By Verne Gay
As you may have heard, Don Cornelius is dead in an apparent suicide. He was 75. He was — as you are keenly aware — a huge influence on pop culture, particularly black culture. Here’s a good piece by radio host Tom Joyner, written late in 2010, on what the show meant, and why Cornelius was so important to African-American viewers, in particular.
“I had planned to do this blog on my way back from the Soul Train Awards, but since it was so late at night/early in the morning, I fell asleep midway.
But as I rested, I reminisced about all that “Soul Train” meant to Black people. If you’re an African American of a certain age, “Soul Train” was as important to your weekend mornings as your milk was to your cereal. You had to have it. Like Ebony magazine, my beloved HBCUs and “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” “Soul Train” knew who it served and wouldn’t forget it.
And that’s crucial. It’s not as easy as it sounds and it certainly isn’t the most profitable way to go. As we become more global, and the cry for cultures merging and a post-racial society get louder, some people think an ideal world is one where we become colorblind.
First, it’s not going to happen, and second, who wants it? Not me. But you know how I feel. Not only do I want to celebrate our Blackness, I want us to keep it ours. That doesn’t mean that other people can’t or won’t check us out. It just simply means that our job is to super-serve our audience.
Crossover is not a goal. My mentor, John H. Johnson, told me that when you try to cross over, you cross out your base audience. “Soul Train” unabashedly super-served Black people, and it broke ground doing it. “Soul Train” was the first Black-oriented music/variety show on American television. It first aired in syndication in 1971 in seven cities, including Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston and Los Angeles.
By May of 1972, the show hit the goal of reaching 25 markets. The show’s creator, the legendary Don Cornelius, who was too ill to attend the awards show taping Wednesday evening, began his career in broadcasting and was never truly over it, even though he had a good job at an insurance company for many years.
When he got the chance to get back in broadcasting, he did it for a lot less money so he could learn more about the business he loved. While he was working as a substitute DJ, he got the vision to create “Soul Train.” At first, no major advertisers were interested in a Black-oriented music show, but Cornelius was persistent. Finally, WCIU-TV agreed to air five shows on a trial basis, starting in 1970, and it didn’t take long for the Chicago audience to embrace it.
Don Cornelius was the producer, host and salesman five days a week. He worked without a salary until the local advertising community began to buy time. It was more than a history-making Black music/ dance show. It was great for Black radio. Thanks to “Soul Train,” more Black-oriented shows were put on FM stations; black music got more exposure.
“Soul Train” caused Black music to explode and record sales soared. Fast forward more than 30 years later. I’m the announcer at the Soul Train Awards, another brand established by Don Cornelius. The show started two hours late and lasted until well after midnight. There was more security than at the Source Awards, and that was just one of my observations. Here are a few more. I couldn’t leave the show, even though I had to fly back to Dallas to be on the air in just hours. Ron Isley couldn’t leave either because he was being honored.
And there’s nothing like seeing a 71-year-old R&B icon, fresh out of jail, trying to keep up with his fouryear-old baby backstage. I was disappointed that more stars didn’t turn out. Atlanta is like the Black Hollywood of the South. Maybe they were all at Bible study. Myra J. was working on the Tyler Perry set, so she’s off the hook.
Our very own “Seriously Ignorant News” chief correspondent Damon Williams warmed up the crowd. And I know he saw that man wearing that seriously ignorant hat with tassels on the sides. Dkembo Mtumbo was there. He stood up in the front row, and none of the balcony could see the stage. Not to be outdone, Ray J was wearing 2-inch boots. Go figure.
But all that makes “Soul Train” “Soul Train” – the security, the fashion, the legends and the people who had no idea who the legends were. It’s all good, it’s all necessary, and there was also some cool synergy going on.
This morning, Soul Train Awards performer Jazmine Sulliivan – who turned it out, by the way – performed right here in the Red Velvet Cake Studio. Check it out. But the “Soul Train” synergy goes deeper than that. Everyyear, The Tom Joyner Foundation awards a fullride scholarship to a deserving student.
So, as R. Kelly was performing (and missing a few needed notes, I might add) with the orchestras from Clark Atlanta and Spelman colleges, our scholarship recipient, Cheyenne Boyce, was right there playing the cello. It was music to my ears, and was my proudest “Soul Train” moment. It brought everything full circle for me and reminded me once again why “Soul Train” is and always will be “the hippest trip in America.” It brought families together for years, sometimes to watch on the only television in the house. It launched careers. It made history, by never trying to do more or less than that its original mission of entertaining black people first. And that’s, in the slow words of Don Cornelius, “a stone gas, honey.” So is catching up on my sleep! I finally did it, and I’m ready for the weekend.
If you have a “Soul Train” memory you want to share, let’s hear it!