Tag Archives: Johnson Products

Don Cornelius: made Soul a household name.

One of the most amazing things about the life of Don Cornelius (and to be clear, this post is about his life… not his death) is the trajectory of his rise to prominence as an ambassador of Soul.

Starting out as a radio journalist here on Chicago’s WVON in the early 1960s, he built important relationships with both Chicago music stars and National acts.  These relationships would prove invaluable later.

When Soul Train launched in 1970 here in Chicago, voiceover work was by Joe Cobb (another WVON radio personality), who continued to be “the voice of Soul Train” for many years along with another Chicago radio legend: Sid McCoy. Cobb was the voice that called out “Sooooooooul Train” on each episode. One more Chicago connection: the first Soul Train theme song was a funky instrumental called “Soultrain” that was by an outfit called the Ramrods; and the song that took viewers to commercial breaks was “Familiar Footsteps”, a deep, doo-wop drenched slow jam by Chicago’s Gene Chandler.

Don Cornelius later expressed regret about the second (most famous) theme song: “TSOP” by Philadelphia’s MFSB. Gamble and Huff related that they worked on the song specifically for the show, and asked Don if he had a request for the song’s title. He didn’t. The song went on to sell over a million copies.

Initially, the show aired on Channel 26 WCIU, and an early sponsor was Joe Louis Milk. For the first episode, Don Cornelius put up $400 of his own money; but he soon landed the most famous sponsor of Soul Train’s 35 year run: Johnson Products, a quintessentially Chicago Based black business behemoth, and the makers of Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen.

The following year, the show’s production was moved out to Los Angeles, but an additional program called Soul Train Local continued to air on WCIU here in Chicago throughout the 1970s. For more on this, click here.

Don Cornelius was more than a television host, he was a producer and an entrepreneur who broadcast visions of Soul to Omaha, Nebraska, Hartford, Connecticut, and all points in between. Soul Train was the conduit that transmitted the music of lesser known artists (such as Chicago’s own Brighter Side of Darkness) to a much wider audience.

Once called a “time capsule” of Soul Music and Culture by Spike Lee, the show also documented beautiful intimate moments with superstars (such as the 1979 appearance of Aretha Franklin [pictured above] during which she played the piano and sang amidst a circle of fans). Another such moment with Aretha Franklin (a frequent guest on the show) involved Aretha and Smokey Robinson sitting at the piano, reflecting on their early days in Detroit. They even sang the Miracles’ classic “Ooh Baby Baby” together.

Soul Train also documented electrifying live performances (no, not all Soul Train performances were lip-synced) by artists like Sly Stone, James Brown, and Al Green.

In short, Don Cornelius was a visionary who created a show unlike any before (or since). It proved that there was an audience for what was once considered an unprofitable niche market. What many didn’t realize is the ultimate impact of Don Cornelius’ creation. He made Soul a Household Name.

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Chicago: in all its fried, dyed, laid-to-the-side (or perhaps natural) glory.

I was watching my “Best of Soul Train” DVD box-set this weekend (of course), which includes tons of original TV spots for Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen (two black haircare lines manufactured by Chicago’s own Johnson Products). Iconic brands, to be sure. During the glory days of Black Haircare manufacture in Chicago (roughly the late 1960s through the 1970s), Johnson Products’ annual sales were over $10 million. During the 1970s, as sales expanded even further, Johnson Products ranked as the largest African American–owned manufacturing company in the nation. In those heady days, alongside Johnson Products, the illustrious Soft Sheen and other smaller firms also called the Windy City home.

Unfortunately, Johnson Products (the first minority firm to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange) was sold to Proctor and Gamble, but was recently acquired by a black firm based in Dallas.

Sadder still, Soft Sheen which had about 400 employees in the Chicago area and $100 million in annual sales by the mid-1990s, was purchased by L’Oreal in the late 1990s, and a newly built manufacturing plant on 87th Street was shut down soon after. The Company’s headquarters were shifted elsewhere.

Below, Sheila Hutchinson (the lead vocalist from the Emotions [who are also from Chicago]) sings an old Soft Sheen jingle called “Brand New You in ’82”. Nearly thirty years old, the record was released as a promotion on Soft Sheen Records. The song sounds like some lost Emotions or perhaps Earth, Wind, & Fire number.  Personally, it makes me feel like I’m ready to face 1982, too.  Reaganomics… here I come! Jive on!


Iconic Johnson Hair Products back in Black Hands….

Johnson Products started a half-century ago in Chicago as an innovator in black hair care. The black-owned business sold to a white company (Proctor & Gamble), but it’s now back in black hands…. from Chicago Public Radio’s Natalie Moore: click here for the rest of the story…