Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Soul Train Conspiracy Theory

By Odienator

Have you seen this man?

If you're a Black person in my generation or older, you can bet your last money that you know who the man in that picture is. He's Don Cornelius, the former host of Soul Train, the show he created and guided to groundbreaking success in the early 70's. Soul Train, the longest running show in syndication, is still on today, but Don Cornelius is not. The familiar cartoon train is still there, but Don Cornelius is not. You still hear his unmistakable smooth voice at the beginning of the show, but since 1993, he's been missing in action. Even on the Soul Train awards and Lady of Soul Awards, we hear Don Cornelius but we don't see him. So I'm asking today: Where is Don Cornelius? Since I like starting trouble, I have a couple of conspiracy theories.

After Cornelius gave up hosting duties, Soul Train got numerous guest hosts, including Shemar Moore. Moore is no Don Cornelius. He tries so hard to be hip and cool that at times it was rather embarrassing. I know my sister is going to cut me for saying that, so don't tell her about this article. In addition to having a lesser series of hosts, Soul Train is also having bootleg problems. According to the Soul Train website, Black people (and y'all know who y'all are) have been selling bootleg Soul Train DVD's on the street, probably in front of the Beacon Theater in NYC. I can see it now...

Bootlegger: Yo! Look a bruva out! I got Soul Train DVD's and copies of Meet The Browns!
Lady with Weave(TM): Meet the Browns? That ain't even out yet!
Bootlegger: This is why I'm hot! I got stuff Tyler Perry didn't even write yet already on bootleg! You know you want it. Buy that Soul Train DVD!
Lady with Weave(TM): Aw'ight. (Pulling $5 out of her bra.)


Bootlegger: What the hell was that?
Lady with Weave(TM): (Looks into camera and screams) Holy Shee-it!

(Cut to a TV screen)

Brenda Blackmon: Tonight on My Ghetto Nine News, a street vendor was run over today by dancing cartoon train...

Before Soul Train, dance shows on TV were like The Corny Collins Show. Black performers could come on and sing, but the dancers shaking their groove things in the audience were always White. One of the funniest clips I've ever seen is one of James Brown singing "Say It Loud" on some show (it may have been American Bandstand). The Godfather of Soul called "Say It Loud" and the dancing audience responded "I'm Black and I'm Proud!" The entire audience was White.

Don Cornelius changed that. He created a show and put dancing minorities on it. He even showcased them on the famous "Soul Train Line" where people would dance down the center of a group of people standing off to opposite sides. Cornelius was like a Black Ed Sullivan, putting talent on and then talking to them afterward. Like Ed, he seemed to have mobility problems. But no matter, Don Cornelius was smooth. With his weird microphone, his glasses and his 'Fro, he would step on the stage (which back in the day was shaped like a train) and talk to the people who just lip-synched their hit on the show. Soul Train was always lip-synched, and it still is today. Keyshia Cole was on recently, and the record skipped. They ran the episode anyway! That wouldn't have happened if Don Cornelius was hosting.

Soul Train started out in only six cities, but Cornelius marketed the show, making deals and getting it to more markets where Black kids like me, starved for dance moves we could do in public, could enjoy it. We would get in front of the TV and dance along with the dancers the camera passed as records played in the background or live people sang...while their records played in the background. It was like a huge House Party, brought to us by Afro Sheen, Ultra Sheen and Ultra Sheen cosmetics. And at the end of every episode, Cornelius would tell us we could "betcha last money" that the show would be on again. He'd end the episode by saying "Peace!" and the audience (and us at home) would yell "and SOUUUUL!"

Rosie Perez started out as a dancer on Soul Train. I remember her being on there, but I remember even more fondly the hot Asian chick that used to do the same move every episode. That move was so famous she showed up in a Prince video doing it years later. The dancers were always in style, dressed in the latest gear and hair, from Afro Puffs to jHeri curls. People danced alone or in couples, and the show would have weird, funky iris-ins and iris-outs as it switched from dancer to dancer. The camera would be at angles, sideways and occasionally under some woman's skirt. It was a trippy show, but this was the 70's.

The dancers did more than just dance too. One lucky couple would get to do a contest called the Soul Train Scramble Board. It was a magnetic board with scrambled up Fisher Price letters on it. The letters were to be unscrambled to spell the name of a celebrity, singer or group. This contest was clearly designed for people with a public school education; the puzzles were ridiculously easy. The answer would be something like "Bill Cosby," "Joe Tex," or "ODB." After they solved the puzzle they would dance in front of the board. Just once, I hoped for something like "Parliment Funkadelic" or "Disco Tex and the Sex-o-lettes." I could see the people trying to unscramble those letters for about 2 minutes before smoke started coming out of the guy's dreds and the woman's extensions.

As aforementioned, Soul Train is still on, in more markets than ever, and is still produced by Don Cornelius. But where is he? My brain fills with conspiracies. Is he a disembodied head floating around in a vat of Afro Sheen, doing voiceovers for his creations? Can he no longer appear in public because he got vitilego and turned whiter than Michael Jackson? Is he in jail? Does he know that Mr. Jones killed Billy Paul and can't tell anybody?

I've been giving out homework assignments most days here at Big Media Vandalism. Finally, I'ma give y'all something I can use:

Your Homework Assignment:

Find out what happened to Don Cornelius.


Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Odie: "Is he a disembodied head floating around in a vat of Afro Sheen, doing voiceovers for his creations?"

You mean ZarDon?

I had mixed feelings about "Soul Train." I loved the opening credits, the music and especially the dancers, but when it came on at noon on Saturdays in Kansas City, it meant cartoons were over.

Anonymous said...

Soul Train done lost they soul. Just call it train cuz the bitches look like hoes.

Phil said...

I'm going to have an image of a murderous dancing cartoon train in my head all afternoon. Thank you!

odienator said...

On Soul Train's latest incarnation, the cartoon train comes toward the screen, then it gets up and starts dancing. It's ridiculous. It didn't do that when I was a kid.

Matt, Soul Train came on right after Fat Albert for us, so in a way it was a seamless transition.

ZarDon would say "The soul is good. The sheen on your Afro should be glossy" before it spits out a bunch of Afro Sheen products and afro picks. It will then be followed by that big Richard Pryor Wiz head from The Wiz. You can just imagine what that will be saying as it flies through the air.

Anonymous said...

If the James Brown episode you remember was on American Bandstand, then it would have been lip-synced and so the "I'm Black and I'm Proud" chorus would have been coming from the record and not the audience. Still might have looked funny as hell, though.
Which makes me wonder what a white person would do if they had been attending a James Brown concert, really getting into it, and then that audience chorus comes in. Try to keep their mouth shut? Not so easy to contain enthusiasm at his shows, from what I've seen on video.

odienator said...

Pat, I remember the audience moving their mouths. Perhaps it was along with the record, but I saw people singing along in the clip.

I've been to see James Brown in concert, and it was one of the most intimate concerts I've ever been to because it was at B.B. King's in NYC. I was probably about 20 feet from James Brown for the entire 3-1/2 hour show. It was fantastic, and easily the best concert I've ever been to in my life (and I've seen some biggies--Ray Charles, Springsteen, Titty Jackson, etc). People were dancing and singing along. James was doing splits and his band turned on a dime! There was a guy in his band, a trumpet player like yours truly used to be, and he looked just like Matt Damon. James picked on him (playfully) the entire evening. But Matt Damon could play that horn.

Brown didn't sing Say It Loud, but it would have been awesome because there was about a 50-50 mix of Black and White there. I'm sure everybody would have said "I'm Black and I'm Proud." As soon as the White folks said it, the NYPD would have busted in and beaten their asses. "Oh, we thought you were serious!" say the cops.

When my pal saw James Brown, the Queen of England was in attendance. I imagined that she was doing that wave thing while dancing like James Brown. Then Queen Elizabeth II did a split.

Anyway, since you did your homework, you'll get an honorable mention when Black History Mumf is over. Nice to know Cornelius isn't dead.

Steven Boone said...

"Rosie Perez started out as a dancer on Soul Train. I remember her being on there, but I remember even more fondly the hot Asian chick that used to do the same move every episode."

I remember Rosie and the hot Asian chick. Hot Asian chick was an animatronic with one setting.

Ah, puberty: In the mid-80's, all Soul Train was to me was an opportunity to enjoy the low-angle camerawork of some pervert with an appreciation for giant booties in skin-tight spandex. In hindsight, I'm wondering if that dude turned out to be music video director Little X.

odienator said...

SB: Hot Asian chick was an animatronic with one setting.

Imagine they had put her on the Soul Train Scramble Board. Shit would have blown up.

Wiley said...

YouTube has seriously failed me by not offering up ANYTHING when I search for "Rosie Perez Soul Train". I got really excited there for a second.

Old School C said...

I hear Don is still around these days, not really in the public eye though. It seems gettin the Soul Train episodes on bootleg is the only way to go since Don has no intentions of releasing them. I was told by former dancers that he is very selfish when it comes to getting footage of themselves. I wish DC would release them though, aint no need of being selfish Don! lol!! I wonder what happened to those 3 brothas with the jheri curls? They went by the name Captain Crunch and the Funky Bunch. Straight up OG poplockers that used to throw it down from Compton High School.

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Matt G. said...

I found this blog after searching for "Soul Train Scramble Board." I Heart this blog and look forward to reading all the other entries on Black History Mumf!

Good day,
Matt G.
Southampton, England

odienator said...

Matt G, thanks for stopping by! I hope you enjoy the trilogy of BHM @ BMV, as well as the four upcoming supplemental pieces. It's amusing that the Soul Train Scramble board led you here. Don Cornelius may sue me!

This Internet thingee sure brings the world closer! (As a computer programmer, I say that facetiously.) You're in England! I'll be on your island next month, my seventh time in the UK. I'll make sure I bring a Soul Train Scramble Board with me, though I may have a hard time clearing customs with it.

Thanks again for reading!

Old School C said...

Don is still around, there is no conspiracy theory. His Soul Train DVD infomercial is always coming on. Its hosted by Smokey Robinson and co-hosted by Eddie Levert and a couple other people. Don Cornelius has an interview on the Soul Train special and he has done other interviews recently. So yeah, no conspiracy theories here, Ol' Don is still kickin.

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