Don’t feel language deficient or outside the loop if you can’t discern this title. If you were born in my generation, you knew to go to the Soul Train Scramble Board. It always unveiled the names of places, stars, or icons.
SOUL TRAIN! That was easy. This October marks the 50th anniversary of a show that made Black America proud and White America pay attention. The program’s inventor and emcee, Don Cornelius, was a genius and must be regarded as a substantial figure in African American history.
If you developed a college course on the Black “Americana” post-civil rights era, you could track every cultural trend and trail by watching Soul Train re-runs. Soul Train recorded the morphing of music genres, the constellation of rising and falling stars, and the funky and anything but conservative fashion cycles.
When Donald Cortez Cornelius began his odyssey in 1970, he had an Afro so big it wouldn’t fit under a motorcycle helmet. Nevertheless, Cornelius and Soul Train embodied the pride James Brown had foreseen in his 1968 hit, “Say it loud, I’m Black, and I’m Proud!”
Upon his passing, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Chairman of ‘Soul Train’ Holdings crystallized his legacy. Don Cornelius was a pioneer, an innovator, and a trailblazer. He was the first African-American to create, produce, host, and more importantly, OWN his own television show.”
Like others of his fashion era, Don wore high-waist pants with material supplied by two famous sisters (Polly and Ester). The seamless garment flowed to flared bottoms so big that they partially hid the oversized platform shoes adorning his feet.
The 70’s fashionistas sported sweaty nylon shirts and blouses that only an artist could conceive. “Nik Nik” and similarly marketed shirts came in every color, concept, design, and ornate pattern.
However, Don never wanted to be the center of our attention. He was never on the microphone or caught in the camera shot for very long. Cornelius rushed to usher Black entertainers, perennial stars, and “one-hit wonders” into the spotlight.
Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Oakland’s megaband Tower of Power, and the list is long and legendary. Major Harris saw his star rise in 1975, singing “Love Won’t Let me Wait!” We waited for another “major” hit from him but never got it.
James Brown’s revolutionary rant was a powerful affirmation. However, without the benefit of Soul Train’s reach, Brown’s message was confined to one jukebox and community at a time.
Soul Train didn’t become the longest syndicated show on television on the viewership of 13% of the population alone. Millions of White folks discovered that we were Black and Proud, and had ample reason to be proud of ourselves.
There are no official estimates, but a large swath of the Soul Train audience was non-Black. Dick Clark’s American Bandstand’s rankings were nothing to scoff at, but if your fun lacked funk, you could “bet your last money, Soul Train was the stone gas, honey!”
Singer/Songwriter Kipper Jones and master stylist and Black hair consultant Kevin Pendleton remember going Saturdays to film four episodes. It was tiring but they still relish the memories of changing outfits in the bathroom and receiving a two-piece from Kentucky Fried Chicken! “It was an honor to get to the main stage” recalls Pendleton.
America’s entertainment industry was devastated by Don Cornelius’s suicide in 2012, but his glow remains. It is an oddity that a man who could rise and fight the world for his dreams could privately live with a nightmare that he believed insurmountable.
Don has passed on, but he passed on a gift we could never repay. His vision was to fuse slow belly-rubbing ballads with jazz, funk, pop, rock, and roll, and finally rap. Soul Train spanned 35 years and 1,117 episodes. Everybody got a shot!
This weekly smorgasbord of music, dance, culture, and creativity was comfort food for people dogged by discrimination and disrespect. We could lift our heads as Don, and his bedazzled guests lifted our spirits for a full hour.
If the number 50 wasn’t ever Funky before, it is now! Long live the Soul Train line, dancers, and Don.
Vincent L. Hall is an author, activist, and an award-winning columnist.