by the People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey
Soul Train has been an intrinsic part of the Black experience in the United States for generations, be it that my parents and I grew up off of it, watching it religiously every Saturday morning. In my early years, it was the only show that I would turn off cartoons and wrestling for.
The dancers on Soul Train were pioneering pop culture icons. The clothes worn on the show were stunning for the times, and the performers were the most popular people in Black music.
“Love, Peace, and Soul” by the award-winning writer and WPFW broadcaster Ericka Blount is a documented history of one of the most important Black TV shows to appear on television in the United States, the show that helped to launch and sustain the careers of such musical giants as James Brown, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Ike and Tina, Aretha Franklin and more. I am proud to bring you author Ericka Blount in her own words …
M.O.I. JR: What inspired you to write “Love, Peace, and Soul,” a book about the legendary show Soul Train? What was the process in you getting access to some of the archival footage and getting people to open up about their experiences?
Ericka Blount: There were a few reasons I decided to write the book. The first was really just that I was a fan as a kid. I grew up in a household where music was played all day long. My father worked at a record store and collected records and later worked at a bookstore, so we had plenty of books. Later he got a job as a stage hand and we sometimes got the chance to work the spotlight for concerts. I remember helping him work Parliament-Funkadelic.
Eventually he had his own show on WPFW where he played music from all genres every week. We always had a leg up on our peers musically. My family is from New York and my parents partied at the Garage in NY, so we would get the 12-inch dance records first. We heard early hip-hop records like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.
Soul Train was an extension of that musical landscape. Every Saturday my sister and I sat in front of the television and watched what we viewed as a concert and we mimicked dance moves. As a music and culture journalist as an adult, I wanted to find out what happened to the show. What happened to some of my favorite dancers?
That’s where I began, by finding some of those dancers – Damita Jo Freeman, Pat Davis, Cheryl Song. And then I discovered this rich history about the show, about Don Cornelius’ owning the show and it being the longest first-run show in history. And I wondered how he was able to do that as a Black man in Hollywood.
I discovered this rich history about the show, about Don Cornelius’ owning the show and it being the longest first-run show in history. And I wondered how he was able to do that as a Black man in Hollywood.
But I didn’t want to just tell the story about the show. I also wanted to contextualize it with the time period it was born and grew into. I find myself often trying to explain to my kids things that we were excited about as kids, like what a big deal it was to have Eddie Murphy saying some of the things he did on Saturday Night Live when I was growing up. But it’s difficult to explain that without having grown up in that time period.
So I chose to recreate the scenes in a narrative of what happened with Soul Train as it actually happened. I wanted to give it context with the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath, the Kerner Commission report, the conditions that created the birth of hip-hop, MTV, BET and all the other competitors Soul Train eventually faced. I very much wanted to make it a story – a behind-the-scenes juicy one at that – not just give a critical history of the show.
Getting people to open up was more difficult than I anticipated. About halfway through the research and interviewing, Don Cornelius committed suicide and people became very protective, which I can’t blame anyone for. But I was able to eventually get people to open up. Many of us are reluctant to give interviews because we have so often been misquoted or not treated fairly in the media. I understand that. So it usually takes a long time to build trust. But I am used to that as a journalist.
Many of us are reluctant to give interviews because we have so often been misquoted or not treated fairly in the media. I understand that. So it usually takes a long time to build trust. But I am used to that as a journalist.
M.O.I. JR: How did you know what direction you wanted to take your book?
Ericka Blount: I knew that the music would guide the story. So I wanted to tell the story of the transformation of music through the show and American history. I started out in Chicago with Don Cornelius’ story and the live show and the rich music of Chicago as the backdrop – Chess Records, WVON, the Black deejay culture – and brought the journey all the way to 2006, soul, funk, disco, through shows like the hip-hop version of Soul Train, Graffiti Rock, until the end and the eventual decline of the show, the music, and eventually Don Cornelius.
M.O.I. JR: Early on, according to your book, there were two different versions of Soul Train, one in L.A. and one in Chicago. What role did they play in making Soul Train a national phenomenon?
Ericka Blount: Yes, the Chicago version preceded the national L.A. version. But eventually the national show and the local Chicago show were running concurrently for nearly six years with Don Cornelius going back and forth between the two shows. The Chicago version was black and white and on a local UHF station with a tiny set so small that kids would literally throw up because it would get so hot. It was modest, but it featured the best musicians in the business and some of the best dancers in the clubs in Chicago.
WVON radio, where Don Cornelius worked as a news reader and an occasional deejay, was probably the most important Black-oriented station at the time – both for the music and their Civil Rights activism. So he made the connections. On the local version, he gave a young Rev. Jesse Jackson a platform for Operation Breadbasket. Curtis Mayfield, Tyrone Davis, Jerry Butler, The Emotions performed regularly on the show.
There were local Black dance shows in almost every major city. But Cornelius created a pilot for his local show and shopped it nationally. The networks rejected it so he opted for syndication. In some markets Soul Train aired very late at night, which I didn’t know. They got a really well produced show at a cheap price.
M.O.I. JR: In the book, Don Cornelius is portrayed as a very complex man. On one hand, he didn’t pay the Soul Train dancers, who were the life of the show and, on the other hand, your writings cast him as a Black television and entertainment pioneer. After doing all of this research, how do you view him after the publication of your book?
Ericka Blount: Great question. I think he definitely had some serious demons dating back to childhood – some things about his childhood were told to me off the record. You have to remember he was doing something in television that no one had done before – at least not with the longevity he was able to maintain. He was also THE MAN for a long time because of it – dating beautiful women, living a lavish lifestyle. It’s hard to come down from that.
I think maybe the burden of celebrity may have affected his psyche. The persona he created for the show was not the actual Don Cornelius, and that persona – extra cool, calm and collected – seemed to create a distance between him and the world. I think he suffered the way many celebrities do who are more concerned with maintaining an image and success than their spiritual well-being.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk a little bit about the media war that was going on between American Bandstand and Dick Clark, and Soul Train and Don Cornelius? How do you think that that war ultimately affected Soul Train?
Ericka Blount: Yes, I talk a bit early on about how Dick Clark was courting Don Cornelius to buy the local version of the show, which was pretty cheesy in comparison to what the national show became. Don Cornelius was smart enough to know he had a good thing and he would make more money in the long run if it stayed under his ownership. He was very protective of the brand.
Dick Clark was courting Don Cornelius to buy the local version of the show. Don Cornelius was smart enough to know he had a good thing and he would make more money in the long run if it stayed under his ownership.
Later on Dick Clark struck back by starting his own version of Soul Train he entitled Soul Unlimited, featuring deejay Buster Jones, a Black deejay, Black artists and musicians and Black dancers. Though the show didn’t have the cool factor of Soul Train, Don Cornelius couldn’t compete with a show that was on a network station. Cornelius coordinated with Jesse Jackson and Clarence Avant and they rallied executives in the television industry. I can’t say everything because it’s in the book.
M.O.I. JR: Rosie Perez, Vivica Fox and Rerun of “What’s Happenin’” all started off as Soul Train dancers, and you also talked about Michael Jackson being mentored by the show’s dancers early on in his career, although they are rarely talked about nowadays. What has their lasting impact been on pop culture and dance around the world?
Ericka Blount: Yes, some of the most interesting stories for me came from the dancers. Rosie Perez went on to dance in movies like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and on television “In Living Color.” Vivica Fox continues to act. Patrice Rushen, who started out as a teenage dancer on the show, is, well, Patrice Rushen. And Fred Berry, also known as Rerun or “Mr. Penguin,” went on to star on the show “What’s Happenin’.”
The dancers had a worldwide impact. Damita Jo danced for the Queen of England alongside Rudolf Nureyev, and she choreographed for Mick Jagger and Cher. Fred Astaire said on 60 Minutes that he watched Soul Train to learn dance moves. The dancers made the show.
The dancers had a worldwide impact. Damita Jo danced for the Queen of England alongside Rudolf Nureyev, and she choreographed for Mick Jagger and Cher. Fred Astaire said on 60 Minutes that he watched Soul Train to learn dance moves.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk about why big artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, who wanted to cross over, avoided Soul Train, while on the other hand big white artists like Elton John were featured on the show?
Ericka Blount: Yes, I thought that was very interesting. They didn’t want to be pigeonholed as Black artists, which, sad to say, in some ways worked. What catapulted Michael Jackson back into the mainstream was his Motown 25 debut. Michael Jackson was reticent about doing any media during and post “Off the Wall” until the debut of “Thriller.”
Prince did not appear on Soul Train until “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” a single that none of the major labels would touch. They both became bigger than Soul Train, but imagine what it would have done for the show if at the height of their success they insisted on performing with an exclusive contract on Soul Train.
Don Cornelius talked about how many of the artists that he put on, once they got their foot in the door and an entryway into the mainstream, they wouldn’t return his calls. You can’t blame them for wanting to reach a wider audience, but Soul Train was still a viable vehicle to do that.
Don Cornelius talked about how many of the artists that he put on, once they got their foot in the door and an entryway into the mainstream, they wouldn’t return his calls.
There were white artists that came on the show in hopes of gaining a Black audience – like David Bowie, Gino Vanelli and Captain and Tennille. And there were just as many white people watching Soul Train as there were Black people. It reminds me of the latest Kanye rant about wanting to get a place at the table with people that don’t accept you. I don’t have the answers.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk about how Don Cornelius’ relationships with Black entertainers allowed him to consistently book top-notch artists? Can you talk specifically about his relationships with James Brown and Barry White?
Ericka Blount: Yes, he was very close with James Brown and by extension was introduced to people like Al Sharpton. He and James Brown argued like brothers, but they respected each other. There’s a funny sequence that is relayed in the documentary, where James comes to the set and is so impressed by the quality of the production he can’t believe it’s just one Black person running the whole show, and he keeps asking Don Cornelius, “But who’s really behind you on this?” And Cornelius keeps answering, “It’s just me.”
James Brown comes to the set and is so impressed by the quality of the production he can’t believe it’s just one Black person running the whole show, and he keeps asking Don Cornelius, “But who’s really behind you on this?” And Cornelius keeps answering, “It’s just me.”
Don Cornelius allowed him on the show several times and to speak about what was going on politically. James Brown talks on one episode about his affiliation with the Republican Party. James Brown also ended up taking some of the Soul Train dancers on tour.
Barry White was so close with him that White’s kids referred to him as “Uncle Don.” Don Cornelius filmed an entire episode of Soul Train at White’s 2.5-acre mansion. His relationships with artists like Marvin Gaye extended outside of the show, so he was able to ask them really good questions on the air.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk about what you think Soul Train’s impact has been on U.S. television, be it that it was the predecessor to MTV and Yo MTV Raps specifically?
Ericka Blount: Soul Train paved the way for many shows that came after it and even for the Black-oriented networks that took it one step further, like BET and TV One. At the time it was really the only Black-oriented music program on television that was owned by a Black man. It lasted for 35 seasons and became the longest running first-run show in history.
Soul Train paved the way for many shows that came after it and even for the Black-oriented networks that took it one step further, like BET and TV One. At the time it was really the only Black-oriented music program on television that was owned by a Black man. It lasted for 35 seasons and became the longest running first-run show in history.
Everybody who came after owes Soul Train for their place in history. When MTV came on the scene, they weren’t playing Black music. Rick James famously protested when they refused to play “Super Freak” – which incidentally Soul Train dancer Cheryl Song danced in the music video. David Bowie spoke about their lack of representation of Black artists in interviews. This is in 1981. MTV blew up when they finally acquiesced to play “Billie Jean,” then “Beat It” and then “Thriller,” which launched them and MJ into the stratosphere.
M.O.I. JR: What is the story behind Don Cornelius’ suicide?
Ericka Blount: Ericka Blount: That’s a very long story that’s in the book. A very sad one that in some ways speaks to how much we value youth in this country.
M.O.I. JR: Who owns Soul Train now? And what is the future of this legendary company?
Ericka Blount: Ericka Blount: Soul Train Holdings, LLC. They have plans to revive the show, with Nick Cannon as the host on a network and I am told it’s in production now.
M.O.I. JR: Are you working on any more books?
Ericka Blount: Yes, just finished a proposal on another one. And have an idea for another one that is television related.
M.O.I. JR: How do people keep up with you?
Ericka Blount: By email it’s email@example.com. Or on twitter @erickablount. The book has a fan page @facebook/lovepeaceandsoul. Thank you!
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.