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. As such, the show's main focus was on black artists; non-black performers did appear as early as 1972, many of whom (including David Bowie, Tom Tom Club, and a pre-breakthrough Robin Thicke, among others) were strongly influenced by and/or paid homage to black music, but these were comparatively rare. Along with this were 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 titled The Best of Soul Train; 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. In 2016, Viacom (Via BET) bought the franchise, which includes all trademarks, the tape library, the award show and the revival cruise series, The Soul Train Cruise.
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.
- Broken Pedestal: 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 led to a Take That! on the Scarface track "Hand of the Dead Body" (which Ice Cube featured on), and was likely also one of the inspirations for his solo track "Turn Off the Radio" (which was a more general attack on black radio for refusing to get with the times and give hip-hop the time of day).
- 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)
- Catchphrase: 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: 35 seasons, October 2, 1971-March 25, 2006. As the Opening Narration would brag in the shows later years, it was the longest-running first-run syndicated show in television history, a distinction it would hold until Entertainment Tonight surpassed it in 2016.
- 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).
- Pretty Fly for a White Guy: During the show's lifetime, being non-black and getting to come on to perform was considered a sign of having averted the negative side of this trope, especially for artists who weren't black but were influenced by black music.
- Salaryman: An actor dressed as one can be spotted in the audience during the Yellow Magic Orchestra performance, tying in with the band's constant riffing on western stereotypes of Japan.
- 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.
"And as always, in parting, we wish you love... peace... and SOOOOOOOUL!"