As creator, producer, and host of Soul Train, Don Cornelius engineered the “hippest trip in America” for over two decades. He single-handedly created a nationally televised platform for African American music and culture that featured the biggest names in soul, R&B, and hip-hop. Soul Train was a showcase for Black music luminaries such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder while also serving as a launchpad for future stars including LL Cool J, New Edition, and Mariah Carey. Cornelius believed in the “Black is beautiful” movement of the 1960s and said that he “had a burning desire to see Black people presented on television in a positive light.” Soul Train set lasting trends in music, dance, and fashion, and the charismatic Cornelius transformed the show into one of the most formative cultural movements in the world.
Don Cornelius was one of the first African Americans to serve as creator and executive producer of a television show. Soul Train dates to Cornelius’ days as a news reporter in Chicago, where he hosted concerts at local high schools – the series’ rapid school-to-school schedule was dubbed the “Soul Train.” To streamline his operation, Cornelius shifted his focus to television with a daily afternoon dance show on Chicago’s local WCIU-TV. Debuting on August 17, 1970, Soul Train was an immediate hit, and the program quickly expanded to seven other cities and moved its headquarters to Los Angeles. For the viewers, Soul Train was a breath of fresh air – captivating musical performances, unscripted mid-show conversations, product lines specifically marketed to a Black audience, and, of course, the infamous “Soul Train Line” that ended each broadcast. Questlove has asserted the vast impact of the show, calling it “a sibling, a parent, a babysitter, a friend, a textbook, a newscast, a business school, and a church.”
Don Cornelius created a vehicle for soul, R&B, dance, and hip-hop to find their way into our living rooms. In the process, he became a visionary entrepreneur who opened the door – and held it open – for many others to follow him through.
Influence: Berry Gordy, Al Bell, Dick Clark
Legacy: Oprah Winfrey, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Nick Cannon
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