The death earlier this month of Soul Train creator Don Cornelius brought back memories of life as a twenty-something in the hedonistic 1970’s—for many of a certain age—a forgotten decade. For myself and my friends, as whites living then in London Ontario—a city that was not known for its ethnic diversity– Soul Train was our window into the world of blacks. It and the Blaxploitation movies that were rampant then, created a naive sense that the racial “thing” had been solved. Naive indeed considering that only 3 years earlier Martin Luther King had been shot, triggering race riots all over the United States; and a year before that a riot in Detroit had to be put down by the US army. (Mitt Romneys father George was the governor of Michigan who placed the SOS call to President Lyndon Johnson.)
Cornelius’ creation which was syndicated for airing on Saturday around noon when airtime was cheap was aimed at a young, black urban audience but is also became destination television for many whites. Cornelius raised money for syndication of what had been a Chicago local program, thanks to the Johnson Products Company (not to be confused with Johnsons Wax) who wanted to showcase their new line of Afro Sheen hair products. Black was now “cool” and many whites, men especially, started growing Afros. As a side note, I remember when I first came to Hamilton in 1981, a well-known radio reporter, extremely white, was still sporting a ‘fro.’ Don Cornelius hated comparisons between Soul Train and American Bandstand, but one similarity was inescapable. Kids of all colours tuned in as much to see the latest fashions and dance steps as they did to see the musical talent, which nonetheless was prodigious. Don Cornelius was the epitome of “cool”—tall, wearing Immaculate suits—double breasted, bell bottomed, with his trademark tinted glasses; and of, course the Afro; but the biggest distinguishing feature was his voice—way, way deep. When he was talking, he sounded like Barry White singing.
Over the years every major black musical star (and many white acts) appeared on Soul Train—Ashford and Simpson, Jerry Butler, the Commodores, Sean Combs (Puff-Daddy), the Delfonics, Sheena Easton, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, the Impressions, Michael Jackson, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, MC Hammer—right through to Jackie Wilson and Barry White. Saturday afternoons in those days were largely given over to conserving one’s strength for the long, strenuous Saturday night that awaited. One would do nothing more energetic than maybe taking back the empties and lounging around. Soul Train was the perfect backdrop. There is no doubt that while Soul Train was not the total solution for racial understanding that we foolishly imagined then, it was nonetheless a contributor to the cause that continues today. The world is at least a little bit better because of shows like Soul Train. So Don Cornelius, in your own words, we wish you LOVE, PEACE……and SOUL…!