Long before MTV thought that Black music was cool (or profitable), Don Cornelius made it a nationally televised, weekly must-see event.
It takes being a student of history or simply being alive in 1971, the year Cornelius introduced “Soul Train” to the American television audience, to fully appreciate how he turned the perception that Black culture could not survive mainstream market on its head. And the times were not in his favor.
Malcolm X was shot and killed in 1965. Five months later, the Watts Riots erupted due to suppressed anger from African Americans toward law enforcement. In 1967, five days of rioting claimed the lives of 43 people in Detroit, accelerating an already white exodus from the predominately Black city. That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. (Cornelius’ second ex-wife is white.) And let’s not forget that Dr. Martin L. King Jr. was killed in 1968.
Now enters this dark-skin, baritone-voiced Negro telling white executives that they should invest in a Black music television show. Dick Clarke‘s “American Bandstand” was the television dance show that most Americans wiggled their hips to prior to “Soul Train.” And as Kenneth Gamble of the once-renowned Philadelphia International Records label told the L.A. Times recently, there certainly weren’t many Black folks on Clarke’s show leading any of the wiggling.
“‘Bandstand’ was a dance show, but it basically concentrated on Caucasian people. While they had a few Black artists on from time to time, “Soul Train” was something that the African-American community embraced first — and it’s always good to see African-American people on TV — but then it became a national and an international phenomenon.”
NPR correspondent Karen Grigsby recalls an interview she had with Cornelius, where he discussed advertisers’ initial trepidation.
“[Cornelius] told me that when I interviewed him on the celebration of the 40th anniversary, people said, ‘Oh, nobody’s going to buy this,'” Grigsby said. ‘There’s not going to be any advertisers.’ So he lined up the advertisers and, after the first couple of shows, people were like, ‘Wow.'”
Eventually, Cornelius convinced enough power players to invest in “Soul Train” and started the show in Chicago. It moved to Los Angeles soon after. Sears and Chicago-based cosmetic company Johnson Products were Soul Train’s first major advertisers.
Cornelius, in his own way, was an activist. But not in the traditional sense. He didn’t picket or march out his frustration toward the system. He relied on his silky voice, impeccably tailored attire, and laid-back disposition to work within it instead.
Like the Black cultural ambassadors before him who successful gained acceptance from White mainstream audiences (Sidney Poitier, Jackie Robinson, Bill Cosby), Cornelius could not appear as an “angry, Black man” down-trodden by “the White man.”
Shayne Lee, a sociologist, told CNN that Cornelius’ style allowed “Soul Train” to slowly make its way into American mainstream pop culture.
“He was an ambassador, the pope of soul,” Lee said. “For a lot of suburban Whites living in segregated America, this was their first exposure to this exciting new world of movement and energy. He made Black culture more accessible.”
In other words, Cornelius made Black culture “less threatening.”
His efforts to achieve this clean-cut identity eventually clashed with his changing audience and their evolving musical tastes. Cornelius did not like hip-hop at first and was very reluctant to welcome rappers on his program, but his business acumen convinced his ideological bias to open his doors to the likes of Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and Eric B and Rakim.
(These acts were not exactly “hard-core”)
But what is uniquely special about “Soul Train” is that while Cornelius catered to Black audiences, White dancers regularly appeared on his show. Even Elton John and David Bowie (you can’t get any whiter than these two) performed on his shows to expand their reach to Black audiences. If there ever was a musical integrationist, Cornelius was it. Not only did he make Black hip to mainstream White America, he convinced the business world that it was profitable to invest in it.
Black people have always known that we have that God-given gift known as “soul.” Don Cornelius simply made sure the rest of America (and the world) knew it too.