Groundbreaking African-American music entrepreneur and cultural icon Don Cornelius, who died of a gunshot wound Wednesday, understood social media long before it was even a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Creator of the landmark syndicated TV show “Soul Train,” which ran from 1971 to 2006, the Chicago radio broadcaster and former Marine took the pulse of Chicago black teen culture and turned it into the beat of the nation.
Often dubbed the "black 'American Bandstand',” fans and cultural pundits insist the program was much more. “It was political and cultural as well as musical,” says Rodric Bradford, a contributor to SoulTrain.com, the online magazine devoted to carrying the show’s legacy forward.
The genius of Mr. Cornelius, Mr. Bradford says, was in understanding that at that time each city had a growing African-American culture, but long before the immediacy of Facebook and Twitter, they were not connected to each other.
The show was what Cornelius called "the electronic drum" – a reference to the way some African tribes communicated from one village to another. “There was no other way for this culture to be transmitted on a rapid basis, but Cornelius understood that TV was the medium of the day,” says Halifu Osumre, director of African-American studies at the University of California, Davis and a specialist in hip-hop culture. “It brought these regional sounds and moves together to a national audience.”
"You have an entire generation of teens, not just black, but all ethnicities, being socialized on Saturday mornings as they watched the black culture from all over the country parading down that 'Soul Train' line," Osumre says.
“This was not just music, it was dance as well.” Osumre adds. Many dances that were local to one region would “go viral” after being seen on the show – from “the bump,” to “popping and locking,” an early forerunner to break dancing.
In contrast to the equally iconic "American Bandstand," “Soul Train” included interviews with non-music figures from the rising Afro-centric culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Bradford, of Soultrain.com, points to an early favorite episode. “Cornelius had Dick Gregory, the comedian, on and he talked about culture and politics. He wasn’t singing or dancing,” he says.
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.”
“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.