The death of Don Cornelius, reported today, is an opportunity to reflect on his legacy. Last year marked the 40th anniversary of his iconic TV series, Soul Train, the brainchild of the legendary executive producer and host. In the past two years, there’s been a VH-1 documentary, a dance party at New York’s Lincoln Center, and yesterday a party outside the Smithsonian Institution to celebrate the donation of classic Soul Train memorabilia.
But Soul Train has always been more than just a syndicated TV show. How many Americans truly understand just how important and revolutionary Soul Train was? For those in the know, and those who need to act like they do, here are five ways that Soul Train changed America.
1) Black-owned TV
Black Entertainment Television? TV One? It all started somewhere, and that somewhere was Soul Train… or more specifically, Don Cornelius, who was the first Black owner of a nationally syndicated TV franchise. Beginning with one TV station in Chicago, Soul Train spread to dozens of markets and endured for 35 seasons. The emergence of Cornelius as a power player surprised even those who espoused the politics and economics of Black Power. “Who’s backing you on this?” James Brown famously asked Cornelius, three times over, seemingly expecting to hear the name of some white Hollywood mogul. And three times, Cornelius answered: “It’s just me, James.” Cornelius’s example set the precedent for a wave of Black entrepreneurship in the entertainment business and formed powerful alliances with Black-owned sponsors.
2) Afrocentricity for all to see
As Questlove of The Roots stated in yesterday’s ceremony, the vibe of Soul Train, the music, and the look of its dancers and performers broadcasted an Afrocentric perspective to a wide audience of Americans — Black, white, Latino and Asian. The show made it cool to be Black, proud and political.
3) Music and cultural powerhouse
The Soul Train line is just one example of how the small traditions of that Saturday morning show made their way into the world. The fact is that most of the popular Black music of the 1970s became that way via Soul Train — nothing else was quite as powerful, and nothing would be until the emergence of BET and MTV in the early 1980s.
4) Black behind the camera
Soul Train did much to increase the hiring of Black professionals in the entertainment business. That growing behind-the-camera presence was evident to Soul Train‘s on-camera personalities as the show grew and Don Cornelius Productions expanded. Soul Train once again lit the torch that would be carried by filmmakers like Spike Lee, Black show-runners like Shonda Rhimes of “Gray’s Anatomy,” and now Tyler Perry.
5) Franchising and branding
Soul Train was one of the first brands other than Motown to take its brand into other business areas, like the Soul Train award shows.