A few days before the release of The Best of Soul Train DVD set Soul Train founder, creator and impresario Don Cornelius was asked what it was that made Soul Train the hit that was. Cornelius didn’t hesitate, “That was the period when soul music grew up.”
Cornelius could have added one more thing to his on-point observation for the reason for the show’s success. It was also the music that I, and many other blacks, grew up with. It was virtually a black household ritual to do one of two things when Saturday rolled around and it was Soul Train time. One was to sway, swoon, and sing the lyrics belted out by the parade of R&B legends and top hit artists, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, and the Four Tops who regularly turned up on the show.
The other ritual was to dance, or more likely stumble around the living room, trying to do our best imitation of the latest dance steps displayed by the show’s perpetual motion gyrating couples. Then there was the signature Soul Train circle dance line. Then and now there isn’t a party, dance, or social that you can go to without a group of partygoers breaking into the Soul Train circle line. Even if you had two left feet, the spontaneity, gaiety, joy, and liberating feeling, that you got from strutting your stuff, or just making a fool of yourself as you paraded down the center of the circle line was irresistible and infectious.
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But it wasn’t all song and dance on Soul Train. To drive home the point that this was a unique product of the African-American experience Cornelius managed to slip into the show’s format, the “Soul Train Scramble Board.” Two dancers had sixty seconds to unscramble a set of letters which was not limited to trying to figure out the name of that show’s performer but also a famed African-American historical figure. The man really knew who to educate an audience on our history literally without missing a beat.
It didn’t take long for the ritual watch and imitate Soul Train groove that gripped black America to become America’s ritual. Cornelius observed “Record stores were cropping up and Motown emerged to allow the music to cross over to the point where all cultures were listening to soul music.” That cross over was due to Soul Train. It made black music and dance not only respectable but virtually mandatory for non-black kids and adults to watch and try to imitate. The Soul Train happy time infection spread everywhere. It was just simply too much pure unadulterated fun to watch, sing and dance along with the couples on the show that seemed to render race for the moment a non sequitur.
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