Questlove summed it up best: “Next to Berry Gordy, Don Cornelius was hands down the MOST crucial non political figure to emerge from the civil rights era post 68”.
In this country where images — and the creators of those images — mean so much in defining history, the significance Don Cornelius and Soul Train are absolutely invaluable and immeasurable. What stands out most to me is that he gave Black entertainers a national platform to perform; in turn, such gave Black America a chance to genuinely express themselves on a national platform. Prior to him, Blacks on TV were placed there under the strict eye of powers that be (none of whom were Black), never in fashions that willingly showcased their talent and genius. Not as minstrels or brutes or supporting subjects, but as main characters and stars of the show; not looked at as second-fiddle, second-class citizens, but as equals, if not superiors — Black folks who had mastered a craft.
Soul Train, then, was one of the first times, Blacks had a chance control their own portrayal, a critical element in defining one’s own history. This helped set in motion a sense of self-pride among Black folks that was zeitgeist of the time, in general (1970 was the first broadcast — right in the heart of the Black Power and Black Arts Movement). Moreover, it was so soulful that it reached far beyond the scope of Black America, hitting homes in America in general, as well as abroad in Europe, Asia and more. The “Soul Train Line” has become one of the most commonplace, ubiquitous and familiar rituals in American (and Black American) tradition.
All this said and there’s two words I’m still yet to mention: cool and style. Starting with Cornelius himself, Soul Train helped set the standard for cool — what was cool, and how to be and act cool. We’re still yet to find an individual as cool as Don Cornelius with his baritone voice, blown-out fro and big glasses, interviewing the biggest stars in the business as if it was a run-of-the-mill occurrence (after awhile, I guess it was). Regarding style, the outlandish outfits of performers and dancers, and slick suits of Cornelius were no doubt key in defining Black style (and thus American style) at the time.
Unfortunately, I was born about 20 years too late to have chance to witness Soul Train at its hottest. Fortunately, it came on through the 90s and my Pops always had it on. Unfortunately, it was hosted by Shemar Moore by then. Fortunately, we have now have YouTube.
While we have 106 & Park and other countdown-style programs today, none can hold a candle to Soul Train, which remained completely uncontaminated by the Viacoms of the world even after its popularity took off. It’s influences are still prevalent (this blog, if you read the url, was originally titled, Love, Hip-Hop & Soul, very much an ode to Soul Train). While words can’t describe the magnitude of Soul Train and Cornelius’ impact, and there are surely other articles written by folks using more anecdotal accounts, I felt obligated to take some time to dedicate a post to this fallen souldier. Rest In Power, Don.