The other day, I was on YouTube watching a documentary on soul music. It ended and the auto play took me right into another documentary. This one was about the TV show Soul Train. Now, it was time for bed when this second doc started but I couldn’t turn it off and ended up staying up all hours and watching the whole thing. It was very educational.
I realized that I didn’t know much about the show and even less about the show’s creator and first host, Don Cornelius. A small time broadcaster who had once worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cornelius was working at a small television station in Chicago when he realized that there was virtually no programming geared towards black youths. He decided to create a “black American Bandstand” and came up with Soul Train. Interestingly, his bosses at the station were skeptical about this endeavour and – in a seemingly throwaway gesture – GAVE the show to Cornelius; they made him the owner of it as if to wash their hands of what they thought would be a failure.
He conceived of a show that would combine live music with a house party-type atmosphere. The program launched in 1971 and for the first episode, Don brought in Jerry Butler among others and filled the claustrophobic studio with kids and told them to dance. From this humble, makeshift beginning grew a cultural touchstone and a legendary program that lasted 35 years.
The show moved to Los Angeles – as all shows must – and eventually was picked up by numerous stations all over America making Don Cornelius the first black man to be in charge of his own nationally syndicated television show. He himself became famous as the deep-voiced and superbly dressed host. Over time, guests included every single notable black artist of the era: from Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Isaac Hayes to Earth, Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Kirk Franklin, Lenny Kravitz, Anthony Hamilton and John Legend. Eventually, white artists began appearing. Some appropriately: Hall & Oates, Michael Bolton, Black Eyed Peas. Some inexplicably: Cheech and Chong, Duran Duran, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys.
Through the years, imitators arose. One interesting one came from Dick Clark, who’s American Bandstand Soul Train was a version of. In 1973, Dick Clark Productions came up with Soul Unlimited which in turn was a knock-off of Soul Train. Cornelius was outraged by what he considered Clark’s attempt to “undermine TV’s only black-owned show”. With the help of old friend Jesse Jackson, Cornelius was able to get ABC to agree to cancel Soul Unlimited – which apparently had racial overtones – after only a few episodes. Cornelius and Clark reconciled to the extent that years later they worked together on TV specials that featured R&B and soul music. Interestingly, Don Cornelius and Dick Clark share initials and their company logos are very similar.
One popular aspect of the show drew attention to the group of kids who danced on the program every week. The “Soul Train Line” was a variant of the ’50’s “The Stroll” whereby kids would group on either side of an open space – the “line” – and watch as couples danced their way to the end. The idea here was to stand out with sometimes athletic and sometimes outrageous dance moves and audacious attire. These anonymous dancers began to enjoy a certain fame of their own. Indeed, some parlayed this exposure into careers outside of the show. Those who were featured dancing on Soul Train include Rosie Perez, Carmen Electra, Nick Cannon, MC Hammer and Fred Berry who would go on to play “Rerun” on What’s Happening!!. Several of these “anonymous kids” are also credited with creating some legendary dance moves that they first performed on the show. “The Robot” and “The Moonwalk” were both created by Soul Train dancers and taken to a worldwide audience by Michael Jackson. Cornelius even branched out into artist management when he chose Jody Watley and two other kids among the dancers to become the R&B group Shalamar.
Don Cornelius was a conservative person and the main goal of his show was to showcase black youth in a positive light. So with the advent of hip-hop and rap in the early 1980’s, Don was faced with a conundrum. He was vocal about his concerns that this tough, urban music with its sometimes violent and certainly aggressive lyrics was depicting these young people negatively. He did not hide the fact that this was music that he could not contemplate. Don even said to Kurtis Blow – on the air – that he didn’t understand what Kurtis had just performed. Kurtis has said that he was crushed by this. Don also was concerned by the antics of acts like Public Enemy and all of this lead to him stepping down as the host of Soul Train in 1993 after 22 years. He was succeeded by Shemar Moore, among others. The departure of Don as host – he continued to run the show – coupled with Don’s unwillingness to embrace the burgeoning hip hop culture lead to the show ceasing production in March of 2006.
Cornelius had undergone a brain operation 1982. The 21-hour procedure was intended to correct a congenital deformity in his cerebral arteries. Don had said that after this operation he was never quite the same. For 15 years afterwards, unbeknownst to most, Don suffered seizures and extreme pain. Finally, in early 2012, Cornelius said to his son “I don’t know how much longer I can take this”. On the morning of February 1st of that year, Don Cornelius took his own life with a gunshot wound to the head. It was a sad end for this legendary figure in black entertainment.
I find it extremely difficult to accurately describe the enormous impact this show had on the music business. But more than that, Soul Train spoke to basically two generations of black America. Finally, here was a program that was made by blacks for blacks. Here was a show that African American youths were influenced by and inspired by. They saw the basic and obvious things like music acts they loved and their parents loved, singers who sang music they could relate to. And they saw the kids who danced on the show and in them recognized their own friends and themselves. Those dancers set fashion trends and kids became aware of what was hip to wear from watching Soul Train. And they saw the heavier and more profound things like artists who had risen from nothing to be stars. They saw that kids like themselves could dance on TV and have a moment in the spotlight that could spur them on to bigger things. And they saw Don Cornelius. A handsome, well-dressed, well-spoken, erudite, hip, classy, savvy black man who was in complete control of his own national television show. It must have been truly inspiring to see that it could be done.