For those who love to bathe in the nostalgia of the 1970s, Chicago’s Soul Train reunion party this Labor Day weekend rolled in to meet those expectations. In celebration of the show’s 40th anniversary, fans were treated to a Soul Train party Friday night; a showing of the VH1 documentary, “The Hippest Trip in America,” with a panel discussion featuring the train operator Don Cornelius, director of the documentary J. Kevin Swain, and CEO of Soul Train Holdings, Kenard Gibbs; an exhibition of photos and footage from the show at the 72 Expo; and a free concert at the Pavilion in Millenium Park with Chicago’s legends: The Emotions, Jerry Butler, Tom Tom 84, Gene Chandler, and the Chi-Lites performing.
But why should Chicago get this treat?
Most people don’t know about the show’s humble roots as a daily live show in Chicago before making it in Los Angeles and eventually becoming the longest-running first-run syndicated show in television history.
It was in Chicago that Cornelius, with the hip clothing that would become his signature on the LA show, made a name for himself and for Chicago’s rich musical talent on the daily black-n-white television show. The set was housed on the 43rd floor of the Chicago Board of Trade in a 10’ by 10’ space with a faulty air conditioner—so hot that some of the local dancers would often get nauseous.
It was here that Cornelius paved the way for his signature profound bass sign-off: “Love, Peace, and Souuuul!” It was where many talented dancers became local celebrities and where live television taught Cornelius, the dancers, and the artists to get it right the first time.
At the screening of “Hippest Trip,” which has screened to sold out crowds recently in Brazil, Korea, and Mexico City, youth coordinator, Jackie Samuel was in a reverie: “I was nearly in tears, it took me right back to those days when I watched it every day.”
At the panel a still smooth, impeccably turned out Cornelius in all black leather, paid homage to legendary radio man, Roy Woods, who gave him his first television gig as a host on the WCIU Channel 26 show, “A Blacks View of the News.” With an acerbic wit he teased running buddies like WBEZ’s Richard Steele, showed off his take-no-prisoners attitude, an attitude that got him to hone a successful show without the support of a major network. The normally steely cool host did admit that he got a little “emotional” when watching the documentary and reliving some of the scenes.
“It was so much fun during those days, there really was no other show like it,” remembered radio legend La Donna Tittle who would serve as a fill-in weather girl on “A Blacks View of the News.”
The show reached another milestone this year when The Smithsonian Institute called to add Soul Train memorabilia to their collection.
“The show represents so many dreams that were realized,” said Gibbs who is hard at work on Soul Train awards show set for taping this November. “Once you’re in the Smithsonian, you’re forever seared into history of this country.”
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