This article originally appeared in the March 2001 issue of Details magazine.
Don Cornelius is cool, famously cool. He's been cool for so long, it's hard to imagine that the concept existed before him. For nearly three decades, as Soul Train's creator and main man, Cornelius has spread the cool around, turned it upside down, and made America feel percussion.
Cornelius conducted the best thing about Saturday morning, the funk-fueled dance hour known as Soul Train. And Soul Train keeps on chugging: Thirty years later, the show is broadcast to 105 cities and continues to be a cultural artery, pumping new music, street fashion, and all the latest moves directly from urban America to the white hinterlands. Even William Shawn, genteel editor of The New Yorker for more than 40 years, was said to catch the Train every Saturday.
"When we started, they danced differently in every market you went to," Cornelius says, in the deep voice first heard on Chicago's WVON. "There was one style in Chicago, another in Detroit, and another in Atlanta. After Soul Train, everywhere you went, they all danced the same."
Soul Train began in 1970 as a local Chicago program, designed to fill time between Afro Sheen commercials. George Johnson, of Johnson Products, a personal-care company that was the first black-owned business on the American Stock Exchange, wanted to sell his wares on TV, but was loath to waste his money advertising to white audiences. Instead, he turned to Cornelius, then a radio personality who moonlighted booking soul acts into black high schools. Cornelius and his partner tramped through several schools a day, trying to raise enough gate money to pay their acts. The gypsy approach inspired the TV show's name: "Rolling into one school, packing up, rolling out," Cornelius says, "it felt like a train, a soul train."
The show went national just a year later, debuting in eight cities and featuring Motown money machine Gladys Knight & the Pips. From the first note, Cornelius emphasized the dynamic camera angles that would give Soul Train an energy largely absent from its inspiration—and archrival—American Bandstand (which faded off the air in 1989). Over the years, Cornelius turned to guest hosts, such as Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx, eventually stepping off camera in 1993. Now he concentrates on the Soul Train Awards shows and the Soul Train Channel, the latter of which will premiere in August.
The Soul Train Channel will extend the brand's appeal as an urban alternative to MTV, just as the Saturday show provided an R&B haven from the white-bread American Bandstand. It will offer original programming, but Cornelius is vague about the details, fearful of tipping off the competition. The channel will also draw on the Soul Train archives, a priceless block of footage that has thus far escaped the voracious classic-TV maw.
"There's nothing we don't have," Cornelius says confidently. "Anyone you can name."
Kool & the Gang, the Four Tops, Jackie Wilson—and that's just a single show from 1972. There are nearly 1,000 episodes: every disco mama, soul stylist, and new jack who ever mattered, from Smokey to Snoop Dogg, Johnny Mathis to Rick James. The ultimate guest list includes Marvin Gaye and Public Enemy, Prince, and Lionel Richie, Whitney, Stevie, and the Isley Brothers, Ike and Tina, the Pointer Sisters, and Sly and the Family Stone. You could spend all day trying to find a black singer who hasn't been on Soul Train. Even a few white performers hopped the Train at their moments of maximum cool—David Bowie, Sting, Elton John. And the throng of young dancers has its surprises: a teenage Walter Payton, perfecting his moves in 1971.
Bootlegged vintage Soul Train is a hot property among musicians who recognize the show as a cultural artifact. The soul crooner D'Angelo has an extensive, well-guarded collection, as does the Philadelphia hip-hop collective the Roots. "We've always known there was a reason not to bastardize the Soul Train library," Cornelius says. "And then along came cable."
Cornelius is unwilling to take credit for anyone's debut, reluctant even to list their names—"That's all history," he says. And he won't dish: "We have the eleventh commandment. We don't speak ill of recording artists—no matter how bad they fuck us."
Though he's remembered for his "Superfly" outfits, big hexagonal glasses, and exultant argot ("You can bet your last money it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey"), Cornelius is a calculating businessman who'd rather be known for the deals he cut than for the cut of his form-fitting leather coats.
Cornelius rhapsodizes about his new channel, positioned as "the anti-MTV" the same way Soul Train was based on American Bandstand but stood as a weekly indictment of its unshakable squareness.
"I'm not going to do anything that MTV does," he says. "I will do what they don't do, just as when we started, we committed ourselves to never rate a record, because Dick Clark rated records. If Dick Clark went up, we went down. If he went left, we went right."
If Cornelius's cool wavers, it's when Soul Train's image comes up. "We don't get the credit we deserve," he says. "For example, the fashion ideas that started on Soul Train." When the Soul Train Awards honored Diana Ross in 1995, Cornelius was maddened by the sparsely filled press room. "It made me absolutely insane," he says. "Who's more important than Diana Ross? I was so offended by the disrespect from the major media. The show just doesn't seem important, apparently, because it's black-produced."
Cornelius is proud of his various accomplishments, such as his induction into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, but he's quick to divert the spotlight from himself. As for his own, undying hipness, he can explain it in just three words. "Music," he says, "is cool."