The power of soul

February 7, 2012

Alexander Billet honors the creator of the popular TV music show Soul Train.

DON CORNELIUS' contribution to American culture was immeasurable. Like countless others, it appears that this fact is only being fully recognized upon news of his death. At the time of writing, no one knew the Soul Train creator's frame of mind when he reportedly shot himself on February 1. Reports are that the 75-year-old Cornelius was battling either dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

Now, Cornelius is bound to be lionized as so many before him, a legend constructed around him that somehow will make his own ascent seem to be one sleek, meteoric rocket to the top. And while Soul Train's popularity certainly gained momentum quickly, it's easy to forget that the show found such a mass audience because of the mass struggle that cleared the way for it. Cornelius' own contribution can't be separated from that struggle.

"As African slaves had traveled the Underground Railroad in preparation for liberation from bondage of the body and spirit," says author Marcus Reeves, "the children of post-Black Power were prepared psychologically for their socio-cultural movement, in part, aboard the vehicle of Soul Train." That just about sums it up.

Don Cornelius on the set of Soul Train
Don Cornelius on the set of Soul Train

Cornelius was born in 1936 in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood--home of civil rights icon Ida B. Wells. After high school, his initial trajectory was little different from many other men like him: a stint in the Marines (including service in Korea), jobs selling tires and insurance and even a short time as a Chicago police officer.

It wasn't until 1966 that he decided to risk it all by getting into broadcasting. Looking back, the serendipity is hard to ignore: 1966 was the year that Stokely Carmichael popularized the phrase "Black Power" and the year that Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

Many, including Chicago music journalist Greg Kot, insist that Cornelius' "role as a civil rights leader is perhaps his most significant contribution, even though he isn't often portrayed that way." This isn't to be dismissed, but the notion of Black Power--with its stridently Black-and-beautiful imagery--seems to put a finer point on Soul Train's significance.

When it premiered as a local show on Chicago's WCIU in 1970 (funded out of Cornelius' own pocket), the question was no longer buses and lunch counters, but basic and fundamental community empowerment. It's little wonder that it took barely a year for the show to be syndicated.

Watching footage of the show, it's apparent what made it so revolutionary for its time and place. Modeling his show as an urban alternative to American Bandstand, Cornelius' goal wasn't to somehow cozy up to Dick Clark and ask him to pay more attention to soul and R&B. Soul Train was a space unto itself, a space of empowerment and pride that proved Black America didn't need white folks' permission to forge their own culture.

Reeves, in his book Somebody Scream! Rap: Music's Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power, recalls:

One scene in particular exemplified the freedom that Soul Train represented to young black folks. As guest James Brown and his band performed "Super Bad," female Soul Train dancer Damita Jo Freeman, in an afro-puff, hot pants and leather go-go boots, jumped onstage.

After dancing a hot routine in front of James, which included locking and the robot (as if showing J.B. that girls could bust a few moves, too), the sista threw up her fist to give the musical guest and audience a Black Power salute. (You think that would have been allowed on American Bandstand?)

THERE WERE a lot of different ideas flying around back then regarding the exact meaning of Black Power. Was it supporting Black businesses? Was it a total overthrow of the system as the Black Panthers were advocating? Was it enough to just elect Black politicians?

Soul Train obviously didn't answer any of these questions, but then, it didn't really have to. Radio and television programmers still did their best in ignoring what Black people were contributing to culture, but when Don Cornelius closed the show, promising in his smooth DJ's voice that "it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey!" there was a good chance that you had seen some of the most dynamic musicians of any racial background perform.

Over the years, Soul Train racked up a list of legendary performances: Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Michael Jackson (both during and after the Jackson 5), Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye. As soul morphed into funk, Cornelius had Sly Stone and George Clinton on the show. And while MTV didn't pay much mind at all to hip-hop until the mid-to-late 1980s, it got its first televised appearance when Soul Train featured Kurtis Blow in 1980.

"We thanked Don forever," Public Enemy's Chuck D wrote on Twitter. "We didn't get nationally known until we did 'Rebel Without a Pause' on Soul Train in 1987." Cornelius' distaste for hip-hop is rumored to be a factor in his stepping down as host in 1993, but it doesn't change the fact that he recognized the style's groundbreaking significance.

It was also no doubt a reason that he stayed on as executive producer through Soul Train's final broadcast in 2006. By the time the show was put on hiatus, it had outlived American Bandstand by 17 years, and remains to this day the longest continuously running first-run syndicated program in television history.

By the time of his death, Cornelius was a wealthy man, but he had also created the space for an untold number of African American artists to gain a hearing they may not have received otherwise. He will no doubt be getting a mention during the "In Memoriam" segment of this Sunday's Grammy Awards.

The irony is that this year's telecast is embroiled in a controversy surrounding the decision to eliminate 31 categories--all of which pertain primarily to genres forged by people of color. To say that everything Soul Train once aimed for has been achieved, that the music biz is no longer a white boy's thing, would do a real disservice to Don Cornelius' memory.

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