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When Walter Payton Danced On Soul Train

It happened. From Jeff Pearlman's Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton:

"If [Mary 'Bullet' Jones] was Jackson State's Ginger Rogers, its Fred Astaire was Walter Payton. Throughout a freshman year noteworthy for gridiron excellence, Payton generated equally rave reviews for his improvisational dance talents. Wherever one looked, he could find Walter dancing. Inside classrooms. Within the corridors of Sampson Hall. Standing in line for lunch. On the bus rides to away games. 'He danced just like Rerun from What's Happening!!' said Jackie Slater, an offensive lineman who went on to a twenty-year NFL career. 'The moves were crazy and wild and extremely athletic.'

"'There was a porch in front of our field house, and as we were getting ready to play the football games Walter would stand there and dance, dance, dance, dance,' said Porter Taylor, a quarterback. 'Coach Hill would walk by, take a look at Walter moving all around and say, 'OK, we're ready.'"


"Yet unbeknownst to the Tigers coach, the sly back wasn't merely pondering pigskin. Like nearly all Jackson State students, Walter was a rabid fan of 24 Karat Black Gold, a half-hour television program that aired every Saturday morning on Jackson's NBC affiliate, channel 3.

"The program's concept was simple and in the age of American Bandstand and Soul Train, unoriginal: Invite a large number of local black high school and college students to a television studio and have them dance to the latest hits. 'That was it,' said Lee King, 24 Karat Black Gold's creator and one-time radio engineer for James Brown. 'Our show was eighty percent dancing, and the other twenty percent was videos and appearances by regional and national artists. It worked so well because it was an outlet for African-Americans in Mississippi. Their ambitions were at a low level because they didn't have a lot of recreational things to do in the area. So when our show came out, it was their Bandstand.'

"Without telling Hill (who would have certainly objected), on a Tuesday evening in early September 1972, Walter and a couple of friends drove to the WLBT studio on South Jefferson Street, where auditions were being held for the new season. The line stretched down the block and around the corner - hundreds of young blacks in search of stardom. 'We had to introduce ourselves, say what college we attended, what our major was,' said Jones. "Then we formed a Soul Train line and danced. If we were good, they invited us back the following week. There was no salary, but we didn't care. It wasn't about that.'

"'I was from Augusta, Georgia, so I had no idea who Walter was,' said King. 'But he auditioned with this freestyle dance that was crazy and different. He had a great way of carrying himself, too. He radiated something unique.'

"The tapings took place on the first Monday of every month - four episodes shot in one exhausting evening. Though he often walked onto the dance floor straight from football practice, muscles aching and knees throbbing, as soon as the TV cameras rolled and the sounds of Earth, Wind & Fire or the Jackson 5 blared across the room, Walter came to life. His wardrobe was, even for the times, outrageous - bright purple cutoff shirts, baggy velvet pants, tight jeans, some sort of fedora-esque hat. The popular dance style of the time was called 'Pop 'n' Lock,' a precursor to break dancing that incorporated fluid and wavy isolated movements with tight robotic illusions. His go-to move was the Centipede, slinking to the floor and moving his body in wavelike motions. 'Oh he was an excellent dancer,' said Jones. 'Walter used to inject a lot of the techniques they did in football . . . some of the calisthenics and exercises. He was really flexible with his body; more so than the rest of us.'

"Because the Tiger football program was still finding itself, Payton the running back had yet to establish himself as a household name in Jackson. Payton the dancer, on the other hand, was huge. 'The show aired every week, so people became familiar with us,' said Jones. 'Throughout the fall and spring, we turned into celebrities. Kids would yell out when we drove by and people would stop and ask about the dances. It was thrilling.'"


"Midway through the academic year, King announced that 24 Karat Black Gold was affiliating itself with the first-ever Soul Train National Championship Dance-Off. Throughout the country, each state would host its own competition, with the winning couples flying to Los Angeles to appear on Soul Train and vie for the title of America's Best Dancers. At the time, Payton and Jones were teamed on Black Gold with fairly mediocre partners. 'So Walter came up to me one day and said, How about entering the Soul Train contest together?' Jones said. 'I really think we can win this thing if we team up.' For the next two weeks the two met in a second-floor room of Jackson State's student union building and danced until their toes blistered. 'We had forty-fives and LPs, and we practiced for endless hours,' Jones said. 'We expected to win.'

"The first round of the competition was held at the College Park Auditorium on Lynch Street. Hundreds of couples took to the floor as the judges cruised the room, tapping out those who didn't make the cut. Along with forty-nine other couples, Walter and Mary survived the first week, then lasted again as the total was reduced to twenty-five, and then again to a mere ten. The championship round was held on a Sunday, ten couples dancing for the right to appear on one of black America's most popular television programs. 'I'd never left Mississippi in my life,' said Jones. 'I'd never even been on an airplane. So the possibility was breathtaking.'

"The ten couples were pared down to five, then three. Walter gazed at Mary. Mary gazed at Walter. They locked eyes, knowing to ignore the judges and just move. Finally, the music stopped. The couple looked around, and nobody was left. 'I was overcome with joy, and so was Walter,' said Jones. 'To be chosen to represent the entire state of Mississippi! What an honor!'

"By the time Walter and Mary flew to Los Angeles, it was the summer of 1973. The local radio station, WOKJ, presented both students with plane tickets and five hundred dollars in spending money. ('Five hundred dollars!' laughs Jones. 'I couldn't believe it.') They stayed at the Hyatt in Los Angeles, and were given tours of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Upon arriving at Soul Train's studio, they met Don Cornelius, the famed deep-voiced host and producer.

"The show was taped the night after they arrived. Couples from across the nation danced away, until fifty were whittled down to thirty, and thirty were whittled down to fifteen, and fifteen were whittled down to two. The victors would be gifted two brand-new olive green Dodge Chargers - 'and we really wanted those cars,' Jones said.

"Walter wore jeans with wide legs, a cutoff shirt that revealed his muscular stomach, and Gene Simmons-esque platform heels. Atop his head was an apple cap, a style staple for black men in the ealry 1970s. He and Mary danced as well as they ever had. So, unfortunately, did the couple from Louisiana. 'Mississippi and Louisiana were the last two standing,' Jones said. 'They were just a little bit better than we were.'

"Walter and Mary left empty-handed.

"'But the story of dancing with Walter,' said Mary, 'has lasted me a lifetime.'"


Comments welcome.


Posted on February 10, 2012

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