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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Riding Soul Train in the Seventies

In memory of the late Don Cornelius, we present this snapshot of TV's Soul Train in its mid-'70s pomp. Mick Farren was reporting from L.A. for New Musical Express in January 1975——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

There are three major US TV shows. Don Kirshner's In Concert shows, Midnight Special and Soul Train. Of the three, Soul Train is by far the most dynamic and exciting, although all three make [Britain's] Top of the Pops and Old Grey Whistle Test look stale, tired and amateurish.

Soul Train is the only solid, networked black music TV in the world. It is brought in on a comparatively low budget; far lower, in fact, than that for TOTP. It does, however, seem to have discovered a formula, for instant energy that is rarely duplicated on television.

A lot of it is down to the studio audience of young, immaculately dressed black teenagers who vie for the chance to display their dancing prowess on camera.

The bulk of Soul Train is put together at a live taping that happens every Saturday and Sunday at KTTV studios on L.A.'s Sunset Boulevard. In many ways it resembles the old days of Ready Steady Go. The kids are strictly auditioned for appearance and dancing skills, and the lucky ones get tickets for a maximum of two shows. Although none of the kids are paid for their appearances on the show, the competition is fierce; dancing on Soul Train is the ultimate status symbol among the hip black youth of Los Angeles.

The audience moves into the studio at around ten thirty in the morning and stay until eight or nine at night. A box lunch is served around two in the afternoon, and they are expected to remain alert and enthusiastic during the whole ten-hour session.

Going to Soul Train's own unique go-go is to participate in both a dance contest and a fashion show. The audience are acutely aware that they are going to be seen by literally millions of their peers throughout the country, and this awareness produces some dazzling effects.

An incredibly beautiful, tall slim girl drifts by. She has a huge afro, skin tight Iron Boy overalls, elaborate platforms and pounds of Navajo silver and turquoise jewellery. Her friend is encased in the full Marilyn Monroe black sequined sheath dress drag and a blonde wig that contrasts stunningly with her light brown skin and black lipstick. They stop and chat with an almost executive a looking boy. He wears a collar, tie and very English cut suit, wide lapels, narrow shoulders and a nipped in waist. His whole images is careful except that the suit is a flaming orange, his shirt a pale lemon yellow, and his tie a riot of red William Morris. The profusion of style variations is so fast and intense that it's almost like being taken back to the heady days of high mod in London.

Many of the kids who get regularly selected for the show come either as partners or even teams, so elaborate dance routines can be worked out and practiced in advance. There seems to be a solid ritual in the dance partner situation. Partners are exchanged and deserted throughout the long waits between shots, and noisy altercations take place in front of groups of spectators who laugh at the show and shout encouragement.

The wildness stops dead when taping starts again. Madison Cole, the authoritarian floor manager, yells, and the kids move quickly back to their places. Madison controls the audience with an iron hand. He ensures that the applause on every take in uniform and enthusiastic. His orders are crisp, to the point, and delivered with the air of a man who expects to be instantly obeyed.

"Applause, enthusiastic, Soul Train applause. I don't want to hear no shouting, just applause. Okay... three, two, one...applause."

An early appearance of Carl Douglas miming to 'Kung Fu Fighting' has left the kids in a Bruce Lee mood. An outbreak of martial arts display round the stage is quickly quelled.

"Okay, settle, no punching round the stage. Everyone dancing."

Everyone dances. There is no question of talking back to Madison if you want to get on the show again.

The manipulation of the audience is a very essential part of the show's success. They are thrown into competition with each other and conditioned to strive for excellence — such a contrast to the bored, listless teenagers who lump themselves about on TOTP.

On Soul Train the audience is used as an energy source. They provide a constant supply of very immediate visuals, and a responsive focus for the performers to work at. It brings out the best of the show's limited resources rather than settling for the mediocrity that seems to be so often the case in our own home grown TV rock shows.

The studio facilities for making ST are not extensive, and continuity is hardly assisted by the universal American system of stopping for a commercial break every seven or eight minutes. They use a painfully simple, three-camera technique, two on the floor, and one on a small mobile crane. The acts all appear on a single stage, while link man Don Cornelius works from his own small rostrum. The key to the way the show gets across is nit in its studio set up, but in the way that, wherever the camera points, there is always something going on.

Cornelius is a quiet, almost conservative figure among all the sparkling kids. His expensive, sharply cut suits seem more suited to a hip young lawyer than the anchorman for the world's leading TV soul show. Don Cornelius, however, is much more than just an anchorman. Soul Train is his brainchild. He brought it into the world, he writes it, he produces it and watches over the proceedings like an anxious mother. His staff talk about him in almost reverent tones. He is always referred to as Mr. Cornelius, and yet, on the set, he is a quiet, self-effacing figure except when on camera. Even then his style is a low key one that contrasts well with the energy of the audience. He has none of the abrasive raucousness of Wolfman Jack who hosts Midnight Special, Soul Train's major rival.

Cornelius was originally a DJ on a Chicago radio station. He was totally dissatisfied with the way that the black audience was catered for by television. There were shows about blacks, but precious few for them. Those that did exist were either condescending or infantile. Cornelius decided that things had to be changed, and mooted the idea of a black music TV show.

Soul Train first saw the light in 1970. its initial airing was in the Chicago area, then gradually it was picked up by other stations in other cities. Among the first were Detroit and Washington, both with huge black populations. By 1973 the show was syndicated out to over a hundred TV stations and Cornelius moved his whole operation to Los Angeles, the undisputed TV capital of the USA. Despite its apparent success, however, the networks still seem reluctant to pick up the programme for nationwide transmission.

Back at the KTTV studio, the incredible Minnie Riperton has taped her two songs and it's the turn of the Dynamic Superiors, a lightweight, rather limp wrested bunch of third generation Miracles copyists. They prance through a mimed version of their minor hit 'Shoe-Shoe Shine', do a single retake and split. At the end of the performance the kids have to be goaded into thunderous applause by the untiring Madison Cole.

There is a delay while the stage is set for Jose Feliciano. Box lunches are handed out to the audience and the shuck and jive starts up again as friends greet friends with elaborate soul brother handshakes. Mastering the latest handshake is as important as snappy dance steps or sharp threads.

Feliciano is led on. A tiny, almost dwarflike figure between tow huge bodyguards. He is set in place on a stool almost like a doll's, and swiftly puts down takes of 'Gypsy', Stevie Wonder's 'Golden Lady', and a snatch of the Chico and the Man theme. There is something very eerie about the way his sightless eyes behind huge dark glasses stare fixedly over the heads of the audience; nothing you can quite put your finger on, just a vague feeling of discomfort.

Feliciano hardly goes over a storm with the kids. Madison has to work overtime in order to make them appear anything but uninterested. Feliciano has obviously been booked to please the viewers in the suburbs rather than these downtown Hollywood hipsters.

Finally he is led away, and another wait starts while the set is rearranged for the Isley Brothers. The break is a long one. The Isley Brothers are performing live, and all their gear has to be hauled into the studio. The kids start to get impatient, but an impromptu kung fu display is staged by one particular group who stand out as very definite Watts street punks among the other, more affluent, middle class teenagers. Nobody interferes with them as long as they stay clear of the equipment.

The Isleys are effortlessly professional. While the band tunes and runs thorough a sound check, they move around the audience, cracking jokes and posing for photographs (the majority of the kids seem to pack an Instamatic in their back pockets). For the Isleys it's al, part of the job; another day another dollar.

When the cameras are finally on them they snap into instant funk. It is as though they have conscious control over their sweat glands. One minute they look like solid black businessmen coasting down to a prosperous middle age. Yet, when the red light goes on top of the camera they snap into action, sweating and getting down with surgical precision.

They tape three songs, the final one being their comeback hit 'Who's That Lady'. In each song they give ample space for solos by their new Hendrix look-alike guitar player. The Isleys are very adept at keeping up with the times.

After the songs are recorded to everyone's satisfaction, there is a question and answer interval conducted by Don Cornelius. The audience group around the state and, on cue. Ask simple questions of the how long-have-you-been-in-show-business or what-was-the-greatest-thrill-of-your-career variety. It is, however, an interesting exercise in integrating the audience and the performers.

In fact, the whole of Soul Train us an interesting exercise. The camera work may at times be banal, and the budget only a fraction of what is spent on TOTP, but they have hit on a formula for generating energy on the studio floor in a way that maximizes the excitement, but never lets it run away with itself. It's the most refreshingly alive TV rock presentation since Ready Steady Go.

We are unlikely ever to see the show in Britain. I suspect one reason for that is that if it was shown, it would place a dynamic and unwelcome firework under the butts of the dead heads who hack out our own sparse telly rock.

Read more articles on soul, funk and vintage music television at Rock's Backpages. 20,000 pieces by the greatest writers from the finest rock publications of the last 50 years.