Don Cornelius is not just a beloved American media personality. In a global context, he is a game-changer, a disrupter and somewhat of a creative genius.
In the late 1960s, Don Cornelius began a broadcasting career as a substitute disc jockey on a Chicago radio station, followed by a stint as a Sports News Anchor some years later, presenting ‘A Blacks’ View of the News’.
However, by 1970, Cornelius made history by producing the first episode of Soul Train where it debuted on local Chicago channel, WCUI-TV. Soul Train, a show focused on African-American music and dance, which also showcased performances from R&B, Funk, Soul, Hip-Hop and Pop artists, was an instant sensation.
"Love, Peace and Soul": Soul Train's impact
As a result, in October of 1971, the entertainment program debuted nationally, which Cornelius went on to host. His oversized ties, oversized spectacles and big afro proved iconic, as did his sign-off catchphrase, “as always, in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!”.
At the time Soul Train began, African Americans were rarely seen on television. Cornelius changed that. Soul Train was such a phenomenon that it lasted 35 years, airing its last episode in 2006. This means that the ‘train’ quite literally look a journey over decades from 1970s funk to 80s hip-hop and 90s R&B. Cornelius helmed over 700 episodes as host, before stepping down in 1993. From there, presenters included Mystro Clark, Shemar Moore and Dorian Gregory.
Before Soul Train aired, the premiere music and dance show in America, was American Bandstand. And while the program wasn’t completely segregated, giving non-white acts the stage from time to time, it drew a line at giving black people a spot in the audience.
When Soul Train first aired, there was only one other show on television that focused on soul music, titled Soul! A series which had a good run, lasting for five seasons, between 1968 to 1973. In contrast, Don Cornelius —clearly passionate about his creation— ensured Soul Train spanned over decades. Cornelius, a Korean war veteran, was not about exploitation or tokenism. He was proud of his skin colour and the culture that African Americans created for themselves amid a racist and discriminatory America and he wanted to show it to America.
Soul Train was prolific in terms of showcasing music and it is impossible to list the entirety of the many great guests it featured; starting from one of its earliest guests, Gladys Knight and the Pips, James Brown and Tina Turner, followed over the next 35 years by Aaliyah, Ashanti, Black Eyed Peas, Backstreet Boys, David Bowie, Destiny’s Child, Elton John, Ice Cube, Alicia Keys — the list goes on.
Tragically, Cornelius passed away in early 2012, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had spent decades suffering painful seizures after brain surgery in 1982, which were part of the reason he gave up hosting Soul Train in the early 90s.
'American Soul': Soul Train's legacy lives on
The legacy of this cultural phenomena has been brought to life once more, through a new drama series, American Soul. It tells the story of Cornelius and his Soul Train monolith; from its creation to its high-profile guests and its prominence.
Starring some of music's biggest names to portray those who walked the halls of Soul Train's studio — like Kelly Rowland as Gladys Knight and Bobby Brown as Rufus Thomas — the cast is a major selling point to hook audiences to learn about this history (as did other successful true-life fiction's — like the American Crime Story series). But it is the lesser-known, emerging performers who really shine in terms of the program's drama.
Cornelius is played by Sinqua Walls, who is fantastic in the role. In real life, Cornelius is noted for his deep, smooth voice, which Walls brings back to life. He is smooth, charming and commanding. Since 2007, Walls has appeared in some TV series, but few feature films. I would expect this to change as his performance in this gripping drama shows his true value as an actor. He is able to express emotions with ease — showing the effects of the stresses that come with producing a national TV show, in spite of being a black man in a white world.
The show also highlights the stresses of television production, from negotiating Soul Train’s existence with production companies and potential sponsors, to the behind the scenes crisis’ involving dancer rivalries and jealousies.
One of the great story arcs of this true-life fiction is that of Kendall and Simone Clarke. Kendall and Simone, played by Jelani Winston and Katlyn Nichol, respectively, are two teenage musicians and regular dancers on Soul Train. Kendall and Simone have a lot of issues throughout the series, individually and together. They rely on each other for emotional support. Jelani, in particular, is fantastic as Kendall. He’s young, confident, but also fragile, and with his and his sister’s father serving in Vietnam, Kendall is also the man of the house. Katlyn as Simone is fun, relatable and joyous, especially when dancing, she conveys complete bliss when her character is doing what she loves.
While the performances are no doubt worth tuning in for, overall, it’s the costumes you won’t want to miss. Fabulous, glittery, flare laden clothes are a huge spectacle of Soul Train and the reflect the style of the time. When combined with dancing and music, you can see why the original entertainment show was such a success — visually, it’s loud, fun and attractive. The modern depiction is fortunate to follow suit (pun intended).
In the words of the late, great, Don Cornelius — “and you can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas (70’s for absolute pleasure), and as always, in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul.”
'American Soul' airs Tuesdays & Wednesdays, 8.30pm. It premieres Tues, 17 December on NITV (Ch. 34). Catch-up is available on SBS On Demand after broadcast.
Travis is a Wongatha man living on Peramangk country. He is a Film Critic and Freelance Writer. Follow Travis @TravAkbar