Don Don’t Take No Mess: Don Cornelius and His Very Own Soul Train Mission

By Sophie Schleimer

 

Pho­to cred­it: Daniel X. O’Neil Soul Train Pho­to Exhi­bi­tion at Expo 72: Don Cornelius

Brown:        Broth­er, who’s backin’ you                       on this?

Cor­nelius:   James, it’s just me.

Brown:        Broth­er, who’re you with on this?

Cor­nelius:   James, it’s just me.

Brown:        Broth­er, who’s real­ly behind                     this?

Cor­nelius:   James, it’s just me.

 

August 1970, late after­noon: Some­thing leg­endary is unfold­ing right before the eyes of just about every black house­hold in Chica­go: “This is Soul Train, the hippest trip in Amer­i­ca, 60 non-stop min­utes over the tracks of your mind into the excit­ing world of Soul!” is heard for the very first time on local tele­vi­sion. The show’s own­er, pro­duc­er, and hippest host in his­to­ry, Mr. Don Cor­nelius, steps on stage and starts a new era in African Amer­i­can his­to­ry. He has no idea his train is head­ing for tele­vi­sion heaven.

Don­ald Cortez Cor­nelius was born in Chica­go in 1936. He was 26 when Mar­tin Luther King spoke the words “I Have a Dream,” 27 when the Civ­il Rights Act was enact­ed, and 31 when King was assas­si­nat­ed and the Chica­go riots broke out. Cor­nelius grew up in a deeply seg­re­gat­ed soci­ety and became strong­ly immersed in the civ­il rights strug­gle. After his tele­vi­sion career took off in 1966, he felt offend­ed by the obvi­ous racism on TV and decid­ed to devel­op a show that reflect­ed pos­i­tive­ly on African Amer­i­can cul­ture. When Chica­go TV sta­tion WCIU hired Cor­nelius, he was already pro­mot­ing “The Soul Train,” a tour of con­certs fea­tur­ing young local tal­ents. WCIU broad­cast the show on TV and the rest is his­to­ry: Soul Train ran con­tin­u­ous­ly over 35 years, aired over 1,100 episodes, fea­tured the biggest names in music, and still remains one of the most pop­u­lar shows in Amer­i­can history.

Even though Soul Train was not the first of its kind – there had been sev­er­al oth­ers on Chica­go TV in the mid-1960s fea­tur­ing pre­dom­i­nant­ly black musi­cians and dancers – the show became an overnight hit in Chica­go. With­in just one sea­son, it was aired across the Unit­ed States, and the hippest train in Amer­i­ca took the entire coun­try by storm.

The immense suc­cess Soul Train expe­ri­enced all over the Unit­ed States was a result of Cornelius’s icon­ic pres­ence, his knack for con­nect­ing enter­tain­ment with polit­i­cal activism, and his suc­cess in cre­at­ing an hon­or­able image of the black com­mu­ni­ty. He was not only one of the first African Amer­i­cans to own a TV show, but he was also the main cre­ative force behind the show. He lit­er­al­ly ran from door to door to win over black artists (lat­er the biggest per­form­ers would knock on his door to be part of the show) and hired young, tal­ent­ed black dancers who became the show’s actu­al stars with their impres­sive and all new dance moves. He even estab­lished TV ads which exclu­sive­ly spoke to African Amer­i­cans, such as “Afro Sheen,” a local prod­uct man­u­fac­tured by black-owned spon­sor John­son Prod­ucts. Soul Train had found its way from a niche audi­ence into the main­stream and became the break­ing point not only for black, but also for white artists. It reached its peak in the 1970s when black pop cul­ture was boom­ing – thanks to Don Cor­nelius and his Soul Train mission.

How­ev­er, times were chang­ing and so was the nature of music. Soul Train’s musi­cal focus, reflect­ing Cornelius’s own taste, was soul, jazz, R&B, and lat­er funk and dis­co. To his dis­may, hip-hop began to emerge in the inner cities and moved into the main­stream in the 1980s. Although Cor­nelius was admit­ted­ly skep­ti­cal towards the genre, think­ing it didn’t reflect on black cul­ture prop­er­ly, he could not deny its suc­cess with the younger gen­er­a­tion. From the time he start­ed fea­tur­ing hip-hop and rap artists, his own con­nec­tion to the show began to fade and he signed off as its host in 1993. Yet he remained the head and heart of Soul Train until he sold the show in 2008.

Even though Soul Train expe­ri­enced the great­est suc­cess with Don Cor­nelius as its host, the brand went on suc­ceed­ing, enter­tain­ing and inspir­ing peo­ple across the Unit­ed States dur­ing its entire life­time and beyond. Many who worked on Soul Train stat­ed that this show had saved their lives by giv­ing them an oppor­tu­ni­ty to do what they love and be who they are. And it sure did the same for many of its fans.

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Orig­i­nal­ly from Mönchenglad­bach, Sophie Schleimer worked in Van­cou­ver for one year after fin­ish­ing high school. Upon her return to Ger­many, she decid­ed to move to Berlin to study Amer­i­can Stud­ies and Ger­man Lit­er­a­ture at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty. She now is in her 5th semes­ter, and the only thing left to com­plete is her Bach­e­lor thesis.