By Denise Clay
ABOVE PHOTO: Courtesy SoulTrain.com
You’ll have to forgive local activist and gadfly Mannwell Glenn is he’s a little busy these days.
Trying to help organize the world’s longest Soul Train Line, particularly in a place like Philadelphia, can be a bit of a challenge. From trying to get a dance space big enough to handle about 212 people (the current world record is 211) to trying to find a time that will ensure maximum participation, Glenn and his fellow organizers, are trying to put together the necessary pieces.
The idea of doing the world’s longest Soul Train line came about after last week’s news that Don Cornelius, the show’s creator, had died. He was 75.
Because of the impact that the show has had on music and on a generation of African Americans that longed for a place to showcase their talents and culture, Cornelius was an icon on the level of another famous Black star that left us too soon, Glenn said.
“A lot of folks feel about Don like they did about Michael Jackson,” he said. “Soul Train was a part of their childhood. We turned in every Saturday morning to see the dancers, the clothes and the hairstyles.”
Jon Pinder got the chance to be one of those dancers as an actor living in Los Angeles in the 70s. While filming Let’s Do It Again with Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby, he got the chance to visit the show.
“I was 20-years-old,” he said. “It was fascinating because it was a new thing on television, especially for Black people, they had some really top artists on the show, and the line dance…That was the most phenomenal part of the show.”
“Everyone got the chance to do their thing,” continued Pinder, who lives in Baltimore. “That was probably the part that got my attention the most. The show was set in California and they used to do some strange dances out there. People on the East Coast used to look at them and say ‘What are they doing?’ I came in and mixed the West Coast with some East Coast. It was strange to them, but it was fun.”
The theme song for the show, The Sound of Philadelphia (TSOP) was among the things that made it a must-see on Saturday mornings for Philadelphia’s young people. It also represented on of the few wrong moves that Cornelius made in Soul Train’s early days.
“He was like, I don’t want anybody else to have my brand but me,” Gamble said in an interview with Billboard Magazine. “We said, ‘But that’s your theme song.’ He said, ‘Nah, call it anything you want. Don’t call it the Soul Train theme. So we called it TSOP, and it became a number one record and every time we’d see him after that he’d say ‘Dumbest move I ever made’. But it’s okay. It locks us in with each other forever.”
At a time when being young, gifted and black didn’t get a lot of recognition, Cornelius gave Black youths the chance to see their everyday culture showcased for all to see through Soul Train. It also allowed White America to be introduced to a variety of musical acts that they might not have made connection with otherwise.
“Before Soul Train, most of the television shows featured white artists,” said Jerry Blavat, a Philadelphia music institution who knew Cornelius when they were both disc jockeys spinning R&B records. “But the dancers were mixed. He decided that it was time to do a show that showcased the Black Experience.”
As a professor at Cheyney University in the 70s, Michael Nise saw just how important that was to his students. Nise, who went on to be one of the creators of the Philadelphia-based dance show Dancin’ On Air, saw that impact firsthand.
“[Cornelius] gave African Americans an opportunity to feel special with Soul Train,” Nise said. “His real legacy was his ability to bridge the gap, bring two groups together, and present African Americans in a light they hadn’t been seen in before. It was as much about socialization as it was about music. It was a cultural statement.”
Funeral services for Cornelius are set for Monday in Los Angeles.