"Soul Train" in the spotlight with new book, broadway plans

Erick Johnson | 5/8/2014, 9 a.m.

Saturday mornings in front of the tube in the 1970s and ‘80s was the place to be for millions of Blacks wanting to learn funky dance moves like "the robot" or "the bump". After devouring breakfast cereal and watching your cartoons or pro-wrestling, a flip of the dial would bring one to that channel to begin an hour-long lesson of soul, fashion and dance.

The show began with its signature animated train — a funky, pulsing engine grooving down inner-city elevated tracks (and later, around the world), puffing out rainbow-colored smoke. Then a high-pitched voice screamed out the words you'd waited all week to hear: "It's the Sooooouuullll Traaaaaiiiiiinnnn!"

Enter dapper host Don Cornelius, the soulful impresario who would showcase live performances of musical artists ranging from basso-voiced R&B crooner Barry White to hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow, all of whom would come to define the ever-changing sound of Black America — and thus, by extension, all of America. Cornelius hosted the show from 1971 to 1993. From there, he served as a behind-the-scenes facilitator for the show up until its cancellation in 2006. Soul Train still can be seen in syndication in many television markets on Saturday mornings at 11 a.m.

Cornelius died in January 2012, but his pioneering show lives on with a new book and plans to put the Soul Train under the big lights in New York.

As cultural critic and author Nelson George points out in his new book, The Hippest Trip in America, the syndicated show did more than introduce TV audiences to the African-American soul, funk, disco and rap musicians of the day. The "Black American Bandstand" (a term Cornelius viewed as both an insult and a compliment) served as a global ambassador of Black culture, style and dance, spreading the aesthetic and sensibility of Southern California's African-American community one TV set at a time.

Soul Train is also on track for the big lights as stage and film producer Matthew Weaver prepares to turn it into a broadway show. Weaver recently acquired the theatrical stage rights to the TV show, hoping the production will once again excite old and new fans of all ages. Weaver is behind the hit Broadway show, Rock of Ages.

Weaver recalled growing up in New York and watching Soul Train every Saturday morning, mesmerized by the dance, fashion and music.

"I’m nervous and I’m humbled and I’m excited,” said Weaver, who heads the production company MediaWeaver Entertainment. “I do think we’re the right people to do it because I think it’s got to have that spirit of Rock of Ages, which is part old-fashioned musical but also part party.” 

For many, it was time to dance and sing when the signature animated Soul Train chugged across the TV screen. The show provided a national, weekly showcase for R&B artists,

Black culture and fashion, and gave advertisers an entree to the Black consumer market. It later had to compete with video shows on BET that broadcast Black artists and eventually MTV and VH-1. 

The TV show featured such acts as James Brown, Al Green, Ike and Tina Turner, Hall & Oates, Donna Summer, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Whitney Houston, David Bowie, Prince, Run D.M.C. and Destiny’s Child during its 35-year run. Moves that Soul Train dancers developed spread nationwide. 

Don Cornelius started the show in 1970 in Chicago and served as its host until 1993. It aired in syndication from 1971 until 2006 and spun off an awards show that is still aired. Cornelius killed himself in 2012. 

Weaver plans to next hire a writer and get music rights. His only timeframe for the stage is “when the story’s right.”

With 35 years of music on Soul Train, Weaver has plenty of song possibilities, depending on what the final story is. But he’s hopeful he can build a powerful score.

“To me, that’s the heart of Soul Train – a great story and great characters. The music will be great, the fashion will be great, the ambiance, the vibe. But if you don’t have a good story, none of that means anything,” said Weaver.