CHICAGO — “I was one of the guys who could throw down,” Don Cornelius says in a new documentary about his era-defining run as host of the nation’s funkiest televised dance party, “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America” (9:30 p.m. EST Saturday on VH1).
He’s not boasting. As they say on the street corner, show and prove, and one of many smile-inducing moments in the documentary is footage of Cornelius strutting his stuff on his own show with the Supremes’ Mary Wilson. Cornelius learned how to glide on the dance floor while growing up on Chicago’s South Side during the ‘40s and ‘50s, then segueing into a career as a radio and TV newsman and DJ. While employed at local Chicago station WCIU-TV in the ‘60s, he started hosting soul dance parties around the city and eventually approached station management about a show based on the same idea.
“Soul Train” debuted in1970 with a budget so tight it couldn’t afford color cameras or a dance floor bigger than a typical living room. But the show was an instant hit in Chicago, and it started consuming the after-school viewing time of a young, African-American audience that other teen-oriented shows, including Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” largely ignored. Cornelius called in a host of favors, getting artists he had met over the years, such as Curtis Mayfield, the O’Jays, B.B. King and Jerry Butler, to perform.
But his smartest move was bringing in young dancers he met at parties or on the street to shake, shimmy and strut on the show while the music played. These loose-limbed teens and young adults were the show’s real stars (though they were unpaid), and their plethora of moves — from the “robot” to the “pop and lock” — are still in vogue today. Michael Jackson copped his moonwalk from one of the show’s dancers, who debuted it in the ‘70s. Among the dance troupe’s alumni are actress Rosie Perez, singer Jody Watley and rapper MC Hammer.
Cornelius may not have been the best dancer at his own party, but he could throw down in other ways, first and foremost as the owner of his own business — one of the most successful African-American empire builders in an industry dominated by whites. He partnered with another black-owned Chicago institution as a sponsor, Johnson Products, which struck a chord with black kids with products such as Afro Sheen. The music, the commercials, the dancers, the fashions, the “scramble board” spelling out the name of a prominent African-American leader — every facet of “Soul Train” proclaimed “black is beautiful,” a source of tremendous pride in a community struggling for its civil rights.
Above all, the show was great fun. As a baritone-voiced host who could embellish a phrase, Cornelius was the unflappable ringleader, engaging but never unctuous or too excitable. He created a world where kids came to “style a while” and left with a hefty dose of “peace, love and soul.” Cornelius projected an erudite, bespectacled cool in his double-breasted suits, even as he called on his viewers to dance the funky chicken in their living rooms.
The show moved to Los Angeles in its second year and entered into national syndication, turning Cornelius from local impresario into a music-industry tastemaker.
Instead of begging artists to perform, Cornelius was fielding requests from superstars to appear on his show. Instead of lip-syncing to their latest hit record (as was the custom in the show’s early days), the high-profile guests began performing live, sometimes with a 40-piece orchestra, as was the case with Barry White. Classic performances by the likes of Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown were a weekly occurrence. White performers came calling too, and David Bowie and Elton John sang Cornelius’ praises.
He weathered the challenges posed by disco and hip-hop, and his show (sometimes reluctantly) adapted to the times. The host was not shy about admitting his inability to embrace hip-hop.
“That was frightening,” he said after Public Enemy performed at the height of its considerable powers. But he understood the music’s importance in the community, and showcased everyone from L.L. Cool J to Snoop Doggy Dogg. He got out in1993.
Though the show continued into the next decade with a series of hosts, none of them could throw down quite like the master.
// Notes from the Road
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