By Arturo R. García
He was both the host and the ambassador for generations of artists, dancers, and music lovers. He was a journalist and an activist. And he was the conductor of “the hippest trip in America.”
Wednesday, everyone who ever listened to him wish viewers “love, peace, and soul” mourned the death of Don Cornelius, who was found in his home by police after apparently committing suicide.
Cornelius developed and hosted Soul Train, the kind of show that makes words like “influential” seem small. Soul Train ran for 35 years, making it the longest first-run syndicated show in history. But the show almost didn’t grow out of being a successful local program on WCIU-TV in Chicago.
As Christopher P. Lehman wrote in his book A Critical History of Soul Train On Television, however, Cornelius set out to show broadcasters the best the show had to offer:
When Cornelius decided to take “Soul Train” into nationwide syndication in 1971, he made a very savvy choice of which Chicago episode to pitch to broadcasters. he took to California the episode that featured the Dells, the Staple Singers, Tyrone Davis, and the Chi-Lites. At the time all four acts were very popular on urban radio. Moreover, three of them had crossover hits in the 1970-71 season. The Chi-Lites’ “(For Gods Sake) Give More Power To The People” was among the top thirty songs for at least one week. The Staples Singers scored with “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha Na Boom Boom).” Davis had the biggest hit with “Turn Back The Hands Of Time.” Cornelius contacted all the group leaders to inform them of his decision to use their appearances in order to try to sell the show on the West Coast.
Cornelius’ canniness paid off: production on the national version of Soul Train, based out of Los Angeles, began that summer. However, for the next two years, he continued to host the local version of the show alongside the national one. But as the syndicated version of the show grew, so did its importance–not just to an audience that Cornelius correctly predicted was looking for what he called “a black American Bandstand,” but for the performers; as Lehman noted, in the days before Black Entertainment Television, black acts had to choose between playing to the all-white audiences on Bandstand or rely strictly on radio exposure.
The show’s platform went beyond the artistic: early acts brought with them feminist and anti-Vietnam War messages that wouldn’t have flown on other shows. And as The Roots’ Questlove wrote on OkPlayer, the presentation that Cornelius introduced to American television made him, “The MOST crucial non political figure to emerge from the Civil Rights era post 68″:
To say with a straight, dignified face that BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL was the RISKIEST radical life-changing move that America has seen. And amazingly enough for one hour for one Saturday out the week, if you were watching soul train….it became contagious. Next thing you know you are actually believing you have some sort of worth.
The whole idea of Afrocentrism in my opinion manifested and spread with “Soul Train” in its first 6 years.
Besides the performers, fans also found a new platform on Soul Train: young people of color got the chance–the first chance, for many–to see their peers on-screen, showcasing their own moves. As Lehman writes, the show’s exposure also yielded benefits for the Chicago-area dancers on the WCIU version of the show, where Clinton Ghent took over as host after Cornelius moved west. For one dancer, Crescendo Ward, his turn in the spotlight literally saved his life:
He once had to take home a girlfriend who lived in the Cabrini Green projects, which the Vice Lords gang claimed as their territory. After he had parted from her, some of the gang members approached him and demanded, “Represent!”
He responded, “No love,” which meant that he did not belong to a gang.
They proceeded to pat him down and take his money until one of them yelled, “Yo, wait a minute – that’s that “Soul Train” motherf-cker!” As the others recognized him, they stopped the mugging and began taking a collection for his bus fare home.
By contrast, interactions between fans and performers on the L.A. version of the show were tamer, but in at least one instance, more pivotal: an oft-told story mentions that, after one appearance on the show, Michael Jackson–by that point already a longtime friend of Cornelius’–spent time with several of the show’s better dancers, so that he could learn some of their moves.
In his book, Lehman points out that Train outlasted many of the shows it influenced, like Club MTV, Yo! MTV Raps, BET’s Video Soul and Fox’s In Living Color. But the changing musical landscape wrought by his successors led him to step down from his signature role in 1993. The show carried on with rotating guest hosts thru 2006, with MadVision Entertainment buying the property two years later.
“I took myself off because I just felt that 22 years was enough,” he told The New York Times two years after switching to an off-camera role. “The audience was changing and I wasn’t.”
The audience might have changed, but it never forgot him: last July, the show’s set and memorabilia was enshrined in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.