But this was the late ’80s, and I’d devoted more than a decade’s worth of my Saturday afternoons to viewing “Soul Train.” I deserved to know, damn it. I was sitting in the man’s office in Hollywood for the very purpose of inquiry; what other sign did I need? I took a deep breath and asked.
Tall, lean Don Cornelius, in a crisp, white open collared dress shirt, dark slacks and expensive looking black shoes, leaned back in his chair. “Okay,” he said, that window-rattling baritone of his betraying his irritation, “here’s the deal: one time, when the dancers couldn’t figure out the mystery name on the [Soul Train Scramble] Board, white viewers all across the country called into TV stations carrying the show, saying things like, ‘See, these dumb monkeys can’t even spell, take this shit off the air.’”
Cornelius said he decided then and there–anyone who approached the Scramble Board would damn well know the answer to the riddle and how to spell it. “So, to answer your burning question, YES: the dancers who play the Scramble Board always know the answer to the puzzle. NOW–can we move on something important?”
That was Don Cornelius—an enigmatic melange of ambition, vision and begrudging affection who, like most old school show biz impresarios, didn’t like discussing what goes on behind the curtain. It was ironic that the Chicago-born and raised Cornelius—a former insurance salesman and Chicago cop who took some broadcasting courses and got work as a radio air personality—would become creator, producer and host of “The hippest trip on television,” considering that he was anything but a hipster.
Not that he wasn’t cool. Cornelius, a stately image of impeccable style who once drove a Rolls Corniche in the hue of royal blue, was nothing if not unflappably fly. However, even on the set of “Soul Train,” despite some of those now questionable outfits he wore on camera in the ’70s, the usually subdued Cornelius was all business.
I don’t believe he set out to make television or cultural history. Not in the beginning, at least. And I am not certain that he possessed a smoldering love for most of the music his show presented, though he appreciated certain artists, counting Marvin Gaye and the O’Jays’ Eddie Levert and Walter Williams among his dearest friends.
And yet, from its inception, “Soul Train” was groundbreaking. Remarkably, as late as 1971, the year Cornelius launched the show nationally from Los Angeles, black entertainers didn’t have a regular place to be on American TV.
Singer Nat “King” Cole in 1956 became the first black American to have a national variety program on a network (NBC). He walked away from it a year later when, despite his mainstream popularity, no national advertiser would sponsor a show hosted by a black person.
Aside from breakthrough roles on situation comedies and dramatic TV, such as Bill Cosby on “I Spy,” Diahann Carroll starring in the series “Julia” and Clarence Williams III as “Linc” on “The Mod Squad,” in the ’60s major black talent on TV was relegated to brief appearances on prime time variety shows hosted by among others, Ed Sullivan, actor Danny Kaye and comics Red Skelton and Carol Burnett.
In this regard, in the ’70s “Soul Train” was far more than just a black version of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand;” for one hour every Saturday it was virtually another televised dimension, where everyone–the dancers, the recording stars, even the TV commercials (for the first half-hour, anyway, sponsored by black-owned Johnson Products Company)—was black.
“Soul Train” was where artists such as Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and the Jackson 5 were treated as the eminent musical icons that they are, often given the whole hour. It was Cornelius, with his show, who gave artists like Betty Wright, the band Switch and Latimore–acts known primarily in the black community–a national platform.
It didn’t take the recording industry long to notice that when the Soul Train Gang boogied to a new song, the record usually shot up the national charts. The greatest amateur dancers on TV tearing it up to a song, especially during the action-packed Soul Train Line, amounted to road-testing a record’s danceability right before America’s eyes.
The dancers being the engine pulling the “Soul Train,” it was only natural that many of them–including choregrapher/actress Damita Jo Freeman, former Shalamar members Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel (who taught Michael Jackson to Moonwalk) and actress Rosie
Perez—went on to become stars. The sheer imagination and bold abandon…whenever I visited the “Soul Train” set, I was struck by how easily funkiness and exhilaration could be contained and summoned on cue.
At the center of it all was Cornelius, a detail-obsessed master of ceremonies who oversaw a crack production staff that operated like a machine. There was no random hanging out at “Soul Train.” Either you were a dancer or a member of the production crew. If you came as part of a performing artist’s entourage, had other business on the set or were just lucky enough to somehow be there, you needed to stay out of the way. For lunch, every dancer got a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Just before lunch break, they’d wheel in a zillion little boxes of KFC and the aroma would waft onto the set.
“Soul Train”‘s unqualified success was not lost on the television industry, particularly on Dick Clark, who’d watched the show rise up to beat him in several markets. When in the ’80s Clark launched a black knockoff of the Soul Train Music Awards, Cornelius raised such Cain both publicly and inside the industry that Clark quickly abandoned the show. It reminded me of America telling a country they couldn’t have nuclear weapons and the country complying. I wondered if in his wildest dreams Cornelius ever thought he’d be telling Dick Clark, a broadcaster he watched coming up, to cease and desist.
When I talked with Clark during the American Music Awards that year (his company owns and produces the AMAs), I goaded him into discussing Cornelius’ reaction to his ill fated “black” show. “I had no idea the guy would get so bent out of shape,” said Clark, in a what’s-the-fuss-all-about lilt. “Shouldn’t we all be allowed to pay tribute to the music?”
Dick Clark understood Cornelius owning “Soul Train” and its spin-offs, the Soul Train Music Awards, The Lady Soul Awards and Christmas Starfest. What he didn’t see coming was Cornelius guarding the very sanctity of his productions with the tenderness of an annoyed pit bull.
I know about this first hand. Covering a “Soul Train” event, I could rave on and on. However, let me write one line that Cornelius deemed objectionable, and I was guaranteed a phone call that began with a cheery “Please hold for Mr. Cornelius,” followed by that trademark baritone, solemnly inquiring, “Ivory, what the fuck is this….”
Cornelius was no less protective of his brand with legendary Philadelphia producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. In 1971 he asked the team to write and produce a theme for the show, but didn’t want the result, the gang-busting “T.S.O.P.,” released as a single. “I figured viewers being able to hear it on the show exclusively would be a good thing,” Cornelius told me, “but Kenny was chomping at the bit over this. Finally, he called me one day and said, ‘Man, you’re missing it. This record is too hot NOT to put out.’ He was right. The record being a bit hit (and earning a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental) was free publicity for the show.”
Cornelius would try his hand at the music business directly, managing the singer/songwriter O’Bryan and forming Soul Train Records in 1975 with then partner Dick Griffey. When Cornelius bowed out, Griffey renamed the label Solar. What Cornelius wanted more than a label was to produce a film about his TV show. It remained an unfulfilled dream.
By the ’90s, “Soul Train,” like the popular black music it showcased, wasn’t what it used to be. After being courted over the years by many potential suitors, in 2008 Cornelius sold “Soul Train” to MadVision Entertainment. However, by then “The Train,” as its dancers proudly referred to it, had become what it remains today, the longest running, first-run nationally syndicated TV show in television history.
However, what Don Cornelius created is more than that. Immortalized in the lyrics of dozens of recordings, “Soul Train” is a source of cultural pride and a colorful, integral component of one of the most exciting and important eras in pop music. Don was right—it WAS a stone gas, honey.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]