Chancellor of Soul's Chronicles-Journals Dedicated To The
Historical Preservation Of R&B, Pop and It's Artists and Music

Don Cornelius (The Story Of Soul Train)



If you ever wanted purchase a ticket on a funky train ride and travel to the ‘hippest’ place in America, get on board!  You're about to experience a world where there's plenty of great music and dancing. Brothers and Sisters, let's climb aboard the 'Sooooooul Train!!'

Throughout our musical travels, let's learn how this funky ride was created, through its creator who built this train ride of soul, Mr. Don Cornelius. Don originally from Chicago, worked as an insurance salesman in 1966. He envisioned himself as being a radio announcer and enrolled in broadcasting school, being warned that if he took the course, there would be no jobs available. With a family to support, Don took the chance and enrolled in morning classes while maintaining his regular job. Within a 3 month period, not only did he completed the courses, but was offered a position as a news announcer on Chicago's top AM radio station, WVON (Voice of the Negro), in 1967. During the same year, Don was offered another position as a disc jockey and became known to the community as the “Swing Man”, until 1970. Around this time, Don became frustrated of not being offered other top positions at station. He had the idea to pitch a daily black music dance show to a local TV station WCIU (Channel 26), where he also worked as a news commentary, across the board. The station managers liked the idea and gave it a shot. Don christened his new show ‘Soul Train’. He came up with the title originally from a concept he developed at WVON, where he hosted a traveling music show to five of the local schools in Chicago, over a two day period.

The first Soul Train pilot was shot in glorious black and white on April 17, 1970. The first artist to appear was Jerry Butler. It was instant success.  Don credits Jerry for much of the attention the show received. Its sponsors were “Joe Louis Milk", “Sears", “Wate-On", and “Coca-Cola". 

 In early 1971, Don wanted to syndicate the show around the country to a broader audience, so he traveled to California. He contacted Tom Kuhn of the law firm, Niefield, Paley &Kuhn. Tom was an accountant executive of the Johnson Products firm. He liked the Soul Train concept and the two of them began working towards syndicating the show. Mission Argyle Productions would syndicate the show and Don would become its producer. George Johnson, founder of Johnson Hair Care Products, would sponsor Soul Train, by airing most of his products such as “Afro-    Sheen" and” Ultra Sheen spray and hair grease etc. The first color televised taping took place at the Metromedia studio featuring artists such as, Gladys Knight &The Pips, Eddie Kendrick, in his solo debut and the Honey Cone. Mark Warren of TV’s Laugh In fame directed the show. 

Soul Train premiered on October 1971 and caught the country by storm!!  In New York, where I’m from, it was broadcasted on Metromedia television (Channel 5) at 11:00 AM on Saturday mornings and because of its popularity and high ratings, it was aired at 11:30 PM on Saturday evenings.  Soul Train was the most talked about dance show in the country. The opening theme was an old recording by saxophone great King Curtis entitled, “Hot Potatoes”, later re-titled “Soul Train” as a 45 single release on the Rampage label, by a group called the Ramrods in 1972.  Four years later, the Ramrods became the Rimshots having success on Sylvia Robinson's ‘Stang’ label, with their hit “Super Disco", in the spring of 1976.  Other major products such as,  " Coca-Cola" and "

Pepsi", would jump on the band wagon as sponsors of Soul Train as it's popularity began to propel in epic proportions. 

My favorite commercial was ‘Afro-Sheen’, where a Black reporter was at a local airport trying to get the scoop of a popular model whom coming home from a trip. While others were trying to get a story on her adventures, this particular reporter was so taken by the beauty of natural hair, he asked her how does she keep her hair so rich, so shiny, and together. Her statement was, “Why I use Afro-Sheen". The commercial ends with a memorable melodic jingle, “Beautiful people, use Afro-sheen".  

Soul Train featured another great concept of Don's called, “The Soul Train Line”. He incorporates the idea from various parties he attended in Chicago, as a teenager. Line dancing was known in Chicago's black community during the hey-day of the 50's and 60's. Don brought it to California and showed the kids how it was to be done in the show.  There's a great episode in 1973, where Mary Wilson of the Supremes, makes a cameo appearance and asked Don can she dance with him one day on the show. He then asks the kids can he join them on the Soul Train line and they affirmed, ”Yeah!" As the J.B's hit, “Doing It to Death" played in the background; Don and Mary would do an unforgettable stroll down the line together, as the kids cheered them on.  Many recordings plugged on the show became instant million sellers, creating celebrity status among the new artist appearances.  As the ratings continue to swell during the years of 1972 -73, Don was brilliant in marketing Soul Train by promoting a nationwide dance contest and releasing two compilation LP's on the Adam IV label. During his busy taping schedule, he found time to make a cameo appearance in the movie, “Cleopatra Jones" and host a half hour syndicated show entitled, "The Best of Soul Train".

As Don's popularity began to excel as the hippest MC on TV, there was an ugly rumor that spread around the country that he died from an overdose of drugs. It got so out of hand that he made an announcement on the show featuring  'The Spinners' that  'he was very much alive', and stated: 'I'm not dopey enough to put dope in my body and that I hope that puts end to all of the rumors being circulated!’

Towards the middle of 1973, a new theme was added to the show entitled, “TSOP” (The Sound of Philadelphia) sung by The Three Degrees, later featured on their 1975 LP, “International”. An instrumental version was released to the public in late 73 and hit No 1 on April 20 1974, on both the R&B and Pop Singles charts, winning a Grammy award, for Best Instrumental, in 1975.  Soul Train not only featured R&B artists but Pop stars began to appear on the show as well. When the hit song, “Bennie and the Jets”, began to receive airplay on Black stations across the country, Don asked Elton John for an appearance on the show in 1974 and was well received by the viewers. Elton stated, years later, that he was extremely overwhelmed by the reaction and was excited to be on the show. A year later, the same occurrence would happen to David Bowie when also asked to appear on Soul Train.


 In 1975, Don along with his partners, Dick Griffey and a popular concert / tour promoter named Clyde Wasson, formed the Soul Train label and signed a local group naming them, 'The Soul Train Gang'. They released their first single entitled, 'Soul Train 75'. Clyde was responsible for the signing all of the artists on the label including The Whispers, Shalamar, Sunbear, and Carrie Lucus, who would later marry and divorce Dick Griffey. Don departed from the label in 1978, with Dick Griffey now taking charge and changing the name from 'Soul Train' to 'Solar Records' (The Sound Of Los Angeles Records). Solar achieved multitude success defining the West Coast sound by 'putting it on the musical map'. None of this would have happened if it weren’t for Mr. Clyde Wasson. 'Thanks to you', Clyde.

Soul Train increased popularity in various countries, all over the world, including Japan. In 1985, Tribune Entertainment Co would become the new distributor for Soul Train. Two years later, the company would launch the Soul Train Awards in 1987 and in 1998, the Lady Soul Awards along with the Christmas Star Fest. Don was active behind the scenes of these successful shows and would sadly step down as the host of Soul Train during early 90's and oversee his Don Cornelius Productions.  While a few people tried to defer Don's dream in 1966, little did he know by talking that gamble, he would create one of the greatest dance shows in television history!

My fondest memories of Soul Train are waking up in the morning, rushing to the TV set in the living room and turning to Channel 5 at 11:00 AM, anticipating for my favorite artists to appear and seeing the kids, dance to the latest releases.  Don Cornelius will go down in music history as the key factor of exposing R&B music and it's artists, the way it should be represented.   Don, we love and thank you, 'Brother' for shaping and being a part of our musical lives and breaking a mold for upcoming artists that will grace future generations to come. Well that ought to hold you for while……….for NOW I wish you…love ……peace…and soooooooooooooooooul!!!!


                                                                        Mike Boone, (Chancellor of Soul)

                                                                                                 May 2004



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Author, Mike Boone, Chancellor of Soul –






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