From VIBE’s October 2006 issue.
THIRTY-PLUS YEARS AFTER HIS CHANGING THE FACE OF TV, DON CORNELIUS IS STILL THE CONDUCTOR OF OUR FAVORITE TRAIN.
If you miss Free and AJ, imagine how fans felt when Don Cornelius, now 70, put down the mic in 1993 after 23 years of hosting Soul Train. The Chicago-born TV producer won audiences over with the phrase You can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone glass, honey. I’m Don Cornelius, and always in parting. We wish you love, peace and soul. But nostalgia aside, Cornelius the mega-entrepreneur earned a whole other place in history by turning Soul Train into a multifaceted franchise. In 1987 Cornelius broadcast the first annual Soul Train Music Awards, and Don Cornelius Productions continued expanding: The annual Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards launched in 1995, and the Soul Train Christmas Starfest followed in 1998.
In an era of twenty-four-hour black music channels like MTV Jams and VH1 Soul, it may seem like launching a dance show with performances by African-American artists isn’t a risky move. But that wasn’t the case in 1968, when Cornelius, then a radio news broadcaster at Chicago’s WVON, pitched his concept. Even after Chicago’s WCIU-TV (Channel 26) expressed interest in what would become Soul Train, Cornelius had to dip into his personal savings to fund the pilot.
Just about every time Cornelius approached potential advertisers, he was met with resistance. But a year after the show’s successful debut, George Johnson, president of Johnson Products Company approached Cornelius about an advertising partnership that would place Soul Train closer to national prominence. On October 2, 1971, Soul Train went into syndication and debuted in Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit,Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia. The Train eventually became the longest-running program in the history of first-run syndication, airing in 105 cities and reaching 85 percent of African-American households.
Thirty-six years after the program’s debut and three hosts later [Mystro Clark, Shemar Moore, and current host Dorian Gregory], legions of pajama-clad fans still gather around the TV on weekends and hop aboard Cornelius’ chugging sooooouuullll train. –Abena Agyeman-Fisher