Friday, August 12, 2022

Damita Jo Freeman: Former ‘Soul Train’ Dancer Spills Tea with Lee Bailey

Damita Jo Freeman

*“Nobody really acknowledges me, when I was working in the Olympics in 1984, the closing ceremony with Lionel Ritchie, I was [the] choreographer. I don’t know another Black person of that age choreographing the Olympics. Do you?”

Allow this writer to get that for you guys…

Uh, no, we can’t say that we do! If the name Damita Jo Freeman sounds familiar, but you just can’t place it, those of age might go back to 1971, when Don Cornelius brought Soul Train to the masses and set Saturday mornings all around the country on fire with the latest performers of Black music, and new dances done in the Soul Train line by an awesome group of talented teens with tight ‘fros and hip clothes. It truly was “The hippest trip in America!

Freeman was one of the main dancers.

Remember the time soul singer Joe Tex was on and he pulled a young sista wearing hot pants and a big ‘fro up on stage with him and she threw down like it was a rehearsed piece? That was Damita (and the piece was NOT rehearsed!). Scroll down to see video that has now become a classic!

And get this…

That spontaneous performance happened her second day on the show! A show, mind you, she had never even heard of before she was cast.

Damita doing her thang!

Freeman speaks with EURweb publisher, Lee Bailey, via phone to talk about her time on the show, her frustration with the dancers’ not getting recognition for their work after all of these years and how she plans to ensure they all get their “15-Minutes of Fame” at a blow-out celebration this weekend.

Freeman is joined by Flo Jenkins, former editor of the teen magazine, Right On, which was first published in 1972. Jenkins played a significant role in bringing the individual dancers on the show to a public curious about who they were.

Lee Bailey asks Freeman to give some history on how she ended up on Soul Train in the first place.

Pamela Brown, the teen coordinator [for the show]. Her job was to go to these night clubs. At that time we had places like Mavericks Flats (a teenage place at that time), and another place, Osco’s – which we called The Climax. Osco’s was in that movie, Thank God It’s Friday. So you get a chance to see what Osco’s is and you get to see what we were facing. Now being on Soul Train, she saw me and Campbell dancing and she just came up to me and said that she would like me to be on Soul Train. Well I had never gotten to see or know what Soul Train was all about. So therefore, I thought it was a club. A dancing club, you know. So I just said, ‘OK. Yeah fine. Whatever.”

She continues…

“So anyway, when I told Campbell that, of course he said, ‘Oh great! I want us to be on Soul Train!!!’ I said, Hmm.., why is he so excited?  It’s just a club. But when I went there the next day, because you get a chance to meet Don Cornelius, so it was Don Cornelius and Tom Kuhn (the producer in charge). They came out of a room, because we were at a park having these auditions. One looked like Shaft, the other looked like Superfly,” she says.

REMEMBER DON USED TO PICK CERTAIN DANCERS FOR A SHORT INTERVIEW AFTER THEIR PERFORMANCE? Here’s Damita. Can’t you tell she was so happy to be there?

“Of course Don Campbell, that was my [dance] partner, is known now as ‘Mr. Campbellock.’ He created the dance style called ‘Locking’ that we were all doing, but he was… so excited and I didn’t know anything about Soul Train because I had never seen it. But there we were, the next day, a Saturday. We were on Soul Train. The 2nd day I was with Joe Tex. And then my life started changing.” Freeman was a dancer on Soul Train, off and on, from 1971- 1974.

Seemingly in shock, Lee Bailey interrupts, ‘Wait. Wait. Wait! So that iconic video of you dancing with Joe Tex (see video below) happened on your 2nd day?

‘Wow. Well what were your thoughts at that time, I mean, to go from never even hearing of Soul Train to being literally a featured dancer and a spotlight with Joe Tex – which looked like it was damn near choreographed and super professional. How did it happen?

Freeman explains what happened at the sound check prior to the airing of the show.

“As I heard the song I was playing around, with my hands moving up and down, but I didn’t know that I was being checked out by Mr. Joe Tex. So he said real quickly right after, in a whisper, he said, ‘Will I dance with him.’ I said OK, but I thought he meant he was going to be on the stage and I would be on the floor, you know, relating that kind of way. But no, he grabbed my hand and Bam! I was on stage.”

She tells Bailey that she learned never to stop a show (even when surprised)!

“All I knew was, if he keeps going,” she says of her call-and-response type dance with Tex, “I’m gonna keep going.”

Damita had never even heard the song, ‘I Gotcha’ – a song Tex had recorded himself in the late 60’s and re-recorded as a B-side on the album of the same name in 1972 according to Wikipedia!

“It was really cool” Freeman says of the now iconic experience, “That’s what made me want to become a dancer.”

Damita explains that she learned how to improvise. “I love listening to the music. I was always taught, in my own head, that if you don’t know what’s happening, look at the other person. Look at his expression, his mouth, listen to his words…the beat of the music. These are all of the thoughts running through my head for the two seconds while I’m dancing.”

“[But] after it was over, I never thought any more about it.” (She emulates voice of Don Cornelius). “I want to thank Joe Tex.” No one ever mentioned my name. No one ever said ‘thank you’ or anything. In fact, Don Cornelius was having a hissy-fit when I hit the stage; telling me behind the screen, I mean the camera, ‘Get off! Get off!’ He was running back and forth. You would think the whole place was exploding. I just kept dancing,” she laughs.

Bailey asks how important Damita feels Soul Train was to her career.

 “You know what? It opened up the door,” says Freeman, who also got to work with Dick Clarke on both the American Music Awards productions and the American Bandstand TV show (the white counterpart to Soul Train).

“And when I went on American Bandstand” with my other partner, Little Joe Chisholm, we got into a little contest that Dick Clarke was doing. And when I was dancing, guess who the judges were? Michael Jackson and The Jackson Five.”

Freeman says she and her partner represented L.A. for six weeks on the show.

Damita Jo also danced on Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand.’ Here she is pictured with Clark and dance partner, Little Joe Chisolm

“Dick Clarke brought in all the other kids from Mississippi, New York. It was a national contest. And so after six weeks, we won,” she says. “Ever since then the doors kept opening up, it was amazing,” she adds.

Post Soul Train Freeman, who is currently working on a children’s book, also got to choreograph The Grammys, and even worked with superstar Whitney Houston, on her last concert.

“I always work with Lionel Ritchie when he wants to do small things. I don’t really want to work on big things right now. I just want to enjoy and smell the roses,” she says.

Freeman, now 65-year-old, gives an emotional shout out and prayer request, to her friend and  former dance partner, Don Campbell, who she says is currently having health issues. She credits Right On magazine editor, Flo Jenkins with introducing the Soul Train dancers to a public she felt was curious about them.

“In the beginning, she had a dream because she believed in the talent that these street kids had,” she says of Jenkins. “…We didn’t have the training. Nobody told us that ‘one day, you’re going to be in this crazy business.’ But she believed in us. And the elements just seemed to form and the doors just began to open.”

Flo Jenkins
Flo Jenkins

Bailey asks Jenkins what it was about this group of kids that inspired her to invest time in them.

 “It was a no brainer,” says Jenkins, who reveals that she, too, was a dancer the first year she began working with Right On. “During that time it was a magazine just for teenagers, and it was the only Black magazine that came out of that publishing company. The minute Soul Train came on I automatically knew that they were nameless dancers that were gifted. And there was this one particular person the just stood out. I mean, everybody that was watching it during that period of time [saw that] Damita was a standout…So I would pull some of the dancers and have them come down for a shoot. I wanted to give them a name because I felt they needed to be known,” Jenkins says, adding, “There were no real outlets for audiences to know who these people even were. And they had a gift, which they were not being paid for (she chuckles). And I thought at least they could be recognized for what they were giving to the world.”

You got that part right? These dancers were not being paid! SOUL TRAIN DIDN’T PAY THESE DANCERS!!!

 ***Side bar: And I must mention I’ve heard rumors saying that when Don Campbell started inquiring about pay, he was kicked off the show.

Don ‘Campbellock’ Campbell

At one point as I was writing this story, I just happened to glance at the annoying TV in the waiting room of a certain establishment, only to see two young brothers [pop]  ‘locking’ in front of a Jerry Springer audience. Wow! Talk about a sign. Jenkins happened to address this point below, with Lee Bailey.

“There are camps where kids come from all parts of the world. You may not know this, but they come, and they try to learn how to do the locking steps. They try to learn the techniques that Damita did and they’re imitating the look, and the style, and the dress of these dancers who were on that show YEARS AGO. And now we have a show that’s coming up on TV, I understand.”

They are speaking of the upcoming BET show, American Soul, where Don Cornelius will be featured.

“I’m just kind of tired of it. I’m just tired of us not being acknowledged, and us trying to acknowledge each other without trying to steal from each other,” Jenkins adds. “We just don’t do it enough. So I think it’s overdue that we say, ‘Hey, let’s give to ourselves.’ Let’s respect ourselves, and that’s why we’re having this party.”

The party Jenkins is speaking of is an event that will be hosted by Damita Jo Freeman. A private affair this upcoming weekend where the Soul Train dancers’ will get their long overdue due. Freeman says it’s her way of giving back. They will get to walk the Red Carpet, receive City Proclamations and Certificates, and even be entertained by celebrities.

…and yes, there WILL be a Soul Train Line!

Now we see you cracking up out there. We are reading your thoughts as you envision a now geriatric crowd “dancing down the aisle.” Well, slow your roll, or at least your judgement. You know we all still do the Soul Train line at every party we have or go to, and Flo Jenkins has news for you! “You would be surprised how well some of them STILL move!” she tells Lee.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t seen the Soul Train dancers on any Where Are They Now? type documentary shows, this may be the reason why.

Freeman tells Lee Bailey, “…the conversation turns sour when I ask about pay. Can you believe one person said to me, ‘You know people don’t really get paid for documentaries,” to which she responded, “No, I didn’t know that,” before walking away.

“For this one event I want to put out a Red Carpet. I want them to have the things that they deserve; the recognition. I want the spotlight on them and I wanted to do this just before Black History Month because I just feel that it’s time for everybody to know why they are dancing the way they do…Now you’ve got locking… You’ve got kids from Asia, China, London, Malaysia. It’s crazy. They’re dressing like me and my partner, Don Campbell,” –Damita Jo Freeman

“Yes. And I mean it’s so long overdue. You know that, Lee, that the people who are really talented, our talent and our ideas have been stolen. That’s just in the history of who we are and it’s just unfortunate that we don’t get the recognition and we definitely don’t get the money for impacting the world the way that we do,” Jenkins adds.

****The Electronic Urban report salutes Damita Jo Freeman and all of the Soul Train dancers for their exceptional contribution to the entertainment industry and the history of dances still being done today, all around the world. We are so very proud of you!

We also wish a speedy recovery and return to good health, to you, Don ‘Campbellock’ Campbell!

 

**VIDEO** I GOTCHA!

Watch Damita Jo Freeman dancing with Joe Tex on Soul Train in the classic video below!

 

Hear Don ‘Campbellock’ Campbell talk about The Real History of Locking :

About writer DeBorah B. Pryor

Deborah B. Pryor

Former personal assistant to funk legend, Sly Stone, DeBorah B. Pryor began her journalism career backstage at the Apollo in New York City 45 years ago. She has been a writer with the Electronic Urban Report (EURweb) since 2003. As a senior editor with the site, she has written hundreds of articles including theatre reviews, features, profiles and even served as editor of the publications’ blog site, EURThisNthat, writing daily news articles. In May 2018 her first nonfiction book, AREN’T YOU SCARED: Lessons from a Lady Rideshare Driver was published. Learn more about her at lessonsfromaladyridesharedriver.com or on social media sites Facebook: DeBorah B. Pryor, Instagram: deborah.b.pryor and Twitter: @pryor_deborah

 

YOU MAY LIKE

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you, Ms. Pryor for such a detailed article on a true Soul Train Super Star, Damita Jo Freeman. She was one of the main dancers on Soul Train. Sad to learn they were not paid however, doors of opportunity did open for a few who walked through that door. Damita walked through that door.

  2. Ms. Pryor, Thank You for this feature article on my childhood & adulthood Dance Idol & Icon Ms. Damita Jo Freeman! It was just wonderful to get an inside look at the Lady that helped put Soul Train on the map in its infancy. Ms. Freeman’s boldness in expressing her talent encouraged so many of us Black children all across America in the 70’s to be proud of our culture and strut our stuff for the world to see! Ms. Freeman and the entire Soul Train Gang took being “Black and Proud” to another level. For this “I Thank You!”

    I would also be if I didn’t give a shout out and big up’s to the man with the vision and the dream, who took us from the back of the talent bus to the forefront of the American & World Entertainment Stage Mr. Don Cornelius! Thank you Don for sharing your vision of US with the World!!! So I have to close with “Love, Peace & SOUL!!!

    God Bless
    Mikki Hardwick Lett

Comments are closed.

SEARCH

THE CULTURECALENDAR: WHAT'S NEW & BLACK ON TV

- Advertisement -

TRENDING