Normally, this would be your everyday Morning Groove, but today I decided to write a bit of personal history for Black History Month.
The words Soul and Train have heavily weighted meanings for me. Put together, they represent a large part of my childhood and adolescent memories. Saturday mornings, like in the days when there used to be Saturday cartoons. Mom telling my sister and I to stop watching those same cartoons and get our chores done so we could watch “the hippest trip in America.” You can bet your last money we mopped, vacuumed and dusted our way to get a good seat in front of the television so we could watch our show. That housework might have been half-assed, but it somehow passed muster, because it was a rare Saturday afternoon that we missed Soul Train.
The show was educational in many ways. We learned the latest dances, of course, and tried to do them (not always successfully). We also learned the names of important figures in black culture in history thanks to the weekly scramble board. We often wondered if the weekly contestants were told the answers beforehand (though there were a few that struggled to solve the puzzle in the allotted time). We also wondered if they still got the “Afro Sheen, Ultra Sheen and Ultra Sheen cosmetics” that were the weekly prizes if they somehow didn’t solve it.
We watched the show so much, the dancers became regulars at our house. Sometimes we nicknamed a few of our favorites (or not so favorites; because for every dancer you might have liked to see on camera, there were one or two you wished would be banished from the spotlight). We watched it so much, we tried to see which performers were horrible at lip-syncing (and there were a few). We watched it so much, that we often saw the same show twice every Saturday: (once on the Baltimore station, and once on the Washington, DC station later that day), don’t ask me why, maybe we felt there was a groove or a move that we missed.
But whenever we watched, we knew it was time to pay attention whenever we heard the opening bars of the theme song. Soul Train has officially had ten different theme songs, with artists ranging from King Curtis, MFSB and The Three Degrees, George Duke and The Whispers all performing the theme through the years. Some of them stick in the mind more than others.
First, the original theme from when the show started in 1971 by King Curtis. The song was actually called Hot Potato (Piping Hot) and was originally released nine years before Soul Train came on the air. If I hear it and you tell me it was the show’s original theme song, it might flicker a memory, but mostly not. This was the theme until 1973.
Next up is one of my favorite themes, MFSB featuring The Three Degrees doing “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).” This one was so popular, it was a #1 hit in 1974. I still love this one. When the Three Degrees come in singing “People all over the world!”, you know it’s on like hot buttered popcorn. This version may be the most popular theme of them all.
Next up are two versions by the Soul Train Gang. The great Don Cornelius, who created and hosted the show for the first twenty-two seasons, had his hand in the record business in the 70s. One of the acts he helped to create was the Soul Train Gang, who recorded on Soul Train Records (of course). He would also be one of the behind the scenes forces along with Dick Griffey at the founding of the SOLAR (Sound Of Los Angeles Records) label. Of these two, I remember the 1975 theme more than the 1976 one. For my money, they could have kept the MFSB song and I would have been just fine.
Now here is one that I barely remember, if at all. In 1979, backing vocalists The Waters (Luther, Julia, Oren and Maxine) stepped to the forefront to perform a theme for Soul Train. They were backed by the Hollywood Disco Jazz Band. Never heard of them before.
The venerable group The Whispers took a crack at a theme song called “Up On Soul Train.” I remember this one very well. It also helped that it was a track on their 1980 album, Imagination. This was the theme from 1980-1983.
Soul singer O’Bryan (another artist helped by Cornelius), also had a theme song for the show, right around the time his career was taking off in R&B. His theme, “Soul Train’s A’ Comin'” is remembered fondly here. This was the theme from 1983-1987, or basically my late high school through college years.
Someone at Soul Train HQ had a great idea: why don’t we remake “TSOP” and make it the theme show for the song? George Duke stepped up and gave it a good old fashioned late-80s makeover. I still like the original better, but because I loved George Duke, I can’t hate on him for this. The show got six years of this theme. Don Cornelius stepped down as host in 1993, or right around the time the show stopped using this theme.
The show would carry on for another thirteen years with different hosts and two more themes, but by then, it had lost its influence. At the time it stopped production, it had run for thirty-five years, at which time it was the longest running syndicated television show in history. It has since been passed by Entertainment Tonight. But for a lengthy part of my formative years, it played a role in why I love music and dancing today.
Thanks for allowing me to reminisce about the music of Soul Train, and as always, thanks for listening and reading.