BET’s ‘American Soul’ Introduces ‘Soul Train’ to a New Generation

All Aboard! “Soul Train…Soul Train.” You can’t help but start singing, MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” one of the most memorable Soul Train theme songs and finishing with a resounding, “Let’s get it on, it’s time to get down.”

Part of America’s soundtrack wouldn’t have had traction without the power of the ‘Hippest Trip in America’ propelling it forward. “Soul Train” is the brain child of the late legendary Don Cornelius that ruled the airwaves from 1971 until 2006. Soul Train still holds the title as one of the longest running syndicated programs in American history.

Growing up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, many spent their Saturday mornings or afternoons depending on your time zone,  in front of the television waiting with baited breath to find out if you would catch a glimpse of artists like James Brown, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, the Jackson 5, Prince, Mary J. Blige, or even EMPD, or Lil Wayne.

 

Many couldn’t wait to see if they would catch a glimpse of their favorite dancer pop locking down the Soul Train line or trying to solve the weekly Scramble Board. Others were watching to see the latest fashions dancers wore, or  to learn a new move to try at the school dance.

 

During the show’s run on the musical tracks, the show featured performances from a variety of genres including R&B, soul, disco, funk, gospel, and hip-hop artists. Once the show pulled into the station, the digital footprint of SoulTrain.com expanded and kept us up on our favorite entertainers and included entertainment such as books, film, and television. With Cornelius’ brand of cool as the conductor at the helm, taking his radio training to television, the show served as a national showcase for music and black culture and launching the careers of legends like Jody Watley, Rosie Perez, and even Fred “Rerun” Berry.

The show’s energy was so infectious that even Mr. ‘Cool’ Cornelius had to let his hair down one time to go down the Soul Train line.

The show also provided a sense of black pride and joy, the spirit of music, and put it on display so viewers could enjoy it from their living room. It also introduced something that hadn’t really been seen, black commercials for black products from sponsors like Afro Sheen.

In a 2013 book titled “Soul Train: The Music, Dance, and Style of a Generation,” Questlove hails the show as “not only a transformative cultural moment” but “a sibling, a parent, a babysitter, a friend, a textbook, a newscast, a business school, and a church”—“the master of teaching you lessons that you didn’t know you were being taught.”

The Soul Train brand veered off into a new direction, in 2016, when Viacom BET Networks acquired the Soul Train brand. Under BET Networks thumbprint, the train has chugged into another realm, as a docuseries series titled, “American Soul,” executive produced by the son of Cornelius.

“Soul Train” had been on the air in Chicago on WCIU for a year in 1971 when creator and host Don Cornelius decided to relocate to the west coast and relaunch the show in Los Angeles with his eye on national syndication. That’s where “American Soul” picks up the story after Cornelius, played by Sinqua Walls, takes to the stage one last time in Chicago to welcome the city’s own The Chi-Lites.

The 10-episode drama is introducing “Soul Train” to another generation that is only familiar with BET’s annual “Soul Train Awards” telecast that doesn’t even come close to what the iconic dance show embodied. “American Soul” focuses on Cornelius and other characters, including dancers, about black life in 1970s. In an interview with 11 Alive, executive producer, and Don’s son, Tony Cornelius says the series has all the elements that people look for. “I think the millennials and younger people can learn from it. There’s a lot of teaching moments in “American Soul” as well and I made sure those teachable moments were visible because my father taught me everything I know.”

Sinqua Walls as Don Cornelius in “American Soul.”

In an interview with Chicago Tribune, he also talked about how the story of “Soul Train” ended up on BET. “We sold the ‘Soul Train’ brand to a private equity (firm), and they sold the brand to Viacom (which owns BET) and fortunately BET had some success with the Bobby Brown bio-series, as well as the New Edition bio-series. So, it was kind of a match made in heaven. We put a team together and here we are with ‘American Soul.’” His son continues that it was important to tell his father’s story; the good, bad, and ugly as he’s trying to launch a national brand while maintaining family life. Don Cornelius took his own life on February 1, 2012, a tragic end that American Soul doesn’t shy away from.  The first few moments of the show portray the tragedy before flashing back to 1971 and traveling on the tracks through Soul Train’s history.

“American Soul” is helping to put back some of the nostalgia from yesteryear that seems to have gotten lost in the social media digital age shuffle. With “Soul Train” back at the forefront of everyone’s minds, “you can bet your last money, it’s all going to be a stone gas, honey! We wish you love, peace and soul!”

About the Author

Shameika Rhymes
Shameika Rhymes

Shameika Rhymes is a journalist of all trades. She can usually be found producing television news and has written for outlets like ET Online, ESSENCE, EBONY Magazine, JETMag.com, Shondaland.com, SoulTrain.com, WEtv.com and her own website, www.themofochronicles.com. Follow her on Twitter @Mofochronicles @WriterShameika