Last month when Don Cornelius died, a flood of memories rushed my head. After much thought I realized that, in hindsight, his influence helped bring me into focus on what I wanted to do in life. My desire to work in entertainment began to click in the early 1980s, foremost with the influence of Michael Jackson, and then because of Don's TV show Soul Train.
Like everyone else, I began gravitating toward Michael with the Off the Wall record. In fact, I debated so heavily about spending $50 for a life-sized cutout of Michael on that album that I saw at record store in Lincoln Park's Century Mall, my parents, feeling my anguish (hey, fifty bucks was a lot back then for a kid), offered to buy it.
I can just as clearly recall being a toddler in the 1970s and playing Michael's records on the little orange turntable Santa brought me. My tiny hands spun the Jackson Five and Michael's "Ben" and "Never Can Say Goodbye." ("Benny and the Jets" also played among them.)
However, the depth of Michael's influence wouldn't hit me until the release of Thriller. He made me determined to visit California at some point before I die. He also persuaded me to reexamine Soul Train because the Asian woman (Cheryl Song) who gets her hair tugged back and kissed by her boyfriend in the "Beat It" video was a Soul Train dancer. So in totally absorbing myself in him, I wanted to learn what moved his body. What inspired his dance? The TV show had not appealed to me as much before then.
If you look at early Jackson Five footage, as well as the group's appearance on Soul Train, Mike's dance style was heavily influenced by the pop-locking that Fred Berry (Rerun on What's Happening!!) and The Lockers popularized on the show. Incidentally, the troupe also included Toni Basil of "Mickey" fame. Further, Michael learned the moonwalk from Soul Train dancer Jeffrey Daniel, although I disagree that Daniel invented the move: Black dancers had been performing a mini version of the steps during the Harlem Renaissance, maybe even earlier. Certainly, Daniel taught Michael, who in turn couldn't avoid making it his signature dance move after performing it on Motown 25.
I liked American Bandstand, but because of Michael I fell in love with Soul Train more. The show was just hipper and the dancing much cooler.
From then onward, everything I saw on Soul Train, mostly in the way of clothing and hairstyles since I was not much of hip dancer (I studied ballet), I emulated. My mother noticed this and contacted the show's producer at the time, Trish Steed, asking her if I could dance on the show for my birthday in 1984. My good friend, Tony St. Clair, who was a much better dancer than I (still is), accompanied me.
That weekend marked the first behind-the-scenes experience I had ever witnessed and the first celebrities I stood really close to, although Don himself eluded me.
My time there was such a blur, not because it wasn't memorable but because I was so excited; several hours passed before I could actually bring myself to get up and dance; whereas, Tony had already made the rounds a few times, bringing back from the dance floor some new friends. Both of us had done major shopping before our trips and even a bit in the L.A. shopping district (I couldn't afford Rodeo Drive at the time!) to make sure we had just the right look.
I'm sure I shared this ritual with the regular Soul Train dancers (the one weekend a month they taped the show) to look their best. Mom made a big deal of the trip, too, spending several hundred dollars on my outfits, some of them metallic with matching shoes, so I could stand out on the television. I had already been trying my darnedest to style like Prince, Madonna, and Michael Jackson during that era. That was probably the main catalyst for finally convincing myself to dance: Mom would have fussed at me big time for not busting a move after she had spent all that money on clothes.
In fact, that trip to Soul Train made me more fashion conscious than I had been before. I went to great lengths to be unique in my dress, which got even more outrageous after I returned home from L.A. I wanted my classmates to know that I was different: that I had gone Hollywood!
The year I attended, Don and the dancers (who I learned weren't paid to dance on the show) were unveiling a new dance-studio set that looked like something out of Blade Runner with a funky touch. Trish greeted us, wishing me a happy birthday, and presenting Tony and me with monogrammed Soul Train jackets, which we still have. Mine sits in the family cedar chest, along with my mother's favorite baby clothing of mine.
The shows I appeared on featured Star Search's Sam Harris, Cornelius protégée O'Bryan, Vanity, on her first foray as a solo artist, and funk band Lakeside. I did more absorbing of the atmosphere than dancing, noting how small the set looked in person versus on television.
Despite the all those props around me, my mind refused to really believe I was there, actually on the Soul Train. Reality wouldn't set in until I ran into Cheryl, Crystal MacCrary, and Louie Carr, and the latter two posed for pictures with us (which I will post as soon as I find).
Tony reminded me last September as I went to cover Don Cornelius' appearance at Millennium Park that we missed dancing the Soul Train line in the studio that Saturday night (if I remember correctly) because my uncle, who lived in Hawthorne, California, at the time, had to go to work the next morning. Plus, he thought we were too young to be out so late. From what I gathered, the time had neared midnight and the line hadn't begun taping yet.
Merely a kid, I was less aggressive back then. Had I known that we were missing the line—if you’ll recall, I said I was dazed!—and cell phones were in wide existence, I would have called my mother crying profusely. In turn, she would have jacked my uncle UP and made him let us stay us until we danced the line. That we got to dance on the show at all remains a blessing and perhaps the greatest memory of my childhood.
Tags: American Bandstand, Beat It, Benny and the Jets, Billie Jean, Century Mall, Cheryl Song, Dancer, Death, Don Cornelius, Elton John, Fred Berry, Jackson Five, Jeffrey Daniel, Lakeside, Lincoln Park, Louie Carr, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Millennium Park, Motown, Motown 25, Never Can Say Goodbye, O'Bryan, Off the Wall, Prince, Rerun, Sam Harris, Shalamar, Soul Train, Soul Train Dancer, Star Search, The Lockers, Thriller, Toni Basil, Tony St. Clair, Vanity, What's Happening!!