'Soul Train' icon Don Cornelius changed the beat of the nation
'Soul Train' creator, Don Cornelius, took the pulse of black culture and broadcast it into living rooms across the nation. Before Facebook and Twitter, he connected a generation of teens.
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The host brought this same, broad look to the many musicians that graced the program’s stages throughout its long run – from Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, to Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight. “He was interested in where they came from and how they got started,” says Bradford, “which gave the show a depth and relevance.”Skip to next paragraph
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“Soul Train” emerged just as the civil rights era was moving from the hands of lawmakers into the living rooms of Americans, points out Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “You have to remember that before this, network television had precious few images of African-American artists.”
But as the nation was still reeling from a decade of racial turmoil, popular culture was just finding a way to bring that story into our homes in a “digestible” format. “Cornelius had a grace and maturity that allowed this culture to enter our homes on Saturday mornings,” Mr. Thompson says. Parents who might have otherwise turned off strident political messages found themselves watching the program alongside their children.
Cornelius stepped down from hosting the show in 1993, but remained involved. As musical styles changed, rap and hip-hop became the dominant tastes of the younger generation. While he was often quoted as saying that he did not personally appreciate the violent lyrics or images of some songs, he never stopped supporting the next generation of African-American artists, says Christopher Lehman, author of “A Critical History of Soul Train on Television.”
“He was a businessman and understood where the next generation was headed,” Mr. Lehman says. Cornelius was a “seminal icon” whose legacy was that he showed the entertainment industry that there was an audience for shows about the African-American experience, such as the record-breaking 1977 “Roots.”
From his partnership with black-owned companies who advertised on the program (Afro Sheen commercials then had Swahili choruses singing in the background), to the many hit songs the program showcased, “Soul Train primed the pump,” Lehman says.
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