Dancers on the TV show “Soul Train.”
Soul Train Holdings, LLC
Joe Cobb and Don Cornelius met when both worked at WVON, the Black radio station, in the 1960s.
Cornelius used that broadcast experience for the 1971 launch of “Soul Train,” his groundbreaking TV dance show highlighting Black youth, music and fashion.
It was at WVON that Cobb, then 22, first voiced his now-famous scream of the phrase “soooooul train.”
“I was just pranking,” Cobb says.
But Cornelius liked his prank so much that he had Cobb introduce “Soul Train.”
The television show started out small, airing on the Chicago UHF station WCIU-Channel 26 before hitting the big time and moving to California and a long run in syndication.
During that run, which stretched from 1971 to 2006, Cobb’s soulful “soooooul train” could be heard as viewers saw an animated dancing train bounce along on screen.
Now, in a federal lawsuit filed in Chicago, Cobb says that, although his introduction to the show still can be heard in DVD box sets of “Soul Train,” syndicated reruns and ringtones for cellphones, he no longer is getting any compensation.
Cobb, now 80, says his royalty checks stopped in 2008. He is suing Paramount Global, CBS Entertainment and Black Entertainment Television — the current owners of rights to the show — seeking at least $75,000 in back royalties.
“I didn’t give permission to use it,” Cobb says. “I didn’t sign off on using my voice and the ‘Soul Train’ scream.”
He had a long on-air radio career at WVON and WGCI before retiring in 2000. Today, he lives near Little Rock, Ark., area and spends part of his day selling popcorn at his Ginger’s Popcorn store.
On Saturday mornings for decades, “Soul Train” blasted into homes, featuring hip dance moves and memorable performances, like Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson singing at the piano, the Jackson 5 with Michael Jackson doing the robot and early hip-hop star Grandmaster Flash rapping “The Message.”
Cobb’s lawyer Manotti L. Jenkins says he’s tried for several years to get information from various entities affiliated with “Soul Train” in his effort to get paid for the use of his voice, without success.
In the 1960s, Cobb was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and that he remained in the union that represents actors and other entertainers, “even after I relocated to Arkansas.”
But he says he cut ties with the union — now called Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA — after Cornelius sold the rights to the show. Cornelius died at 75 in 2012.
Cobb’s lawsuit says SAG-AFTRA informed those affiliated with the show that they would be getting releases to sign to waive their rights to additional compensation.
He says he never got that letter and has been trying to get information from SAG-AFTRA, which he says told him it has no record of his work.
“As described by Don Cornelius himself, I am the voice of ‘Soul Train,’ ” Cobb says. “It’s like I never existed. And, not only that, even my history in broadcasting, those 40 years I spent in Chicago, there’s no record of anything there, nothing.”
The rights to “Soul Train” were purchased in 2012 by a company owned by Magic Johnson, and in 2016, BET, which airs the Soul Train Awards, bought the franchise.
Cobb says in his lawsuit that BET contacted him about using his scream during the awards show in 2014, offering him $1,000. He says he rejected that but that BET used the scream anyway.
“This lawsuit seeks to vindicate Mr. Cobb’s rights and to ensure he is compensated for his valuable contributions to Black American and American popular culture,” the suit says.
Representatives of BET, CBS Entertainment and Paramount Global couldn’t be reached for comment.
SAG-AFTRA, which isn’t named in the suit and which represents WBEZ newsroom employees, also could not be reached.
Singer Marvin Gaye (left) with longtime “Soul Train” host Don Cornelius in 1974.