News & Politics

How Soul Train's Don Cornelius Helped Make Black America Visible

Looking at the legacy of the beloved show host and newsman, who passed last week at age 75.

Don Cornelius on Soul Train.
Photo Credit: juggernautco via Flickr.

“If you are black and of a certain age, you cannot forget it.”-- Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald on Soul Train

Nineteen year-old Al Sharpton looks remarkably calm amongst stars, a wily perm and muttonchop sideburns barely distracting from the ill-fitting white suit of his first television appearance in 1974. Young Sharpton was a guest on Soul Train, intro’d by host Don Cornelius as “an astounding young brother,” presenting James Brown, the man he’d go on to call “the father he never had,” with an award for his service to black youth through music. The presentation was maybe most fitting for its medium, the first television program to present Black youth culture in such abundance, the brainchild of Don Cornelius, a beacon of Black excellence and creative ownership.

This past Wednesday, Cornelius, the man responsible for Soul Train, an institution of music and television alike, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his California home. Cornelius’ passing comes as horrifying surprise to many not because of what he’d accomplished for himself, but because of what gave to the country—and inevitably, the world at large. And though the show is Cornelius’ most enduring legacy, there was much more to its creator, who was simply a hero for so many.

As a young man coming out of Chicago’s DuSable High School (alma mater of Nat “King” Cole and comedian Redd Foxx), Don Cornelius had a talent for illustration, but went straight to the Marines after graduation. He’d try working in insurance sales and law enforcement after discharge, and would enroll in broadcasting class at the suggestion of a radio newsperson Roy Wood who, reputedly, Cornelius had pulled over for a traffic violation. Cornelius’ voice, commanding and warm, tailormade for Quiet Storm soliloquies, would have been especially striking in a domestic capacity.

Under the direction of Wood, Cornelius began contributing to WVON (“The Voice of the Negro”) as an announcer and newsperson, earning himself a spot within the station’s renowned Good Guys, a group of black DJs who made WVON popular in the ‘60s. Here Cornelius first connected with Jesse Jackson and was even able to interview Martin Luther King, Jr., while Dr. King lead the Chicago Freedom Movement, a civil rights campaign which called for reforms in housing, education and job access, among other areas of cultural discrepancy within the city.

Cornelius got into television, again, through Roy Wood, who took a position at Chicago’s WCIU-TV station, and was soon producing a show called "A Black's View of the News." Though already in his mid 30s by the late ‘60s, Cornelius saw an opportunity to fill a gaping hole in television programming while utilizing the charms that led Wood (and others) to suggest he enter broadcasting initially. "You want to do what you're capable of doing,” Cornelius would say. “If I saw (Dick Clark's) 'American Bandstand' and I saw dancing and I knew black kids can dance better; and I saw white artists and I knew black artists make better music; and if I saw a white host and I knew a black host could project a hipper line of speech, and I did know all these things…" then he would be the one to bring it all to fruition.

With word that the network was looking to expand its black programming, Cornelius pitched and produced the pilot for Soul Train, an American Bandstand-style dance show produced for (and by) Black Americans. The name was derived from Cornelius’ ability to bring out the best dancers from school to school while hosting high school sock hops and its main draw was the “Soul Train line,” an aisle made of dancers through which one or two people at a time would come down, showcasing their finest steps. Utilizing connections from radio he was able to secure Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, and the Emotions, for the very first episode. An instant success in Chicago, in the span of a year Cornelius was in Los Angeles brokering a deal to bring the show to the entire nation. In 1971, Soul Train, fully owned by Cornelius’ production company, something which was all but unheard of at the time, launched nationally to Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco, the only markets of the projected 17 to purchase it. By the end of the season, all 17 were carrying the show.

Soul Train, billed as the “hippest trip in America,” was very much the byproduct of Cornelius’ Chicago cool. He wore trendy suits and let his afro expand through the ‘70s, until taking it down back down at the close of the decade. Cornelius spoke in the slang of the time and his interview style was admirably casual. He would pause to gather his thoughts and was quick to praise artists he admired. During the same 1974 interview where Sharpton appears with James Brown, Cornelius tells Brown “you’re still the baddest out here,” to which Brown blushingly replies, “I’m just trying to keep up with the Soul Train dancers.”

So was the rest of the country. Young people of all races looked to the show to learn new dance moves and the latest fashions. The show’s parting phrase echoed in the hallways of schools across the country: “And you can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, Honey. I’m Don Cornelius and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace... and souuuuuuul.” In 1975 Cornelius started Soul Train Records, the label that begat Solar Records, home of acts like The Whispers and the earliest incarnation of The Deele, the group that featured future moguls Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Antonio "L.A." Reid.

It wasn’t long thereafter though, that Cornelius was struggling to maintain the cache that came so easily to the show in its early years. The ‘80s brought more radical R&B and the onset of rap, something Cornelius didn’t understand altogether, as he told Kurtis Blow outright when the young rapper appeared to perform “The Breaks.” He would also go on to testify before a House Congressional sub-committee in 1994 during a panel on gangsta rap, recommending an “X rated” label for artists that “promote illegal drug or firearm use or any other anti social behavior.” Though he’d discontinue hosting in 1993, Soul Train continued to produce new episodes into 2006, as well as the prestigious Soul Train Music Awards and in 1995, the Lady of Soul Awards. Cornelius would sell the property entirely in 2008.

To date, Soul Train is the longest running program in the history of first-run syndication. Before Soul Train, marketing to a predominantly Black audience was almost unheard of, Johnson Products Incorporated (the makers of Afro Sheen) being one of the first to adopt Soul Train’s sponsorship. At the time of the show’s inception, television ads themselves were mostly devoid of Black faces. Don Cornelius is in part, responsible for changing this. He is wholly responsible for presenting one the richest and most undeniable facets of Black American culture in the most authentic way possible.

In his long and storied history as the show’s host, the truest depiction of Cornelius can be found in the rarest of on-set events. While interviewing Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Cornelius is coaxed into taking on the Soul Train line himself, a first for Cornelius. Together they wash down the aisle to Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s “Doing It To Death,” an ample groove if there ever was one. About halfway through their approach, Cornelius breaks into a low-flying carioca step, rendering Wilson nearly invisible. The studio dancers erupt and Wilson shimmies away in his shadow. Cornelius was a star by nature. He didn’t make music, he made us love it, and for that, we shall love him forever.

Felipe Delerme is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The FADER, Complex, SPIN, and Pitchfork.