(Don Cornelius, pictured here in 2010, created Soul Train as a vehicle not just for black music but for black youth and black pride. But he didn’t hesitate to make white artists part of the show.)
It’s one of the great music trivia questions: Who was the first white artist to appear on Soul Train? The most popular answers, Elton John, Gino Vannelli, and David Bowie, are all wrong.
In The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style, Nelson George settles it definitively. “The first white American acts on Soul Train were instrumentalists, not singers, which probably explains why they aren’t well remembered.” The groundbreaking performer was one of the top session cats in the business, Dennis Coffey, who performed his solo hit “Scorpio” in January 1972. Tower of Power was next, fronted by black vocalist Lenny Williams but featuring a number of white musicians, appearing in November 1973.
Vannelli appeared in February 1975, singing the spectacularly underrated “People Gotta Move.” George says that the circumstances of Vannelli’s booking (over three years before his breakout hit, “I Just Wanna Stop”) are bit unclear. Vannelli opened some shows for Stevie Wonder in 1974, and he claims Soul Train’s producers invited him on after that. Don Cornelius told an interviewer that Vannelli’s handlers asked for the booking. Eventually, Vannelli says he asked Cornelius why he’d had him on, because “I’m obviously not a black artist.” Cornelius responded, “Well, I consider you off-white.”
Elton John asked to be on the show, appearing in May 1975, while “Philadelphia Freedom” was on the radio every 15 minutes. It was not his first record to attract interest from the Soul Train audience, however. “Bennie and the Jets” had gotten some traction on R&B radio the year before. George claims it hit #1 “not just on the pop chart but on the R&B chart too,” but if he’s referring to Billboard‘s Hot Soul Singles chart, that’s incorrect. (I can’t find all of the charts, but “Bennie” seems to have peaked in the 20s sometime in May 1974.) Unlike a lot of other Soul Train performers, Elton sang both “Bennie and the Jets” and “Philadelphia Freedom” live over a recorded backing track, and in a different costume for each one.
In December 1975, the Average White Band was on the show, but their appearance was quickly overshadowed by David Bowie’s, on the first show of 1976. He had recorded much of his 1975 album Young Americans at Sigma Sound Studios, the cradle of Philly soul, and he referred to Soul Train on the title track. We’ve remarked on Bowie’s performance at this blog in the past—in the interview segment, he seems painfully nervous, and his performances of “Fame” and his new single, “Golden Years” required multiple takes to get his lip-synch half-right because he hadn’t bothered to learn the words. Bowie told an interviewer that Cornelius actually took him to the woodshed at one point, saying, “Do you know there are kids lined up to do this show, who have fought their whole lives to try and get a record and come on here?”
In the middle of the 1980s, with danceable rock music all the rage, a string of white artists appeared on Soul Train. A few of these made sense, including Hall and Oates, Sheena Easton, and the Tom Tom Club. But George says “someone on the programming team had a real weakness for new-wave bands,” which is the only accounting for appearances by Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, a-ha, the Thompson Twins, and others. A few of the choices in the mid-80s were just loony: Don Henley, Jack Wagner, and even Weird Al Yankovic, who was represented by his Michael Jackson parody video, “Eat It.” About the best anybody can say for that period of the show’s history, according to George, is that “it opened up black viewers to a universe of music they’d have otherwise ignored.”
The Hippest Trip in America grew out of interviews conducted for the 2010 VH1 documentary of the same name (which is sitting in limbo right now with little prospect of a DVD release due to legal issues), and while it’s worth your time, it’s not exactly the definitive Soul Train history I’d like to read. It lacks not just notes but also an index, which is inexcusable. It’s way too heavy on anecdotes from individual Soul Train dancers while leaving impresario Don Cornelius almost a cipher. George says Cornelius, who committed suicide in 2012, was reluctant to be interviewed for the documentary at all, and he refused to answer any questions about his personal life—and so the definitive biography of the man is yet to be written.
I’d read that.