Conceived and hosted by Chicago newscaster Don Cornelius, the 60-minute show was both a showcase and a trend setter for black music, fashion and dance for generations of black youth. Along with its signature elements, the Soul Train Scrambleboard (where a man and woman had 60 seconds to arrange letters on a magnetic board to spell out the name of a current celebrity) and the Soul Train Line (where dancers show off their best moves while moving down two columns of fellow dancers), the show is a pop cultural icon to this day. Along the way, it spawned its own record label (Soul Train Recordsnote ) and its own awards show (which actually survives the show itself).
Don Cornelius hosted from the October 2, 1971 debut through the end of Season 22, on June 26, 1993, after which the show utilized a large variety of guest hosts for the next few years. Mystro Clark became the new permanent host at the beginning of Season 27 (1997-98), but only held the role briefly before Shemar Moore replaced him on the thirteenth show of Season 29 (1999-2000). Dorian Gregory was the final host, holding the reins for the show's last three years (2003-06).
The last first-run episode aired on March 25, 2006, with the broadcasts of December 9, 2006 to December 29, 2007 being repeats of episodes from 1973-88; some of these episodes were shown again starting the following week, with the very last broadcast (September 20, 2008) being the Donna Summer/Staple Singers show from December 15, 1984.
After the sale of Soul Train's rights from Don Cornelius Productions to MadVision Entertainment in early 2009, an official YouTube channel was established along with a planned series of DVD sets from Time-Life. Reruns of early episodes can currently be seen on BET's new Centric channel (formerly BET J/BET on Jazz), as well as on the DTV networknote Bounce.
Not to be confused with a train full of souls.
The show contains examples of:
- Artifact Title: First disco began to show up in the late 1970s, then hip hop largely displaced soul as the dominant African American pop music, reflected in the show's choice of artists. Yet the name never changed.
- Captain Ersatz: On The Cosby Show, Theo and Cockroach are jazzed to appear on "Dance Mania" and dance with "Tina" (an expy of Cheryl Song)
- Catch-Phrase: The show opening, "The hippest trip in America", and the show closing "We wish you love, peace, and... SOOOUL!"
- Cool Old Guy: Don Cornelius, during the show's later years.
- Early Installment Weirdness: Early episodes owed more to Laugh In than American Bandstand in terms of the show's look and camera work. The pilot in particular had a completely different announcer, and the open showed the musical guests (Gladys Knight & The Pips, David Ruffin, and The Honey Cones) were dancing among the "Soul Train Gang"note instead of showing short clips of their performances.
- Also, many acts chose to perform live, rather than lip-synch to their record. This was a practice that pretty much died by the late 70s.
- The opening, from early seasons, also contained this line: "Sixty non-stop minutes, across the tracks of your mind, into the exciting world of soul!"
- Until 1975, Cornelius said the full closing catchphrase, after which he would leave the Soul Train Dancers to say the last word, in unison, "SOUL!"
- Also, the Soul Train Line didn't separate into the more familiar men and women's lines until 1982. Up to then, it was "men on the right, women on the left."
- The original set was more evocative of a "juke joint out by the railroad tracks" theme. Starting in 1972, a more-discotheque themed set was debuted, along with the iconic theme song. The iconic disco ball would appear a few years later.
- Long-Runners: Every weekend for 35 years.
- Long-Runner Cast Turnover/ Revolving Door Casting: Of course, this is endemic to a show that has probably had thousands of dancers over the years. Even Don Cornelius himself was AWOL for the show's final years. However, many of the show's dancers also count as long runners, many continuing to dance on the show for years even after making it big. The most famous example is fan favorite "the Asian Girl with the Long Hair", Cheryl Song, who was a show regular and dancer for the better part of 14 years or almost half the show's run (1976-1990).
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: During the mid-1970s, a rumor began floating around that Cornelius had died of a drug overdose, prompting him to make an announcement at the beginning of a subsequent episode that he had not died of a drug overdose and his attorneys were trying to find whoever had spread that slander. The interesting thing is that while Cornelius had carefully stated he did not die of a drug overdose, he never stated that he hadn't used drugs. Of course, this became Harsher in Hindsight after Cornelius died for real in 2012.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Ice Cube was crestfallen when he finally got on the show, only to have Don Cornelius say to his face on live TV that the host neither liked nor understood hip hop. This started a long-time feud between the two.
"And as always, in parting, we wish you love... peace... and SOOOOOOOUL!"