The significance of Don Cornelius to American culture — and to the American culture business — is told nowhere more eloquently than in one brief exchange between Cornelius and singer James Brown, a story that Cornelius himself recalls in VH-1's excellent 2010 documentary Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America.
It was the Godfather of Soul's first appearance on Cornelius' then-nascent syndicated TV show — designed to do for soul music and black audiences what American Bandstand had long done for pop music and mainstream audiences. Brown marveled at the professionalism of the production, the flawlessness of its execution.
He turned to Cornelius and asked, "Who's backing you on this, man?"
"It's just me, James," Cornelius answered.
Brown, nonplused, acted as if Cornelius didn't understand the question. He asked it two more times, and Cornelius answered twice again: "It's just me, James."
That the man who wrote the song "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud" and who recorded the soundtrack to the Black Power movement could scarcely comprehend that a black man like Cornelius both owned and helmed this kind of enterprise without white patronage is a testament to the magnitude and the improbability of Cornelius' achievements.
With Soul Train, which made its debut on one Chicago TV station in 1970 and spread quickly to dozens of American markets, Cornelius created the first black-owned nationally syndicated TV franchise. As such, Cornelius was the television analogue to black record business entrepreneurs like Berry Gordy and the precursor to future black TV mogul Bob Johnson, who founded the Black Entertainment Television cable channel in 1980.
Cornelius insisted on as much black presence behind the cameras as he induced in front of them, and he was one of the first black moguls to expand his brand beyond its origins: producing records (Cornelius was the executive producer behind the bubblegum-soul group Shalamar) and, eventually, award shows.
Cornelius' cultural impact, however, went beyond the confines of black business achievement. Soul Train became a Saturday morning staple for Americans of all colors and creeds (after Cornelius stared down a ham-handed copycat attempt by American Bandstand's Dick Clark called Soul Unlimited). The "Soul Train line," a regular feature of the show, popularized new dances and grew to become a real-life American tradition at weddings, celebrations and, yes, bar mitzvahs.
Don Cornelius proved a truism about America and race that so few people, even today, understand: Black culture, expressed in undiluted form and unapologetically, will by virtue become accepted by the American mainstream. It's something that future rap moguls like Russell Simmons and Jay-Z understood instinctively. So it's a tragic irony that Soul Train's decline came with the dawn of the hip-hop era. Even though Cornelius shared so much spiritually with hip-hop's entrepreneurs, he was not personally able to appreciate the new genre and make his franchise relevant to the hip-hop generation.
With a sonorous intonation and an ever-expanding natural hairdo, Cornelius was resplendently himself, and thus inspired much parody. But it's heartening to know that America is beginning to see the man as more than an Afro and a deep voice. Last year, the set and memorabilia of Soul Train landed at the Smithsonian's Museum of African-American History and Culture.
Cornelius' reported suicide, alas, tells us something about the nature of American success. All the man's equity, affluence and well-deserved public acclaim were not, in the end, of enough comfort to salve his private pain — a struggle with illness, a nasty divorce.
To the people who make up the community that Cornelius created, the man is nearly a saint. We can see it now: the double line of dancers forming just beyond the pearly gates, awaiting the ingress of soul's earthly impresario.
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