One of the longest-running syndicated shows in TV history, “Soul Train” was started by Don Cornelius in 1970 as a small local production in Chicago. Showcasing the blend of gospel and R&B that is soul music, it broadcast local talent to local viewers, featuring the hottest music, dances and fashions at a time when there were few outlets for popular Black culture in the U.S.
At the time, the idea of a Black-owned show created for a Black audience featuring Black performers was revolutionary. Gregory Stephen Tate, a writer, musician, producer and longtime critic for The Village Voice, said that the show’s successful launch “reflected a serious paradigm shift in American mass entertainment.”
Each “Soul Train” episode opened with a train whistle and ended with “Soul Train” founder, producer and host, Cornelius, saying, “We wish you love, peace, and soul!”
From its local beginnings, “Soul Train” quickly attracted prominent musical acts such as Gladys Knight and The O’Jays. In 1971, “Soul Train” moved from the Chicago TV station WCIU-TV to Los Angeles, where it was broadcast nationally for the first time. Cornelius created, produced, wrote and hosted “Soul Train” from 1971 to 1993. The show ended in 2006 after its 35th season.
The show included professional and amateur artists in R&B, soul, dance/pop, disco, and gospel. “Soul Train” introduced hip-hop artists to a national audience in the ’80s and taught a national audience how to do the Robot, the Hustle and the Bus Stop.
The late Cornelius became a household name and is credited with pioneering the business of Black joy. Here are 13 things to know about Don Cornelius Productions.
‘Soul Train’ started low-budget in Black and white
In 1967, Cornelius joined Chicago TV station WCIU-TV, which was trying to reach Black audiences. He worked as a news and sports reporter but also booked local concert tours on the side. He proposed to the TV station a soul-music version of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”
The station agreed but offered no financial backing, so Cornelius produced a pilot episode with his own money. He got the name “Soul Train” based on his experiences working with Black artists who performed multiple different Chicago gigs a day and were always on the move, according to Hollywood Reporter.
Sears, Roebuck & Co. agreed to sponsor him and “Soul Train” premiered on Aug. 17, 1970, performing live five days a week.
When James Brown visited the “Soul Train” Los Angeles studio, he kept asking Cornelius: “Brother, who’s backing you on this?” Each time Cornelius replied: “Well, James, it’s just me,” according to The Guardian.
Syndication came courtesy of sponsorship by a Black-owned brand
In order to become nationally syndicated, “Soul Train” needed a sponsor. Most brands were not interested but Cornelius got the support of George Johnson, president of Johnson Products, the Chicago-based maker of the Black haircare range Afro Sheen. “Soul Train’s” audience was the same Black people who bought most of Johnson’s products.
“Soul Train” made its national debut on Oct. 2, 1971, in eight markets.
Cornelius needed a big name for the first Los Angeles show and he begged Motown star Gladys Knight to participate. In subsequent appearances, Cornelius would say, “If it weren’t for Gladys Knight, none of this would be here.”
The syndicating agency was able to debut “Soul Train” in just seven of the 25 markets Cornelius had targeted. “Practically all the stations that turned the show down had no other Black-oriented entertainment shows running,” Cornelius told Billboard. But the TV stations couldn’t argue with success. Within eight months, all 25 markets were showing “Soul Train.” In August 1972, Cornelius landed a $1 million advertising deal with Johnson Products.
By 1974, 95 stations were showing “Soul Train.”
Don Cornelius hired Black crew, dancers worked for free
Cornelius employed as many Black crew members and directors as he could. Dancers were “unpaid and overworked (a month’s worth of episodes was filmed over a single weekend),” The Guardian reported. Still, thousands of dancers came to audition, hoping to become stars.
Bringing a targeted format to TV
“Soul Train” reminded the TV networks that there was an African American audience. Cornelius’s genius was to bring a “targeted” format to TV, where, even if “Soul Train” was slotted on Saturday morning rather than prime time, it could be seen nationwide, according to New York Times.
Saturday mornings in the 1970s and 1980s meant a ride on the hippest train in America.
“If African American music was going to be marginalized on television — as it was even during MTV’s early years — then Mr. Cornelius was going to host an irresistible party,” Jon Pareles wrote for the Times.
Soul Train business spinoffs
- Soul Train Music Awards
- Soul Train Lady Of Soul Awards
- Soul Train Christmas Starfest
Soul Train Records
Cornelius partnered with Dick Griffey in 1975 to form Soul Train Records, an association that lasted three years. Cornelius subsequently shifted his emphasis back to TV, including a British version, “6:20 Soul Train.”
Don Jackson, who later founded Central City Productions (CCP), turned down developing ‘Soul Train’
In the late 1960s, Don Jackson — then an advertising sales manager for WVON, Chicago’s No. 1 black-oriented radio station — was approached and asked to work on developing a new African American dance show being created by an aspiring disc jockey named Cornelius. “Man, there is no way in hell a show called ‘Soul Train’ will ever make it. Thank you, but no thank you,” Jackson said, according to a Black Enterprise interview.
Slow to get advertising revenue
Cornelius hosted the show, produced it, and sold all the advertising. Within weeks of its Chicago launch, “Soul Train” was the city’s No. 1 show among Black viewers. However, few companies saw the need to advertise on “Soul Train.” They felt they could get the same audience by advertising on “white,” or general-audience shows. Cornelius’ winning ratings finally convinced Wate-On, Joe Louis Milk, and Coca-Cola to join Sears as sponsors.
Advertising revenue picks up
More than 10 years after turning down a chance to develop “Soul Train,” Jackson approached Cornelius with a plan to boost “Soul Train” advertising revenues, which were struggling. “Cornelius was underpriced and losing coverage, losing time periods, and represented by people who didn’t have his best interest at (heart),” Jackson said.
Jackson had by then produced successful TV programs and events targeting African Americans and gained wide distribution for his vehicles through a partnership with Tribune Co. He made a proposal to Cornelius to put “Soul Train” on prime-time slots in top African-American markets including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, and Detroit.
Jackson went on to distribute, syndicate, and sell advertising for the weekly program, generating more than $20 million in advertising over 23 years. CCP earned more than $5 million in commissions, according to Black Enterprise.
Soul Train Awards
Jackson and Cornelius launched the Soul Train Music Awards in 1987. It ran for 20 years under their management. At the time, it was the only music awards show dedicated exclusively to Black musicians and was hugely popular, drawing the kind of advertising Cornelius and “Soul Train” had always dreamed of. In the 1990 awards, Chrysler became the first advertiser from the auto industry. “We’re finally getting—particularly for the awards show—the major advertisers… that probably should have been advertising on Soul Train for the last 20 years,” Cornelius told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “We were stereotyped to where we weren’t supposed to sell anything but Black hair-care products and records. Of course, now it’s known that we buy tires and shoes and houses too.”
Don Cornelius sold the rights for an undisclosed amount
After “Soul Train” ceased production in 2006 with the longest run in syndication history, Cornelius sold the rights to the “Soul Train” library to MadVision Entertainment in 2008 for an undisclosed amount.
“Don was a visionary pioneer and a giant in our business,” Quincy Jones, the Grammy-winning musician-producer, said after his death. “Before MTV, there was ‘Soul Train.’ That will be the great legacy of Don Cornelius.”
Cornelius’ health deteriorated after suffering an aneurysm. He developed seizures and found it harder and harder to treat his debilitating symptoms with medication. He died in 2012 by suicide at age 75. His son, Tony Cornelius, said his father’s actions changed his perspective on depression and suicide.
“When I experienced it, I thought suicide was for people who just were weak and could not handle life in a way,” Tony Cornelius said. “He was a rock.”
Photos: Don Cornelius photo by John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, https://www.flickr.com/people/36277035@N06
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en / Soul Train Awards producer Don Cornelius, right, in Los Angeles, March 13, 1995 with defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. (AP Photo/Eric Draper)