Tag Archives: Soul Train

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!


Brighter Side of Darkness: a love note.

Below, “Love Jones” by Brighter Side of Darkness, performing on Soul Train. Don’t confuse this group with the Jackson Five, as they are aren’t a family act. They were just one in a rich history of Chicago-area based Kiddie Soul groups. The nucleus of the group came from Calumet High School here in Chicago, but 12 year old Darryl Lamont was added by manager Anna Preston to give some Jacksonesque kiddie appeal. Word on the street says that two members of the group were forcibly dropped from the ensemble “for [their] reputed misbehavior” while in L.A. for the taping of the Soul Train episode excerpted below, effectively killing the star turns of the members of Brighter Side of Darkness.

A version of the group would return briefly in 1975 as “The Imaginations”, still jonesing on a cut called “Love Jones ’75” that begged, “But if you LOVE me……”   The group also resurfaced a few years later on Lennie LaCour’s Magic Touch Records under the Brighter Side of Darkness moniker for the creatively-titled Disco cash-in “Disco Ball”; but they never even inched towards the hit status of “Love Jones”.  The record was so famous, in fact, that Cheech and Chong at one point recorded a parody….called “Basketball Jones“.  Trippy as hell.


Tapes Lost to Time: Chicago Stories

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I am bothered by tapes that disappear, the same tapes that record our collective story.  The sort that get erroneously misplaced, taped over, or buried (true stories, all).  It’s happened often in Chicago to bits of media that palpably documented Chicago Cultural History.  It seems to have happened too many times for my taste.  Here’s a few times that hit especially close to home.

Our People

“Our People” (1968-1972) was Jim Tilmon’s groundbreaking public affairs television series that aired on WTTW.  For, by, and about Black Chicagoans, the show was deemed completely lost for the ages until someone at WTTW unearthed one lonely “lost episode”.

According to WTTW.com, the episode:

“features guests Harold Washington, then a young State Representative who would later become Mayor of Chicago, author James Baldwin at his outspoken best, State Senator Richard Newhouse, and music by the great jazz vocalist Johnny Hartman.”

Our People premiered the week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  It was a time frame remembered in Chicago as the days when the West Side went up in riotous flames (and one Darkjive informant told me of more than a few young men “enlisting” the aid of rifles from the Sears on Kostner for protection).  It should also be noted that The Loop shut down, paralyzed with fear of such riotous activity spreading downtown (it didn’t).

Each week, Our People dealt with issues the Black Community grappled with… and offered a few solutions, as well.  What a remarkable loss.

Below, a clipping from The Hyde Park Herald, Volume 87, 12 February 1969, Page  13.

Dick Gregory, 1451 E. 551h, talks with program producer John Tweedle and host Jim Tilmon on WTTW-Channel 11, Our People, a weekly program focusing on the interests and talents of the black community.

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The Infamous Paul Serrano PS Studio Tapes

paul serranoSo, Paul Serrano (left) was a hard bop trumpeter here in Chicago that ultimately became a world-renowned Engineer with his own Studio (PS Recording Studios).  He recorded some of the greatest Soul, Gospel, Blues, and Jazz music ever laid down on wax, right here in Chicago.  Built in 1966, the independent studio was on-par with Chess Records’ Ter-Mar Studios and even RCA’s massive Midwest Recording Studios.

Artists including Jerry Butler, the Emotions, Natalie Cole, Ramsey Lewis, Peabo Bryson, the Independents, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Mary Wells, Chicago Gangsters, Oscar Brown, Jr., Deniece Williams, Von Freeman, Ghanaian Highlife Bandleader Dan Boadi, and Captain Sky recorded there.

The Studio (at one time located on East 23rd Street) shut down in the early nineties, but according to the folk at Numero Group, a bounty of master tapes (some never released) were BURIED at the sight of McCormick Place.  The world may never know.

Below, a slice of funk recorded in the Near South Side at PS Studios.

“Soul Train Local”

So, most of us Chicagoans know that Soul Train got its start here in Chicago (at Weigel Broadcasting’s WCIU-TV), where sponsors included Joe Louis Milk and Sears.  The train moved on to L.A. (Grrrrrrrrrr) in 1971, but time has nearly erased that the local version was aired in Chicago until 1979.  Unfortunately, those episodes starring the homegrown talent of Tyrone Davis, The Dells, Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, the Chi-Lites, and the Emotions were lost to time, many of them taped over by WCIU…repeatedly.  For more on this story, check out Jake Austen’s excellent Chicago Reader article here.

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B.B. King on Soul Train Local

I would much rather have any one of these in my personal collection than some of the inane box sets (“Webster”?? Really??) that are being offered up for posterity.  Sigh.


Darrow Fletcher: when love calls.

Darrow Fletcher recorded his first record while still a student at Hirsch High School (77th and Ingleside); he later attended South Shore. Blessed with razor-keen phrasing and unique tone, his records stood out from the pack.  Darrow toured the Chitlin’ Circuit, and appeared on Soul Train when it was in Chicago.   After recording on several local labels he never saw a hit like his first; yet, like an addict, he kept reaching for the high. The above 1970 record, “When Love Calls”, (inexplicably) did almost nothing on the charts.   Some say he was a victim of record labels too small to promote his records outside of Chicago.  Others say it wasn’t in the cards.  Either way, we are left with a display of barely-discovered talent rarely seen.


Perfect Angel: minnie riperton stayed in love.

Minnie Riperton, native Chicagoan and Hyde Park High School alum, started her singing career as a receptionist for Chess Records (at 2120 South Michigan Avenue).  There, Riperton recorded in a girl group called the Gems, and a Rock/Soul outfit called Rotary Connection (for the story of how, while in Rotary Connection, Minnie came to accept her unique voice in the era of Aretha Franklin, click here).  She also recorded her solo debut, 1970’s Come to My Garden, co-produced by labelmate Ramsey Lewis and her husband, Dick Rudolph at Chess.  She eventually became one of the best loved sopranos of her age.

In 1976, Minnie Riperton was diagnosed with  breast cancer, but she continued recording and touring; but on Thursday, July 12, 1979 at 10:00 a.m., while lying in her husband’s arms, Riperton lost her three year struggle with cancer as she listened to a recording Stevie Wonder had made just for her.  According to legend, Stevie met Minnie in Chicago, at 1971’s Black Expo.

“Riperton had released a debut album that won critical praise but, frustrated with her record company’s listless promotion effort, was preparing, at age 22, for semi-retirement Florida. “I saw Stevie backstage,” she recalls, “so I went over and whispered in his ear for him to keep up the good work. He asked me what my name was, and I said ‘Minnie.’ Well he started jumping up and down, saying ‘not Minnie Riperton — it’s been my dream to work with you, You sing like an angel’.”
— Margo Jefferson, “Stevie’s Angel”, Newsweek, July 28, 1975.

Riperton touched many people’s hearts in her life.  So many hearts, in fact, that an entire star-studded episode of Soul Train was dedicated to her in the wake of her tragic death, with very special performances from a number of artists, among them was her oft collaborator, Stevie Wonder (a clip of which is posted above).

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Captain Sky on Soul Train

Captain Sky, also known as mild-mannered Chicago bass player Daryl Cameron, stated on the back of his first album (Adventures of Captain Sky):

“Oh, by the way, if you’re wondering, Daryl Cameron somehow entered the phonebooth of his mind and emerged as Captain Sky. Tune in again”….

REALLY?

capn(this might be unrelated, but I personally think they missed the boat by not marketing a breakfast cereal for the kiddies.  But maybe that’s me thinking about Captain Crunch.)

Anyway, check this 1978 appearance on Soul Train of his funky hit cut, “Wonder Worm”.

NOTE: Soul Train started out in Chicago on WCIU (Channel 26) in 1971. Even after he took the Soul Train west to L.A., Don Cornelius kept Chicago artists represented.  In this episode alone we hear:

“Wonder Worm” by “Captain Sky” [ charted #33 R&B ]

“Get Down” by “Gene Chandler” [ #3 R&B / #22 Disco / #53 Pop ].

“September” by “Earth, Wind & Fire” [ #1 R&B / #8 Pop ]

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