career. Stevie Wonder risked improvising a new song on stage while The Jackson 5 were practically regulars. From Al Green performing with a broken arm to David Bowie and Elton John, Soul Train took the nation by storm.
The show practically served as an audition tape for fellow Soul Train Dancer Rosie Perez, who would later be cast in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing and become a household name. Daniel himself, meanwhile, pioneered the backslide dance move — which Soul Train fan Michael Jackson turned into the moonwalk after having Daniel teach him.
"Soul Train was so personal to me — it started my whole career," said Daniel. "But more importantly, it was something that reflected young Black America."
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.