Soul Train Heads to the Big Train Depot in the Sky

Many years ago, a young Frank the Tank spent his Saturday mornings with a fairly consistent TV-viewing routine: The Smurfs, Looney Tunes, and capping it all off with Soul Train.  As you wrap your mind around the image of a half-Polish/half-Chinese toddler sitting around watching Soul Train in rapture (of course, host Don Cornelius was the definition of encouraging diversity, as evidenced by inviting these guys as guests at one point), please note that I was a massive hip-hop fan long before it was considered to be mainstream and since I lived in a household without cable (meaning no MTV or BET), Soul Train was pretty much the only television outlet available for me to get my dose of favorite music.  Not only that, the Chicago broadcasts of Soul Train on WGN included a heavy rotation of the greatest commercials of all-time – you can only imagine the horror on my Taiwanese-born mother’s face when I requested that we take a detour to the Museum of Science and Industry so that we could stop by Moo & Oink.  So, I got a little emotional when I found out that the old Soul Train reruns were being taken off the air for good (there haven’t been any new episodes since 2006).  Don Cornelius helped bring R&B and hip-hop to the masses in an era where those genres were considered to “niche” markets.  Now, even the NFL has moved away from using aging white rock stars to headline the Super Bowl halftime show… what?  (This blog post pretty much sums up my feelings about Bruce Springsteen – he’s not bad and there are certain songs such as “Glory Days” that are among my favorites, but I’ve just never felt that he was as great of a songwriter and rock star as he’s made out to be by much of the the general public.)  OK, so there still needs to be some work done.  However, when you look at the top Billboard songs over the past decade, you’ll see the charts dominated by either hip-hop or at least hip-hop influenced acts.  All of those artists should be grateful to the work of Don Cornelius and Soul Train for paving the way when that music wasn’t quite as accepted.

(Ed. note: You may have noticed that I’ve referenced Color Me Badd twice in the last week, which is unusual since no person on Earth has acknowledged their existence for the past 18 years.  Let me just tell you that after my research of the “band” on YouTube, I felt the same elation of uncovering some life-altering treasure as the archaeologist from Jurassic Park that found the prehistoric mosquito encased in amber.  Of course, there’s some blissful ignorance of the collateral damage that will surely come from these discoveries, which means I’ll likely become a pregame snack for a velociraptor within the next couple of weeks.)

(Image from Museum of Broadcast Communications)


5 thoughts on “Soul Train Heads to the Big Train Depot in the Sky

  1. Ah, the Eagle Man! As for other Chicago commercials, here’s one that must be one of the longest-running commercials in history – this has been playing as long as I can remember watching TV and it’s still being used today (in a slightly altered form):


  2. Frank,

    I too spent many a Saturday morning/afternoon checking out Soul Train. Back in the hair metal dominated mid/late 80’s, Soul Train was the best place on TV to check out all the hottest R&B/early hip hop. And it was a great resource for keeping up on the latest dance moves — all you had to do was watch the Soul Train line, then copy and practice the best dance moves (I didn’t grow up with cable either).

    It’s funny that you posted this; I had a recent conversation about hip hop’s dominance of mainstream radio (and I’ve been thinking of writing a blog post about it — I may use excerpts from your post and this comment if/when I do). Just last week I was explaining to a much younger friend that hip hop used to be considered niche/underground music. Mainstream/Top 40 radio barely played it. And the only hip hop that made it to the mainstream airwaves, or to Friday Night Videos was the occasional cheesy “crossover” hit like Run DMC’s “Walk this Way,” or MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This”

    I grew up on hip hop, R&B and Chicago house music. But it wasn’t because that music was the mainstream, popular music that all my friends listened to. It wasn’t. Not by a long shot. The cool music out in the suburbs was a combination of 80’s bubble gum pop and hair metal. If you were a socially acceptable, caucasian pre-teen or JR High Schooler (and not a glue-sniffing metalhead or a skater punk), your boom box/Walkman was blasting stuff like Bon Jovi, Van Halen, Poison, RATT, Guns N Roses, Madonna, Bryan Adams, Debbie Gibson, Def Leppard, Richard Marx (yes, Richard Marx), George Michael (yes, George Michael), U2, INXS, etc.

    Hell, back then even Rick Astley was a popular artist (and not just popular as the endlessly looped subject of an internet prank).

    B96 and Z95 played those artists; hip hop was just too raw, too tough, too ghetto, too independent and too black and for the mainstream (although the fact that hip hop was released exclusively on small, independent labels that couldn’t afford to play the payola game with Top 40 radio probably had something to do with it as well).

    So I listened to WBMX and WGCI. ‘BMX never played hip hop, but they did play all the best new R&B and freestyle. And at night, they aired the hottest thing in Chicago — house/freestyle/electro boogie mixes by Julian “Jumpin” Perez and the Hotmix 5. Even WGCI didn’t play hip hop on weekdays or during daylight hours back then. But after 10:00 on Friday nights, ‘GCI turned into the voice of the streets when Ramon Ski Love and Disco Dave bumped the dopest hip hop joints/mixes of the day on their show “the Rap Down.”

    So if you were a kid in the Chicago suburbs during the mid/late 1980’s and you were down with hip hop and house (back then, there wasn’t a big divide between the two — they were both the music of the streets), the weekend mix shows on WBMX and WGCI were what you listened to. And you made sure that you watched Soul Train on Saturday mornings.

    Remember too, that back when Don Cornelius started bringing hip hop artists on Soul Train, hip hop was a seen as a radical departure from even the popular “black music” (that’s what Billboard used to call urban music back then) of the day. Most R&B/black music was slickly produced synthesizer funk and most R&B artists — both male and female — sang, danced, and wore fancy, baggy, shiny, Italian designer influenced (although way cheesier than actual Italian designer) clothes. And they rocked jheri curls and tons of makeup:

    (The lip/candy scenes in the last video are classic.)

    When Run DMC came out on the Soul Train set clad in their black jeans, leather jackets, rope chains, derby hats and untied Adidas kicks (with the tongues pulled up), projecting their street corner, b-boy attitudes, and proceeded to spit out rhymes (lip syncs) over their stripped down 808 beats/ sampled guitar riffs, it was as much a culture shock to much of Soul Train’s mainstream black/R&B music audience as it was to white folks in the suburbs.

    L.L. Cool J (with his track suit, chain rope and Kangol hat), the Beastie Boys (smart ass Jewish b-boy/punk/skater kids with leather jackets and rope chains!?!) and the Fat Boys followed and continued to push hip hop to the forefront of black music.

    But it took years and years for hip hop to really penetrate mainstream radio, let alone become the dominant music/cultural influence of American popular culture.


    Color Me Badd’s “Sex U Up” was a HUGE hit on the black charts/black radio in the spring/summer of 1991. The song appeared on the New Jack City soundtrack several months before Color Me Badd’s album dropped. “Sex U Up” was the #1 song on WGCI’s countdown every night for about 2 months. Only later in the summer did mainstream/Top 40 radio pick the song up as a “crossover” hit (“crossover” was how they referred to black music and hip hop that made it to the Top 40 back in those days). I can’t overstate how big that song was with the community in the summer of ’91.

    Also, the song blew up so quickly that there wasn’t a corresponding video for at least a month or two. I think that most black people only found out that CMB was a bunch of white guys (and one wussy, Milli Vanilli lookin’ black dude) after they appeared on Showtime at the Apollo.
    And you could tell from the Apollo crowd’s reaction that they were surprised to see white guys singing the hottest R&B joint of the summer.

    I was so bullish on Color Me Badd that I bought their debut CD as soon as it dropped (just before the school year started, IIRC). Based on the success of “Sex U Up” and what was shaping up to be a strong rivalry between Color Me Badd and Boys II Men (who also had their first 2 singles debut in summer ’91), I thought CMB was going to become a great barrier crossing R&B act. Only once I listened to their CD did I realize that CMB was headed for bubble gum pop/boy band status and that their main rivalry would be with the New Kids on the Block, rather than with Boys II Men or Bell Biv DeVoe.

    Also, I couldn’t agree more about Bruce Springsteen. I’ve never quite understood why everybody seems to bow down before him. I think that in the 70’s, New York rock critics were eager to anoint him as the local, East Coast successor to Bob Dylan. From then on, everything he did was considered brilliant. But I just don’t see it. That said, “Glory Days” — despite being a relatively simple song — is one of the most interesting/significant rock songs ever recorded. And it’s an all too true reminder that youth/glory is temporal.


    1. B1G Jeff

      Great stroll down memory lane, FTT and Trashtalk. I would just add that for urban Chicagoans, perhaps the biggest reason hip-hop was slow to catch on was because of the simultaneous birth and growth of house music, which was founded in and around my Hyde Park/Kenwood neighborhood and popularized by WBMX (and the Hot Mix Five), as you cited.

      With respect to Don Cornelius, he and Soul Train were instrumental in bring to fruition not just the acceptance of Black music and culture as ‘acceptable’ but the conversation to ‘cool’. I very much could imagine FTT watching Soul Train. For most of my non-Black friends growing up at Harvard St. George, if seemed that Soul Train was the first time they could relate to and talk to me about something in my culture (their first attempts at reverse assimilation, lol).

      Dude. Moo and Oink was to die for! And yes, I had Empire Carpet in my house.


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