I can vividly remember the Jackson 5 on Soul Train performing their latest and funkiest hit, “Dancing Machine” in 1974. The J5 in ’74 were still hip, fresh and new, and the envy of kids across America. Michael was fast becoming a force in the music world both as a singer and dancer, and he cemented his reputation when he broke out “The Robot” for all to see on the show. It was a seminal, landmark performance; I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw MJ doing a dance that neither I nor anyone else outside of L.A. had ever seen before. I remember that next Monday how everyone at school talked about Michael and the Jackson 5, from elementary to high school students, and most of us were trying to emulate this new and funky dance Michael unveiled on the show. It was an epic moment, one of many for Soul Train, but it’s a moment that would not have happened were it not for the genius of Don Cornelius and his vision.
The sudden death of Don Cornelius from an apparent suicide last week sent shockwaves across the country, and to a good measure, around the world. That’s the lasting impact of the man who created Soul Train, a music show that turned the world on its ear by turning everyone on to black music. Cornelius, a Chicago native and backup radio disc jockey, created the show in Chi-town in 1970 with $400 of his own money. It was a genius move. Before Soul Train, there were no television outlets that showcased African-American music talent on a large scale. Black artists that crossed over to the pop charts could get on local shows in major markets, or if they were lucky, could get a slot on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. But American Bandstand was a pop show that catered mainly to a white audience. The black audience at-large were mainly ignored. Cornelius’ vision changed all of that.
Billed as “The hippest trip in America,” Soul Train was an immediate success in Chicago, and in 1971, Cornelius moved to Los Angeles and pitched the show there. Within two years, Soul Train was in syndication in most major markets and it was growing. The show gave black artists a voice and a place of their own, where they could be as soulful and funky as they wanted. For the first time, you could see artists like James Brown, the Supremes, Isaac Hayes, Roberta Flack, Al Green, Sly & the Family Stone, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers like you’d never seen them before. The show also showcased up and coming groups and bands like the O’Jays, Parliament/Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, and it also served as a bridge for white artists that crossed over to the R&B charts like David Bowie, Elton John, Teena Marie, KC The Sunshine Band and Hall & Oates. And in the middle of it all was the show’s host, Don Cornelius, tall, lean and super-cool who interviewed every artist with a hip-slang panache that can be best described as intellectually soulful. It wasn’t long before “The hippest trip in America” became the place to be for black and white music artists alike. The show’s appeal transcended generations. I can vividly remember my grandparents watching the show, tapping their feet to the rhythms as they wondered aloud about what some of the dancers were wearing. (“Lord…what in the wearing is that girl wearing? Now she know her mamma didn’t let her walk out the house with that on!”)
Soul Train became so much a part of both black and American popular culture, that the show started getting mentions in music, TV and film. Who can forget Johnny Taylor’s line in “Disco Lady”: “Girl, you outta be on TV…on Soul Train”, or Kenan Ivory Wayans’ Soul Train line comedy sketch in “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka”?
But Soul Train was about more than just music artists, so much more. The dancers held main stage on the show, with their hip and
sexy dances, funky threads and cool afros. Whereas dancers on American Bandstand where pretty much an afterthought, Soul Train’s dancers were the featured item, some developing a stage persona of their own that people checked for over the years. If you were a hot dancer, Soul Train was where you made your name, and the show gave life to dancers like Fred Berry, Jody Watley, Jeffrey Daniel, Shabba-Do, Rosie Perez, Jermaine Stewart and Toni Basil. Even NFL Hall-of-Fame running back Walter Payton got down on the show before he was a household name in football. On Soul Train, the dancers were the featured attraction, and music artists were the icing on the cake. The Soul Train line, often imitated, but never truly duplicated, became the anticipatory event that enthralled us so much that even music artists performing on the show wanted to strut their stuff along with the dancers. In no time at all, people watched Soul Train not only to see the artists, but also latest dance moves, fashion styles and overall coolness.
In short, Soul Train was Black; a proud symbol of the post-Civil Rights movement progression. The 70’s was arguably the blackest time in America, and Soul Train was right there, broadcasting our music, style, fashion, and blackness to the world. Even as the times and music changed, Soul Train remained a beacon for black culture. The change was one that Cornelius had difficulty adjusting to, as hip-hop came on the scene. I can still remember Cornelius bluntly telling an embarrassed Kurtis Blow that he didn’t understand the music during an interview, “I mean it doesn’t make sense to old guys like me, I mean, I don’t understand why they love it so much.” As hip hop got grittier, and R&B started adopting a stronger hip hop influence, Cornelius wavered over the decision to keep the genre on the show, but ultimately agreed that America and the world needed to see authentic black culture, for both the good and bad.
Don Cornelius retired as the host of Soul Train in 1993, but the show would march on to air another 13 years. Overall, Soul Train had such staying power that it lasted for 35 years and holds the record as the longest running first-run, nationally syndicated TV show. The show’s cultural and social impact is immeasurable, and can only be quantified by Cornelius’s ascent from merely a backup radio DJ hosting a TV show in the beginning to becoming the quintessential black music guru by the end of the 1970’s decade alone.
I can’t really speak on the circumstances of Don Cornelius’ death. I don’t know what happened; I wasn’t there, after all. But I can pay my respects and give props to the man who created the show that gave black music and black America a vision to go along with its voice. So I end this with Don Cornelius’ immortal catchphrase that he concluded each show with, “And you can bet your last money it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey. And as always in parting we wish you, love, peace…and SOUL!”
Rest in peace, brother Don, you did your job and then some, and you fought the good fight. You’ll be sorely missed.