Growing up in Durham, NC in the early 70s meant you weren’t exactly in touch with the latest fashion and dance grooves in The Big City, so it was a ritual to flip on your color TV and get an eyeful of fantasy — and some of the greatest musical acts (and upcoming talent) of the time on Soul Train.
Sadly, the 75-year-old Don Cornelius took his life, leaving a legacy of not just a dance/entertainment show, but a record of achievement as a businessman to be proud of. It was practically unheard of for a black man to run a television show, largely also staffed with minority talent behind the camera as well, but to actually OWN the show shows the tenacity of the man, who grew Soul Train into a syndicated giant.
Cornelius got his start in broadcasting while working as a Chicago police officer. He pulled over Roy Wood, then news director of black radio station WVON-AM, who “was amazed at this police officer’s voice,” said Melody Spann Cooper, current president of WVON. Wood offered Cornelius a job in the newsroom, and he said yes.
Cooper said that while Cornelius was from Chicago, his influence was national.
“He was the original social network,” she said. “Before we had internet or Facebook, we all gathered around that television every Saturday to see what people were listening to, what we were dancing to.
“Don Cornelius helped shape black culture at a time coming out of the Civil Rights era, when America had not been exposed to the social side of who we were,” she said.
Not too long ago I was up in the middle of the night and caught a fantastic documentary on VH1 about the history of the show, “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America.” It covered the business and entertainment impact of the show, including a notable spar with Dick Clark and his enterprise, who saw Cornelius’s lucrative market and tried to horn into the territory with a competing show, Soul Unlimited, (that ultimately went down after a few airings and discussions with Clark).
The ‘fros were large and the clothes were stylin’ back in 1974. Watch the moves on this Soul Train line; but also take a head count of the number of “family” members working it. Thank you, Mr. Cornelius.