Clinton Ghent’s long legs took him a long way.
He grew up in Bronzeville with “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius, who was wowed by his moves and asked him to find dancers for the now-iconic music show he was putting together in 1970 at Chicago’s WCIU-Channel 26 studios.
The show became a huge hit. Then, when Cornelius started a syndicated version, shot in Los Angeles, he asked Mr. Ghent to take over hosting in Chicago. For more than five years, “Clinton kept it going,” Cornelius later told deejay Herb Kent.
Mr. Ghent, who had emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, died Saturday at Vitas hospice at Mercy Hospital in Chicago. The longtime South Side resident was 78.
“He was just so smooth, and his feet moved so fast,” said Mary Harris, a regular “Soul Train” dancer known as “Black Mary.”
Dancing at Chicago’s old High Chaparral club, Mr. Ghent caught the eye of Jackson family patriarch Joe Jackson, who “saw the way he danced and hired him to do choreography for the Jackson 5,” said his daughter Kendra Williams.
Mr. Ghent later choreographed for the Emotions, the Chi-Lites, the Whispers and others, Williams said.
He attended Tilden Technical High School, where he was on the basketball team, his daughter said.
In a 2008 Chicago Reader interview, Mr. Ghent said he was offered a college scholarship in Colorado but, “There were three blacks on campus — me and two Africans. I wasn’t ready for that.”
He wound up at a university in Ohio. “There, he caught the attention of a dance professor . . . Every time he passed her classroom after basketball practice, the sounds of soul music drew him in and he’d dance in the hallway,” according to the book “Love, Peace and Soul” by Ericka Blount Danois. “She noticed his talent and helped to enroll him in a six-month program at Juilliard.”
Cornelius told Kent he approached Mr. Ghent while he was dancing at the Guys and Gals club on the South Side.
“Clinton, baby,” Cornelius said, “before you leave, I wanna holler at you.”
“I was sharp. I was a player. I was having fun,” Mr. Ghent later said.
Cornelius asked him to find dancers for his new show. “I got the baddest people in the world,” Mr. Ghent said during a “Soul Train” reunion on the TV show “Chic-a-Go-Go.”
He’d pair high school kids with skilled club dancers, according to Harris.
“Everyone who was a dancer who I interviewed had nothing but praise for Ghent — how smooth he was, the dapper way that he dressed, the way he did choreography,” said Christopher P. Lehman, a professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota who wrote “A Critical History of ‘Soul Train’ on Television.” “He was important to viewers in a different way than Don Cornelius but not in any less of a way.
“By agreeing to host the show in Chicago while Don Cornelius was in California, he was able to keep Cornelius’ legacy alive for a few years. I think that Ghent understood how important the show was.”
Watching ”Soul Train,” teenagers could learn more than the latest styles and moves. It connected kids across racial and ethnic backgrounds. They even got history lessons from the commercials — like an Afro Sheen ad featuring the ghost of abolitionist Frederick Douglass urging a young man to look his best.
After “Soul Train’s” Chicago tapings ended in 1976, Cornelius — who died in 2012 — asked Mr. Ghent to move to Los Angeles to help with the West Coast show. He flew out regularly but felt “the whole vibe, this is not for me,” according to his daughter.
Mr. Ghent never got rich from the show, she said, but, “He enjoyed life. He used to travel, and meeting all the celebrities. He didn’t really put a lot of emphasis on the money.”
But he did buy a new Corvette every year, according to his daughter, who remembers him picking her up from school at various times in a black one, a yellow one and another that was light green with an orange stripe.
Also, she said, “It would be nothing to hop on a plane to New York and get fitted for his suits.”
Mr. Ghent’s mother Rosalee was the first African-American crossing guard in Illinois, according to Kendra Williams. His father, also named Clinton, was a railroad worker.
Later in life, he worked for the U.S. Postal Service and was a Chicago Park District umpire and coach at Washington Park
He is also survived by his son Marcus Banks, his brothers Philip and Laurenton Ghent and four grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Contributing: Kathy Chaney