The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style
Soul Train boldly went where no show had gone before, showcasing young African Americans and the fashions and music that defined their lives: R&B, funk, jazz, disco, and gospel.
Excerpted from The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style by Nelson George. Published by © HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
One of the problems during the period when we started Soul Train was the lack of opportunity for black talent on television. I’m talking the sixties and part of the seventies. It was a medium that didn’t feature minorities as much as it could have. And it was a medium that didn’t feature minorities in a positive way as opposed to a negative way ... it bothered me personally and that’s kind of why I wanted to get a spot on television. So that maybe I could do something about presenting black people in particular in a positive way.
—Don Cornelius , 2009
THE LANDSCAPE of black images on television and in film in the mid-1960s was pretty barren. I’m not sure anyone who came of age in the 1980s or beyond will ever understand how absent “negro” faces were once on television in America. There was no Winfrey network. No Steve Harvey talk show. No argumentative sportscasters like Stephen A. Smith. The news broadcasts were when a dark face could be seen protesting, or an angry Malcolm X or an inspiring Dr. King or a local civil rights activist being interviewed about “the negro problem.”
But as far as entertainment went, Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the few blacks who was a regular on network variety shows, largely because he was part of Frank Sinatra’s revered Rat Pack. An act from Berry Gordy’s Motown Records stable, like the Supremes, the Temptations, or the Four Tops, popped up on American Bandstand, Shindig, or other teen-appeal music shows singing “the sound of young America” and executing exquisite choreography. Crossover comic Bill Cosby costarred on the NBC series I Spy for several years in the mid-1960s, the foundation of his long successful TV career.
In September 1968 the lovely Diahann Carroll was made the lead in Julia, a half-hour NBC sitcom in which she portrayed a single mother and nurse. While its existence was groundbreaking, the show’s writing and plotting was bland. Moreover, during all of the show’s eighty-six episodes, the team behind Julia was as lily-white as the rest of America’s big three networks.
At the time Julia was cautiously opening the network TV door, Donald Cortez Cornelius was already on his journey toward pop-culture immortality. Unlike a lot of prominent black figures who emerged in the civil rights years, Cornelius wasn’t a southern immigrant to the north, but a native son of one of America’s biggest cities. He was born on September 27, 1936, in Chicago’s Bronzeville, a densely packed, segregation-created black community on the city’s South Side. Two of the greatest works of postwar black literature were set on these same tough streets: Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), which features a restless young man named Bigger Thomas whose life ended tragically, and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which featured a restless young man named Walter Lee Younger who made mistakes in search of a better life for his family. Wright’s bestseller was draped in despair, while Hansberry saw a brighter future in the face of racism. Perhaps the difference between the two characters is the difference between America in 1940 and 1959.
Don was twenty-three years old in 1959 when Hansberry’s play first appeared. He must have shared its optimism and, thankfully, was way more Walter Lee than Bigger. He attended one of the city’s most important black high schools, DuSable (named after the black trader who founded Chicago), and after graduation he joined the Marine Corps and served in Korea for eighteen months. He married Delores Harrison in 1956 and quickly had two sons, Anthony and Raymond. His personal ambition can be seen in the jobs he worked prior to moving into media: he sold tires and automobiles, briefly was a policeman, and dabbled in insurance—a rapid journey from blue to white collar in the space of a few years.
He was tall and handsome, and it wasn’t long before that foghorn voice gave him the idea of doing radio. In 1966 he took a three-month radio course, and a year later he landed a job at Chicago’s WVON, one of the greatest of the rhythm and blues radio stations that were the backbone of black music and the communities they served.
These are the early biographical details of Don Cornelius, but we can’t introduce him without also discussing the quasi-mystical, midcentury quality popularly known as “cool.” Professor Robert Farris Thompson, a historian of West African culture, traces the concept of “cool” to Yoruba and Igbo civilizations. Thompson has argued that “The telling point is that the ‘mask’ of coolness is worn not only in times of stress, but also but in times of pleasure ... I have come to term the attitude ‘an aesthetic of the cool’ in the sense of a deeply and completely motivated, consciously artistic interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, of responsibility and play.”
Whatever its roots in Africa, among black Americans, “cool” signified a certain elegant restraint, a control of facial expression, posture, and gesture, that projected danger as well as grace. Behind this outer calm, rivers of deep emotion and passion might be felt, but the exterior projected a laid-back hardness that intimidated men and seduced women. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis gave musical expression to this ethos with his exquisite suits, red sports car, and musical mastery. With the 1957 release of his album Birth of the Cool, he became the poster child for cool.
Cool wasn’t limited to black folks. (White movie idol Steve McQueen definitely possessed the required chill.) Nor could every black person achieve it. For many black big-city brothers, cool was an elusive prize. In their strident attempts to achieve cool, many became self-conscious parodies of the persona. Trying too hard to be cool was not cool. Cool was a way of being, not a goal to achieve. You were cool when others perceived you as such. It was not something you could declare yourself. Truly cool people are anointed by those around them and baptized by the appreciation of others.
Don remembered overhearing two girls in high school talking: “‘You know, Don Cornelius thinks he’s cool, doesn’t he?’ And the other girl said, ‘No, honey. He is cool.’ That’s just something, for whatever it’s worth and for whatever it means, that’s something that’s just born in me.”
In the Chicago of his young manhood, cool was a currency that drew people to you, garnered respect, and made upward mobility easier. Cornelius’s cool would help him impress authority figures, whether they were advertising executives, radio station personnel, or record-business gatekeepers. Cool was the intangible element in Don’s rise that would be much commented on in later years but, in this early part of his career, it was the unspoken element that gave others confidence in him.
Now, to understand the heritage of WVON and why it was such a crucial stop in Cornelius’s journey, we have to go back to the post– World War II period when, for the first time, black radio announcers with ethnic voices began appearing on the nation’s airwaves. Black announcers had been on the radio before the war, but usually they’d been instructed to lose any black accent and cleanse their vocabulary of slang.
Arthur Bernard Leaner, aka Al Benson, a onetime vaudeville performer and sometime storefront preacher from Jackson, Mississippi, would break the mold and, in a number of ways, set the stage for Soul Train. At the time, there were no stations dedicated to serving black listeners in the Chicago market. (In 1947, Memphis’s WDIA became the first “negro”-oriented station; in 1949 the first to be black owned, WERD, opened in Atlanta.)
When Arthur debuted in Chicago radio in 1945, he hosted a fifteen-minute Sunday-night show during which he preached the gospel while a choir sang in the background. He’d expected to get underwriting from local advertisers, but a dispute with station management led Arthur to revamp his persona. Out went the preaching and the choir. In its place he became Al Benson, “the Ole Swingmaster,” and he began playing blues, swing, and the emerging style of dance music eventually labeled rhythm and blues. By 1947 he was broadcasting twenty hours a week on two different stations and garnering advertising support from businesses around the city.
By 1948 the Chicago Tribune had declared Benson the most popular disc jockey in Chicago, white or black. Key to Benson’s popularity was what he called “native talk,” meaning that on the air he spoke with a southern black accent, used current slang, and referred to the struggles black immigrants from the South were confronting in the Windy City. By playing electrified urban blues or rhythm and blues, sounds then being released exclusively by independent labels like Chicago’s Chess, Benson established a template for how black DJs could compete with their white counterparts and, eventually, for the sound and style of black radio that continued into the soul era and endures today in hip-hop radio.
With radio as his power base, Benson staged shows at the Regal Theater, Chicago’s answer to New York’s Apollo, and he started his own record label, Parrot Records. In 1951, a year before the debut of American Bandstand, Benson hosted his own variety show on a local station, making him the first black DJ in Chicago to do so (perhaps the first in the country). So Don Cornelius grew up with Al Benson as a huge, innovative figure in his world.
Benson’s business acumen was very much in keeping with the energy of black Chicago, which, more than any other American metropolis, was home to some of the most important black businesses of the postwar era. John H. Sengstacke’s weekly Chicago Defender was a force championing civil rights and the integration of the armed forces and encouraging southern blacks to move North. John Johnson founded Ebony, a monthly black version of Life magazine, in 1945 and followed up with the pocket-size Jet in 1951, both of which remain staples in black households. Black hair-care companies based in the city prospered as well, with Fred Luster’s Luster Products, founded in 1957, and George Johnson’s Johnson Products, started in 1954, both generating millions in profits and thousands of jobs in factories and beauty salons nationwide. And Chicagoan S. B. Fuller was one of the slickest black businessmen ever. He started selling products for a white company—soap and deodorant—door to door to South Side blacks in the 1920s. By 1939 he’d made enough money to open his own factory, and almost ten years later Fuller purchased the company of his white distributor (while wisely keeping his black identity secret). During the 1950s Fuller was likely the richest black man in America.
It was in this context that WVON, which arrived on air in 1963, made an immediate impact by serving as an outlet for black entrepreneurs to advertise products to a growing consumer market using an on-air delivery and music that Benson pioneered. The station was owned by Leonard and Phil Chess, two Polish brothers who ran Chess and Checker Records, home of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, and countless other legends. While WVON’s location at the far end of the AM dial and tiny 250-watt signal meant it couldn’t be heard all over the city, the station still squarely hit its target—the city’s densely packed black neighborhoods in South and West Side Chicago.
Though the radio scene had changed considerably since Al Benson’s heyday, his stamp was still felt at WVON. He had sponsored contests for prospective DJs around the city and gave them airtime, inaugurating many of their careers, including those of Sid McCoy (who’d later be the voice of Soul Train) and Herb “the Cool Gent” Kent.
By the time Cornelius reached WVON in 1966, Benson was no longer a force, although he thrived through the voices of on-air personalities Kent, Pervis “the Blues Man” Spann, Wesley South, and news director Roy Wood, who guided the station’s civil rights coverage. WVON’s playlist was filled with music made in the city itself. Blues stars like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were starting to lose their hold on black listeners, but an exciting generation of local soul singers led by singer-songwriter Curtis Mayfield and including Jerry Butler, the Impressions, Gene Chandler, Fontella Bass, and Tyrone Davis were starting to deliver consistent hits and strong ratings.
Given the station’s pedigree and power, it’s not surprising that Don never landed a regular on-air slot playing music. Instead he was given the job of news reader and street reporter during one of the most tumultuous periods in Chicago history. In January 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. relocated to a Chicago housing project to dramatize the de facto segregation in real estate practices in the “liberal” North. King would face resistance from political boss Mayor Richard Daley, be confounded by nefarious dealings with black elected officials who were puppets of the local Democratic machine, and endure brutal harassment from Chicago’s white residents during public marches. A photograph from this period shows a young Don with microphone in hand, covering the civil rights movement for WVON, walking down a Chicago street with King.
Don also covered the riots in the wake of King’s assassination in April 4, 1968, and the violent events of that June’s Democratic Convention that left demonstrators bloody in the city’s streets. The Black Panthers organized successfully in Chicago under the leadership of Fred Hampton, who was then murdered in a one-sided shoot-out with the city’s police, another story Cornelius and WVON reported.
During this intense period in Chicago’s history, Cornelius made his television debut, hosting a show on local UHF station WCIU called A Black View of the News, just one of scores of public-interest shows that were popping up around the country in response to the civil rights movement. Most had names as on the nose as the one Cornelius hosted, names that unintentionally suggested that “the black view” remained not merely segregated but exotic, even foreign, to the American mainstream.
Today the UHF broadcast band is used primarily for mobile phones and two-way radio. But in the 1960s UHF stations, which broadcast on a higher frequency than the standard VHF stations of commercial TV, were an alternative viewing experience. The signals had limited coverage and performed as a precursor to public-access TV years before cable’s introduction. And this relationship with WCIU, initially based on Cornelius’s news experience, led to the birth of Soul Train. The idea of doing a dance show was far from original. Aside from Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, which aired nationally on ABC, there were local dance shows all around the country that catered to teenagers and, to varying degrees, included black singers and dancers. Almost none of the shows I’m aware of from the period placed soul, or “black music,” so front and center: most of them used teen appeal to keep local advertisers and TV programmers comfortable. Don’s genius was seeing that the time was right for a more explicitly “soul”—that is, black—show.