‘Soul Train’ + Queen: How “I Want to Break Free” soundtracked the show’s most humanitarian moment.

(April 19, 2021).  This is the story of humanity being found in one of the least expected places decades ago, involving a little Latino kid named Jessie, the rock group Queen and one of America’s favorite television institutions.

Humanity.  We could all use some of that these days, especially right now.  We’ve certainly had our share of just the opposite in recent times.  

These days it seems we’re gridlocked on everything from racial discrimination to gender equality and from voting rights to gun control laws.  Border control issues continue to grip us while we see images of abandoned children in crowded holding facilities.  Terrorist attacks on one of the nation’s most sacred institutions; incidents of police-involved killings that aren’t justified and go without justice served.  Mass killings dominate headlines on a now-weekly basis.

Even something as fundamental as doing the things necessary to bring down a global pandemic that has plagued us for more than a year is made difficult by politicization, whether it’s mask-wearing or vaccination.  Instead, it seems easier to blame a race of people and carry out attacks against them than to come together and fix this thing once and for all.  

Yet while all of these problems persist, there are still examples of humanity out there, including recent ones.  

There’s the recent story of the retired couple who adopted seven orphaned siblings after raising their own five kids to adulthood.  Or the college dropout who donated $20M to the historically Black university he couldn’t afford to attend 60 years earlier.  

There’s even a recent “tip war” in Cincinnati,  in which “rival” tippers raised over $34K for local restaurant workers affected by the pandemic.  

So yes, humanity still exists.  It just takes cutting through the hatred and division to find the existing examples and to create newer ones.

Djrobblog stumbled on an old music-related example recently (since this is still a music blog).  It involved the unlikely pairing of one of the greatest soul music institutions of multiple generations and a classic rock song that’s currently soundtracking – of all things – a Doritos commercial.

The song is “I Want To Break Free” by Queen featuring the late Freddie Mercury on vocals.  The institution: the weekly Black music TV series Soul Train featuring late creator and host Don Cornelius.

In the penultimate episode of the show’s 13th season, Big Don included a segment involving a little boy named Jessie Peralez getting the chance of a lifetime and warming all of our hearts in the process.  

It was June 1984 and the situation was this:  Cornelius and the show’s producers had been contacted by the Los Angeles chapter of the Make-A-Wish foundation about 9-year-old Jessie Peralez from Texas, whose dying wish was to dance on his favorite TV show.

Jessie Peralez (1975-1985) on ‘Soul Train’ in 1984.

You see, Jessie was suffering from leukemia and he had told his mom, as well as the nurses and doctors who cared for him during an earlier bout with his illness, that if he survived his latest hospital stay, then his last wish was to be a dancer on Soul Train.

Fast forward to a few months later when Jessie and his entourage were standing with Cornelius, being interviewed about the history of Make-a-Wish and the story of the boy himself.  

Their segment came just over halfway through the hour-long episode that featured all the normal funky and soulful hits of the day, including at least four songs that celebrated either getting your freak on or the people who did.  

That week the Soul Train Dancers grooved to adult-oriented, funky tracks including “Freakshow on the Dance Floor” by the Bar-Kays and “She’s Strange” by Cameo.  The Dazz Band were one of the two guests that week, and “Joystick” (not one used in video games) was their featured performance, followed by the slightly less provocative “Swoop (I’m Yours).”

The show “cleaned it up” a little for the Soul Train Line by playing Shalamar’s sensual crossover hit, “Dancing in the Sheets.”  Even cleaner odes to love and/or lust were included in songs by O’Bryan (“Lovelite”) and Dennis Edwards (“Don’t Look Any Further”).  And hip-hop had one of its earliest appearances on the show when Run-DMC showed up to perform their 1984 hits “Rock Box” and “Jam Master Jay.”

All in all it was the typically upbeat, funky fare with the legendary dancers showcasing their latest moves and making us viewers wish we were there with them.  

Yet in all my years of watching the weekly syndicated program up to that point, nothing could have prepared me for the touching segment featuring the young Mr. Peralez.  I tear up now just writing about it.

There was Peralez, along with his mom (with a heavy Texas accent) and a short white guy (from Make-a-Wish) with a skinny black tie, joining Cornelius at the podium just after the show’s halfway point.  There, Don conducted his interview about the boy’s wish and his plight.

When asked why he wanted to dance on Soul Train, Jessie told the host in as innocent a reply as he could, “that’s my favorite.”

June 16, 1984 episode of ‘Soul Train,’ featuring the late Jessie Peralez, his late mother and the late Don Cornelius. (More video footage is at the end of the article below.)
‘Soul Train’ creator and host, the late Don Cornelius (circa early 1980s)

Moments later, Cornelius cues Queen’s “I Want To Break Free” as the song begins to play in the background.  The scene then fades to the famous dance floor where the dancers are joined by Jessie as he shows off some pretty nifty moves that would be the envy of any other nine-year-old watching.  In fact, as a kid twice his age at the time (and having just graduation high school the week before), I was thoroughly impressed.  

But I was even more impressed by those really cool dancers who, in that moment, gave Jessie all their attention.  He was not only now a Soul Train Dancer – his last wish come true – but he was the star of the show.  With the mid-tempo pop groove of “I Want To Break Free” as their backdrop, the dancers showered Jessie with love and he gave it in return. The piece ran both during the show’s midpoint and again at the show’s closing credits.

Not lost on me at the time – even at my seemingly invincible age of 18 – was the underlying lyrical meaning of the song itself.  Peralez had been shackled by the chains of his illness for quite some time in his young life.  It was that last hospital stay where his dream had surfaced, and where the desire to be free from those chains would begin to manifest itself.

Although the tune was an unlikely pairing for Soul Train, exploring pop/rock music wasn’t such a stretch for the show at the time.  They had already featured music by soulful pop acts like Gino Vanelli, Elton John, David Bowie and Hall & Oates.  Even on this very episode they chose as the music video of the week the very pop “The Heart of Rock & Roll” by Huey Lewis & the News, a head-scratcher to this day. 

And despite Queen’s more rock-oriented leanings, fewer songs could be more fitting for Peralez’ story than “I Want To Break Free.”

Since its release in 1984, the tune has come to take on even more special meaning, especially for the late singer Freddie Mercury who died from complications due to AIDS seven years later.  The song has become a rallying anthem for many people who suffer from serious illness or who, like Mercury, are in the LGBTQ community and want to live their lives as they desire, without the chains of society’s rules binding them.

Queen’s Freddie Mercury

“I Want to Break Free” has had an even higher profile in the present day.  Earlier this year it was featured in the NBC-TV musical comedy-drama Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, sung by one of the show’s characters who is frustrated with the humdrum life he’s leading as an attorney.

And recently, the song soundtracked a popular Doritos ad in which a mysteriously flattened version of actor Matthew McConaughey needs to munch on the three-dimensional version of the snack in order to once again be three-dimensional himself.  Of course, after sliding the paper-thin version of himself into a vending machine slot to get access to the chips, he becomes trapped inside once he regains his full volume.  

As clever as those matchups might be, none will hold better memories for me than the one featuring young Jessie Peralez on Soul Train, one of the most humanitarian moments in the history of the weekly dance show known as the “Hippest trip in America.”

Peralez sadly lost his battle with Leukemia a year later in June 1985.  He was 10 years old.  As mentioned earlier, Freddie Mercury died in 1991 at the age of 45.  Don Cornelius died by suicide in 2012, he was 75.

Video footage of the episode is sketchy.  Below is the video for the interview in which the first couple of bars of “I Want To Be Free” can be heard at the end.

June 16, 1984 episode of ‘Soul Train,’ featuring the late Jessie Peralez, his late mother and the late Don Cornelius.

That is followed by a somewhat grainy video of the episode’s closing credits featuring “I Want To Be Free,” one of the few times when the show’s theme music wasn’t used to end it.  In it, you can see little Jessie dancing his butt off with the dancers.

Closing credits of ‘Soul Train’ episode from June 16, 1984, featuring Jessie Peralez dancing to Queen’s “I Want To Break Free.”

And finally, the original music video for the song by Mercury and his Queen bandmates.

Queen’s video for “I Want To Break Free” (1984)

R.I.P. to all of the main players  – Peralez, Mercury, Cornelius – in this touching story that crossed racial lines, defied music genre boundaries, and still serves as a reminder of the good that can be found in people.

Yes, even now, if we dig deep enough.

DJRob 

DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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