The passing of any cultural icon is unbearably sad. The passing of said icon due to a self-inflicted shotgun wound is especially tragic. Compound this with the acknowledgment that the icon in question, Don Cornelius, should have received more acclaim than he did, and well … it’s tough to swallow.
Mr. Cornelius was the creator and single sustaining element of ‘Soul Train,’ a music performance television program modeled after the hugely popular ‘American Bandstand.’ While ‘Bandstand’ enjoyed both high budget (network affiliation) and high profile (hosted by Dick Clark), ‘Soul Train’ existed on a meager budget funded solely through Mr. Cornelius and ran largely on syndication. Adding to the ‘Soul Train’ mix was the show’s emphasis on early 1970′s black culture and Mr. Cornelius’ insistence on showcasing African American performers.
It’s important to keep in mind that this era of music was highly polarized. There was a thick line of demarcation between what were thought to be “black” and “white” bands, whose music and influence were promoted through record companies’ predetermined valuations of race. As a result, there were very few opportunities for black musical acts to crossover into another audience and sell more records. ‘Soul Train’ helped to expose such artists as Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Smokey Robinson to a wider sphere of (well deserved) appreciation, helping their careers financially and artistically.
Innovation takes many forms, and in all cases it involves a certain amount of risk. Sometimes that risk can depreciate other aspects of life. By all accounts, Mr. Cornelius was an intensely private man whose final years were not happy ones. He endured a bitter divorce, served probation for domestic battery, suffered from a variety of health problems, and always resented his lack of sponsorship by mainstream advertisers. Eventually ‘Bandstand’ lost credibility among black entertainers, who all made appearances on ‘Soul Train’ their primary career goals. As the 1980′s arrived and black artists enjoyed greater accessibility, the innovation that drove ‘Soul Train’ began to ironically signal its decline:
The music industry changed quickly in the 1980s, with the advent of MTV and BET, two cable channels that benefitted from Mr. Cornelius’s past but eroded his audience. No longer was there a weekly appointment to see the hottest musicians or latest dance moves, but a constant onslaught.
While Mr. Cornelius had somewhat reluctantly but warmly embraced disco on his show, he had more misgivings about the advent of hip-hop and rap, which he thought were degrading. “I could do it. I could be like ‘yowassup!’ But I’d look stupid,” he once told an interviewer.
I watched ‘Soul Train’ every Saturday and largely kept it a secret. At that time, living in highly conservative upstate PA, caucasian boys did not listen to music invented by talented people wearing wide-lapeled jackets, enormous afros and silver platform boots. When my high school friends declared their love of rap music, I took pride in identifying which R&B chestnut was being sampled underneath the clattering beatbox. This doesn’t make me a good person. It just makes me appreciate how good the music from that era really was, and how Mr. Cornelius was the crucial barometer for a less complicated time.
My lasting impression of ‘Soul Train’ ironically doesn’t even involve a black artist. It is the 1980 United States debut of Yellow Magic Orchestra, an electronic band from Japan that included a young Ryuichi Sakamoto. (Sakamoto has since become a critically acclaimed composer and actor). They started their set with a cover of “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells, the largely African American audience dancing and cheering every note. You can feel the excitement in the clip of something special happening, a novelty act interacting with an audience, the prototype of a benign cultural revolution.
Through the bad lip syncing and dated costumes, YMO on ‘Soul Train’ provides a key lesson on integration and inclusion. Millons of Americans had been exposed to a Japanese pop band they had never heard of. Japanese audiences audiences were made newly aware of cross-continental artists, the same acts who had unknowingly inspired their homeland heroes. When Mr. Cornelius leapt onto the stage to interview the band between songs, he chuckled nervously and said, “If you’re out there in TV land wondering what’s happening, I haven’t the slightest idea.” I think he did.