In My Write Mind
5.25.2005

Set Up, Set Back: The Story of...Soul Train

Never before has one show had such a history. Thirty-four years. THIRTY-FOUR!!! And over the course of those three-plus decades, we've seen the good (the artists/dancers), the bad (the outfits/hairstyles) and the ugly (the last three hosts/the lip synching). It's been a wild ride, for sure. And throughout it all, the one consistent track that has kept people aboard the train has been the need. The need to be entertained on the weekends. The need to see "our folk" given ample air time. The need to see what NOT to wear outside your house. The need to see the proper formation of a Soul Train line.

Until now, that is. Sadly, over the past decade, Soul Train has become a parody of itself. The top-shelf talent of the 70s, 80s and early 90s has given way to little-known artists and second-tier rappers, all LIP SYNCHING!!! *sigh* to album tracks, giving Soul Train less credibility than a Corey Clark interview on ABC. That's not even to mention all that the show has done over the past ten years to openly campaign for the banishment of light-skinned brothers from television screens worldwide. It's just ain't right. In fact, it's been wrong for more than a minute.

In either case, it's definitely been a wild ride. But is it time for the Train to be officially and mercifully derailed?

Today, we take a look at the rise and fall, the ebb and flow, the yes and no...the Set UP and Set BACK of the self-proclaimed "hippest trip in America..." Ladies and Gentlemen, we bring you an IMWM exclusive:

The Story of Soul Train



*Cue T.S.O.P. theme music*



THE HISTORY

Back in 1971, D.on Corn.elius wanted that Dick Clark money. He saw the success that American Bandstand enjoyed and knew that he could take that idea to the 'hood and give the people what they wanted. To see black people on TV. So with some seed money from Sears Roebuck Company, he did the damn thing, producing a local Chicago show he called The Soul Train. He hosted it, picked the dancers, slept with the female soul singers, waxed the studio floors. The only thing he didn't do, apparently, is take diction classes. But no matter--he was making his dreams come true.

Then, in true Soul-Glo fashion, Afro-Sheen approached "The Don" with an offer that he couldn't refuse. They would be a sponsor of the show, thus getting hit off lovely with customers while providing product and dollars to the show. It was a marriage pomade in heaven. With this financial backing, the Soul Train accelerated quickly, moving to Hollywood and into syndication. Everybody and their mama wanted to be on the show. It was "practically a free ticket to R&B (and pop) success", according to the show's web site. The shows' first guests? Gladys Knight & the Pips, Eddie Kendricks, The Honey Cone and Bobby Hutton. The weeks that followed introduced us to legends-in-the-making such as the Staple Singers, Al Green, Bill Withers, Lou Rawls and Bobby Womack. (Who knew it would go from Bobby Womack to a Bobby WhoKnowsCrack?!?!?!)

In the words of Randy Jackson, Soul Train was da bomb, yo! Add in the dancers, who admittedly back then were a lot more tame and um, shall we say, colorfully costumed than the scantily-clad mamas we see today. But it worked! Kids and parents alike could be in their TV rooms literally cutting a rug while watching Junior Walker and the All-Stars, or work up a sweat dancing to the latest tune by The Emotions. It was must-see TV. And it would stay that way for more than twenty years. Black America was set up lovely.

THE RISE

To be clear, Do.n Cor.neliu.s was more wooden than a backyard deck during the summer. His movement, his "put-me-to-sleep" voice, his ridiculous questions...the stuff of Saturday Night Live sketches. But, it worked! People--artists and viewers alike--were comfortable with Uncle Don. That's it...it was like one of your uncles was hosting the show. So you felt equally embarrassed when he stumbled and proud when he got to shake the hands of your favorite artists. AND he got to hang out with the dancers?!?!? I had afro-envy. LOL Check out some of the show lineups from the 70s. This stuff is head-spinning, for real.

April 15, 1972--The Isley Brothers, Love Unlimited, Millie Jackson
October 21, 1972--Gladys Knight & the Pips, O'Jays
February 16, 1974--Marvin Gaye, The Whispers
November 15, 1975--War, The Main Ingredient
October 1, 1977--The Emotions, Maze feat. Frankie Beverly
November 15, 1980--Shalamar, Mtume
May 29, 1982--Patrice Rushen, Cameo

The lists go on and on. I grew up with all of these artists. I grew up with this show. Throw in regular appearances by The Jackson Five, Rick James, Deneice Williams, Smokey Robinson, Atlantic Starr and Debarge...Lawd. EVERY soul artist has been on Soul Train at least once. Which means we got to see them perform in living color way before music videos were born. Soul Train was definitely (pardon the pun) on the right track. Throw in the Sprite Scramble Board with the ridiculously easy answers, the world-famous Soul Train line (where the amount of splits rivaled that of Hollywood marriages), the dancers mugging for the camera while doing some of the worst moves this side of Elaine Benes...and the lip synching. Can I emphasize ENOUGH how unneccesary this was? I really would like to sit down with Don one day and ask him WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!! I always wanted to see my favorite artist in concert form, not jumping around the stage mouthing the words to the tapes I could play at home. It's mind-boggling at best. But still, I looked forward to each week.

How could a show that had soooooo much momentum go so horribly wrong? Impossible, right? Wrong. Sadly, wrong.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

With the 80s came the invention and onslaught of the music video. Even black people were getting their shine on with the emergence of new cable channel BET *retch*. It didn't STOP Soul Train from attracting talent, but seriously, if you had the choice of watching artists lip synch to story lines as opposed to lip synching with a fake smile on their faces on a soundstage, which would you choose? Exactly. And with the birth of rap, Soul Train tried earnestly to incorporate the new genre into its content. BIG mistake. I wasn't trying to see The Fat Boys lip synching!!! I could do that in front of my mirror!

Don't get it twisted...the artists still came. The 80s introduced us to New Edition, who during one stretch in the mid-80s appeared on the show seemingly every other week. And The Don didn't discriminate. Culture Club, Teena Marie, Sheena Easton and Elton John all got shine on the Soul Train stage. They had soul. With 1987 came the first ever Soul Train Music Awards show, a tradition that is loosely followed to this day. In fact, I think the ONLY thing that links it to the original is that it still airs in March. That's it.

Then came the 90s and the single-most "beautiful" episode in the history of the show. May 19, 1990. The day that the guests were *deep breath* Tyler Collins and En Vogue. FIVE BEAUTIFUL WOMEN for an entire hour!!!! I can still remember hyperventilating behind that one. Lawd. Good times! Soul Train was STILL da shit.

Then...it happened. The end of Soul Train as we all knew it. In fact, let's start a new section right about here.

THE END

The year was 1992 A.D. in the year of our Lawd. The Don, everybody's senile uncle, who had helmed the show from its inception all the way through Season 27, stepped down as host. Afros everywhere were at half-mast. He was comfortable. He was unintentionally funny. He was, dare I say, an institution.

But fret not, you say? The show was always about the music and it could survive a change of hosts, you counter?

Yeah...OK. Notsomuch.

Season 28 saw the deplorable Mystro Clark take over for The Don. From the despicable suits to the "sufferin' succatash" lisp, it was a *ahem* train wreck. And no one in control saw this. This dude kept the job for TWO YEARS!!!! He finally got let go. And you would think that an upgrade would be on the way, right? RIGHT? *sigh* Ladies and Gentlemen...Shemar Moore. The dude wore less clothes than the female dancers, pranced around trying to mack four at a time, and wore shades to mask the fact that he was reading EVERYTHING directly from the cue cards. And badly, at that. He lasted for FOUR YEARS!!! With Shemar, you either loved him or hated him. I'ma let you guess which side of the fence I fell on. Blech!

Some cat named Dorien Gregory is the host now. Along with the other replacements, he's lightskinned. I cover my face at the mention of this for fear that I would ever be lumped in with these losers. They've set back our movement "light" years. Slave owners are seeing video of this and kicking us back into the fields. I burn in the sun! DAMN YOU SHEDORISTRO!!! (That's their names combined...LOL)

Truthfully, I don't think I've watched a full episode since The Don left. Clearly, the show has seen better days, like a Dianne Reeves song. LOL The hosts have been horrible. The talent has dropped off significantly. I swear to you, I just looked at who's scheduled to perform on the June 4, 2005 show...*deep breath*...Mike Jones, Corey Clark and a Ciara music video. COREY CLARK?!?!?!? WTH?!?!? And now they play music videos. What, Omarion's little brother Ohellno wasn't available? I hear his birth video is HOT. *shudder*

THIS is how far Soul Train has fallen off. It's been over to me ever since The Don stepped down. Kaput. The pits. Somebody pass the shotgun so we can put it out of its misery. What started out as the hippest trip in America is now, sadly, the arthritic hip that trips over its own beard. And I hate that.

Soul Train was born the same year as me. So we've always had a bond. I've watched it forever. Now that it's turned into a shell of its former self, it makes me realize just how horrible the music industry is. How lacking in soul it's become. Soul Train couldn't be further off track. Derailed even.

Just like America did to us, we as black people have been set up, and now set back. When will we ever learn? *shaking my head*

I will now go hang myself. Choo choo, bitches.

scribbled by Will at 5/25/2005 09:25:00 AM
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Mind Droppings

I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. (Joan Didion)



The Write One


Will. Lefty. Since Summer 1971.
Over the next six months, I'll be saying some hellos, some goodbyes. Living, laughing, growing. Don't.miss.a.word.
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