Joe Cobb and Don Cornelius met when they were both working at WVON, the Black radio station in Chicago, back in the 1960s.
Cornelius used that broadcasting experience for the 1971 launch of Soul Train, a groundbreaking TV dance show highlighting Black youth, music and fashion. But it was at WVON when the 22-year-old Cobb first voiced his now famous scream of the phrase “soul train” to open the show.
“I was just pranking,” Cobb said.
But Cornelius liked the prank so much he wanted Cobb to officially record and introduce “Soul Train.”
The television show started out small at WCIU, a Chicago station, before hitting the big time and moving west to California. During the entire syndication run from 1971 to 2006, Cobb’s soulful “soooooul train” could be heard as the animated dancing train bounces on the screen. And it continues to be used to this day — but without any compensation for Cobb, he said.
Cobb said his royalty checks stopped in 2008, but the use of his voice didn’t. He is now seeking at least $75,000 in back royalties. Cobb filed a federal lawsuit this month in the Northern District of Illinois against the current owners of the show, Paramount Global, CBS Entertainment and Black Entertainment Television.
“I didn’t give permission to use it. I didn’t sign off on using my voice and the ‘Soul Train’ scream,” Cobb, 80, said. He had a long career on-air at WVON and WGCI before retiring in 2000. Today he lives in the Little Rock, Arkansas area and spends part of his day selling popcorn at his store, Ginger’s Popcorn.
For decades, Soul Train blasted in the homes of African Americans on Saturday mornings featuring hip dance moves and memorable performances such as Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson singing at the piano, the Jackson 5 performing the robot and early hip-hop star Grandmaster Flash rapping “The Message.” Soul Train’s indelible mark on popular culture is still felt today.
Cobb’s lawyer Manotti L. Jenkins said his client has been deprived of information for several years despite reaching out to different entities affiliated with Soul Train.
Back in the 1960s, Cobb was a member of the Screen Actors Guild, the union that represents actors and other entertainers. Today, it is called Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA for short.
“I was a member in good standing for years, even after I relocated to Arkansas,” Cobb said.
Cobb said he severed his relationship with SAG after Cornelius sold the rights of the show to another company.
According to the lawsuit, SAG-AFTRA informed everyone affiliated with the show they would be receiving releases to sign to waive their rights to additional compensation.
Cobb said he never received the letter.
Cobb said trying to get information from SAG-AFTRA about his case has been nearly impossible, with the union claiming it has no record of his work.
“As described by Don Cornelius himself, I am the voice of Soul Train. … 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,” Cobb said.
Cornelius died at the age of 75 in 2012.
The rights to Soul Train were purchased by a company owned by Magic Johnson in 2012, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit also claims Black Entertainment Television (BET) contacted Cobb to use his scream during the Soul Train Awards in 2014, offering him $1,000, which he rejected.
But BET used the scream anyway, the lawsuit states.
Then in 2016, BET bought the Soul Train franchise.
The lawsuit said Soul Train — along with Cobb’s “golden pipes” – lives on in DVD box sets of the show, syndicated reruns and even ringtones for cell phones, but the exact extent of Cobb’s voice usage is unknown, Jenkins said.
“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 lawsuit states.
CBS Entertainment, Paramount Global or BET could be reached for comment.
SAG-AFTRA, which is not named in the lawsuit, also could not be reached for comment. SAG-AFTRA represents newsroom employees at WBEZ.
Reporter Michael Puente is a member of WBEZ’s Race, Class & Communities desk. Follow him on X @MikePuenteNews and on Facebook as Michael Puente Journalist.