By Stephanie Henson Gadlin, National Correspondent
His iconic howl is recognized by millions of people across the globe as the voice of Soul Train. Broadcast legend Joe Cobb, whose voice calls out “Sooooooooul Train” on all branded content, is reportedly being cheated out of his royalties following the suicide of the program’s founder Don Cornelius.
Cobb’s shocking claim comes at a time when Soul Train continues to see a resurgence in its impact on popular culture and the chronicling of Black music history. The veteran broadcaster told the Chicago Crusader that he has not been receiving his royalties for nearly a decade, and that his legal team has been stonewalled.
To many this may appear to be yet another example of an African American performer being swindled by greedy corporations, mainstream entertainers, crafty lawyers and sometimes, organized crime.
Like the swoosh symbol made famous by the athletic apparel giant Nike, or James Earl Jones’ “this is CNN” for the international cable news network, Cobb’s iconic, piercing yell is just as synonymous with Soul Train.
“When Don launched the program he asked me to do voice over work for the television show,” Cobb said from his home in Little Rock, Arkansas. “Sid McCoy did the announcing and I created the yell. Don and I had an agreement and everything was good. The show was a success. I was earning money. And, together we all took pride in creating something that celebrated and chronicled Black music and its global impact.”
Today, Soul Train branded content includes several nationally televised award programs; a branded cruise experience; boxed DVD sets of the television series, syndicated reruns and the recently aired “American Soul” miniseries produced by BET and its parent company Viacom.
With such global distribution, Cobb’s royalties and missed compensation may now be in the millions of dollars. “As the show continued to reach mainstream status the production company started skipping royalty payments,” Cobb explained. “I’d usually make a call and it was taken care of. But things changed around 2012. I had my lawyers send Don a letter demanding my back payments—and so he (Cornelius) reached out to me and said he’d work it out. A month later they claim he killed himself.”
Cornelius, a Chicago native, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on February 1, 2012, after what authorities alleged was fueled by a recent divorce. After his son Tony told the press his father didn’t appear to be suffering from depression, conspiracy theories circulated unfounded rumors that the music legend was “taken out by higher powers” who wanted their hands on the Soul Train empire.
A former news broadcaster who covered the Civil Rights Movement, Cornelius created “Soul Train” in 1970 and hosted the show in national syndication from 1971 to 1993. It was the first televised venue in the U.S. that featured soul music, not just the artists, but producers, composers, musicians and writers. Soul Train introduced many acts to mainstream audiences and boosted the record sales of hundreds of established artists.
Cobb began his career in radio in the early 1960s, cementing his celebrity status on WVON as part of the “The Good Guys.” He recalls “I originally did the yell as a joke—I was warming up my voice to read the copy. But Don was impressed with it and said he liked it and so he asked me to do it again. The rest is history.”
It should be noted that while Cobb and McCoy were in agreement with the brand, in May 2008, Cornelius sold the rights to the Soul Train library to MadVision Entertainment, which in turn sold it in 2011 to a private investment group led by NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
In 2016, Viacom’s BET Networks division bought all rights and trademarks to the Soul Train brand, the show’s extensive library, the annual cruise event, and the award shows that continue to bear the Soul Train name.
And through it all Cobb’s iconic yell remains the most consistent component of the Soul Train brand. Neither Black Entertainment Television nor its parent company Viacom, responded to press inquiries prior to deadline.
Cornelius himself spoke to Cobb’s influence in an interview with the late radio legend Herb Kent just four months before his death. “(Cobb) is the voice of Soul Train—one of two voices, Sid McCoy being the other, God rest his soul, the greatest I’ve ever heard as a DJ in any city—and Joe Cobb is probably my second favorite…,” Cornelius said.
While that is humbling to Cobb, he also said he was gearing up for another round of legal battles. “When I started fighting all of these corporate lawyers at (Viacom) and BET and whatnot, at some point they tried to get some voice over artist to replicate my voice,” Cobb said. “He couldn’t. Then they reached out to me about a year ago and wanted me to take a buyout of less than $15,000. Do you know how insulting that was? You continue to make millions off of my voice all these years and you want to offer me a few crumbs? How dumb did they think I was?
“For a while I felt defeated,” he admitted. “It’s like trying to navigate a maze. My deal with Soul Train remains intact and I’m just honestly trying to get what’s owed to me. I admit I do get angry about it sometimes. No one likes to feel cheated.”
On February 5, BET aired the first of its 10-part mini-series chronicling the rise and fall of Soul Train and its creator. With only three episodes in as of this writing, the big-budgeted and heavily marketed show is already being lambasted for its historical inaccuracies.
Glenn Cosby, a former national program director for ABC radio networks and who currently serves as on-air talent at WVAZ-FM in Chicago, said he is not surprised that Cobb is being “cheated out of his royalties” because of the ongoing “history of these sort of conglomerates, doing this to Black artists.” He also didn’t mince words on the BET dramatic series, which he labeled a “scrambled nightmare.”
“It’s laughable to tell the history of Soul Train without mentioning Joe Cobb, Sid McCoy, Clinton Gent, WVON, WCIU and the Chicago Board of Trade,” Cosby told the ChicagoCrusader. “BET didn’t do a nickel’s worth of research. And, it’s not lost on any of (those in the industry) that Viacom/BET is stealing from Joe—not just his money, but also his voice.”
While Cobb pursues legal remedy, he continues to mentor broadcasting students through his philanthropic endeavors in Arkansas. And he also owns a successful popcorn business in Hot Springs, AR. “You just keep on pushing on,” he said. “I still have some fight left in me. It’s not over.”