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'Soul Train' celebrates its 50th anniversary: 'Black joy is good TV'

It has been 50 years since the show first premiered on national television, but it has left an indelible mark on American culture.

'Soul Train' celebrates its 50th anniversary: 'Black joy is good TV'
Image Source: Soul Train / IMDB

Trigger Warning: Mentions of Suicide

The late pioneer Don Cornelius' production baby Soul Train celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The "hippest trip in America" first aired on October 2, 1971. Five decades after it initially premiered, the Black artists behind the show reflected on why it was such a meaningful, pivotal television series for the Black community. For many, it was the first mainstream show made by and for Black folks. The series, as many have described it, was an homage to dance forms and music developed by Black artists. Soul Train, in a nutshell, truly celebrated unadulterated Black joy.


Sam Sanders, a correspondent with NPR, stated on his show It's Been a Minute, "Soul Train as a show was a very simple idea—very pretty, cool people, mostly Black, dancing to very good music, also mostly Black, and a very charismatic host with colorful suits and a perfect Afro as your guide." Cornelius, the creator of Soul Train, also hosted the show from 1971 until 1993. He was instrumental in offering wider exposure to Black musicians such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Michael Jackson, as well as creating opportunities for talented dancers, setting a precedent for popular television dance programs.


Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, and choreographer Jody Watley, for instance, got her start in the industry on Soul Train. "Don Cornelius [was] definitely a visionary to create such a wonderful show for the dancers, for Black artists, nothing like it," she said in an interview with MSNBC's Tiffany Cross. "I have so many great memories; the scramble board was fun, I got to do it once. But so many great memories, from when I was a dancer to performing on the show. It was always a fun time, very competitive and a lot of shade was thrown. But it was a fun time."


Watley also reflected on what it was like to work with Cornelius. She shared, "Don was a very imposing figure but always supportive of me. He was the one that put Shalamar together, put me in the group." Shalamar is a Grammy award-winning American R&B and soul music vocal group active since the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. "When I went solo, [he was] very supportive," she continued. "It was very sad to have that news [of his death]. I had seen him a couple of years before... He was in good spirits but he had had [a] brain injury and surgery. But we had some laughs. [He was] stoic, you know, but he could drop some one-liners and he's greatly missed." Cornelius passed in 2012, owing to a self-inflicted gunshot wound.


Yet, his legacy continues to live on in Soul Train. Sanders noted, "There wasn't a big message on top of Soul Train. There was no plot. The only point the show was trying to prove was that Black joy is good TV and that really anyone would love to watch really cool people dance to good songs."


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