“You can bet your last money it’s all gonna be a stoned gas honey.” Don Cornelius’ deep smooth voice would say at the end of every episode of the hippest trip in America, Soul Train. Before Cornelius created and hosted Soul Train, he was a Sports Anchor in Chicago on WC IU TV. WC IU TV was one of the only channels that broadcasted black people in a positive way. Even though the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, racial discrimination, segregation, social mobility, and social inequality was still an issue. Black people still lacked employment opportunities, especially in show business. When African Americans were shown on television, they were playing a character that was uneducated, poor, or a maid, or a nanny working for a white person. Before Soul Train was a hit, there was American Bandstand. It was a show where young couples would come and dance live band music. The show’s chief purpose was to be a representation of American youth’s culture. However, all the dancers and musicians on American bandstand were white. Even after segregation was made illegal, black artists, dancers, and musicians didn’t feel safe or welcome enough to come on the show. This upset Don Cornelius and he wanted to create a platform where black men and women be seen in a positive light, black culture could be showcased the right way (by black people), and to create a window of opportunity for black artists, dancers, and musicians to succeed in show business.
Don Cornelius created Soul Train with the purpose of representing black culture in America the way American Bandstand showcased white youth. He wanted to create a bridge between people who had no idea about black culture, or had never met a black person before and tear down the stereotypes and lies that White American Television had been selling its people up until that time. He also wanted to create a show by African Americans for African Americans to enjoy. This is exactly what he did on August 17th 1970 when he was able to air the very first episode of Soul Train on WC IU TV, in Chicago. He paid for his pilot episode with his own money, four hundred dollars. “When it came on, it was almost overnight hot. Almost in minutes, every black person knew about it. Not because it was such a wonderful show, but because it was theirs.” (Don Cornelius, Interview) The show consisted of local black Chicago artists such as BB King, Curtis Mayfield, the Staple Singers, and more. Cornelius had all black dancers on his show and would even hand pick local teenagers who came running to volunteer after school to dance on Soul Train. Through this platform, America fell in love with black music, black fashion, black dance moves, black power.
When the show became successful, Cornelius took the Soul Train from Chicago and made a stop at Los Angeles, California with the dream of mainstreaming his hot steam machine. Even though he moved his show to LA, he remained loyal to his Chicago roots and continued to invite local Chicago dancers and musicians to star on his show. This helped him keep his old audience while building a new one. Once the show got big in LA, EVERYONE wanted to a chance to ride the hippest trip in America. Cornelius no longer had to ask people to star on his show because artists like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Jackson 5 asking him to be on the show. Later on, White artists like Elton John and David Bowie would make an appearance on Soul Train as well. Stevie Wonder, like many black artists, thanks Soul Train for giving him a platform where he could succeed in show business. Don Cornelius’ Soul Train kicked racial inequality in the ass with badass music, badass dancers, with bad ass attitude. Thank you so much dude! And as the man-man would always say “You can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stoned gas honey.”
“Don Cornelius.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 2 Apr. 2014, www.biography.com/people/don-cornelius-273681.
Youtube, 15 Apr. 2013, youtu.be/yDCokBrXefs.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications – Encyclopedia of Television – Soul Train, www.museum.tv/eotv/soultrain.htm