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Don Cornelius: The Soul Of Soul Train

We’ll remember the soul of Soul Train.

A screen capture of Don Cornelius on the show Soul Train (YouTube)

A screen capture of Don Cornelius on the show Soul Train (YouTube)

In October, 1971, something new hit the television screens of America.  Chicago host Don Cornelius stepped in front of live cameras and introduced “Soul Train”.  If it looked like “American Bandstand,” that was no accident.

But Soul Train put front and center a world Americans had never seen before on a regular national television show.  Black artists, black musicians, black dancers, black style, black moves.  An exuberant, explosive black pop culture.  This week, Don Cornelius died, at his own hand apparently.  And we’re looking back.

This hour, On Point: the soul of Soul Train.

-Tom Ashbrook



Renee Graham, music and pop culture critic.

Danyel Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Billboard Magazine.

From Tom’s Reading List

Rolling Stone “The death of Don Cornelius, the creator of the long-running television series Soul Train, has rattled fans of R&B, soul and dance music around the world. The news of Cornelius’ apparent suicide is especially troubling for musicians who either appeared on the show or were introduced to many of their favorite artists while watching it each week as kids.”

Time “A photographic look at the seminal dance program and its late creator.”

Tampa Bay Times “When I watched Soul Train host Don Cornelius back in the 1970s, I didn’t see a pro-black entrepreneur who would become the African-American Dick Clark.”

Video: Don Cornelius Greatest Hits

This videos shows some of Don Cornelius’s greatest moments from his hit show Soul Train.

Video: James Brown Plays Soul Train

Watch “Soul Brother Number One” James Brown play a set on Soul Train.

Video: Stevie Wonder On Soul Train 1971

Stevie Wonder plays “Superstition” on a classic episode of Soul Train.

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  • Pingback: ‘Soul Train’ icon Don Cornelius changed the beat of the nation – Christian Science Monitor | Latest News

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Thank you Mr. Cornelius, for years of enjoyment, and the positive role you gave for minorities to enjoy.
       Many great entertainers got a national exposure, that they probably wouldn’t have!

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    The James Brown clip is priceless.

  • Hidan


    my wishes go out to his family.

  • Brett

    I’ll have to check out the James Brown clip…it looks like Bootsy Collins is on bass, and Clyde Stubblefield seems to be one of the drummers.

    • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

      Right, his backup group is killer good. Love the two horn players on the dance floor.

    • BEEZ

      I guess Don told “the man above” “I’d rather be with yo-whoo…yeah”

  • Anonymous

    I grew up watching this show. The Soul Train dancers were great. RIP Don Cornelius.

    I think one of the trumpet players was fined for that flat note in the JB intro.

  • Tncanoeguy

    This white guy grew up in Chicago and I remember as a kid watching Soul Train and thinking that Don Cornelius was the coolest dude around. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-J-Pozzebon/100000025295226 Michael J Pozzebon

    I’m glad this is a topic. It seems Don Cornelius was a bigger influence on people, all people, than most of us realized. I even made a mii character of Don! He’s been all over Facebook and on everyone’s mind that I have spoken to lately…Peace, love, and soul!

  • Bobl1234

    As a white buy, i was most disgusted upon learning that lack artists couldn’t even have their photographs on their album covers–like Smokey and the MIRacles, “From the Beginning” and “Mickey’s Monkey”  bob from Columbus

  • Stillin

    We had soul train on after church on Sundays…it was exciting, new and fun. Black culture began to come into our little white world…in a very white area of the U.S…northern N.Y…listening to those songs today I can SEE the performers I loved it, it was BLACK.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane!  This was an awesome show!  I recently watched some vintage “Soul Train Line” clips on YouTube with my teenage daughters.  Their comment:  “Everyone was so THIN back then Daddy!”  My how times have changed! 

  • Tncanoeguy

    I also watched Fat Albert when I was a kid.  Is that show seen as a positive portrayal of black culture? 

    • Anonymous

      Oh God Listen to Cosby’s old albums. They were right up their with Guinea jokes polish jokes Etc WWII was not a picnic. Only whites go see a battle with a picnic basket!!!

    • Anonymous

      HEay, HEay
      HEay. Listen to 10,000 cop cars. It is brilliant. That is what you get for a soapbox derby.

  • Faye

    I grew up in a small town in a white Southern Baptist home.  When Soul Train aired, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. There were at most two or three blacks in the school I attended, and Soul Train opened the door to black culture for me. I learned how to dance by watching the show, albeit not nearly as well as those on the show. Growing up in a racist household, I could have too become racist, however, watching this show opened my eyes to a world I’d never been exposed to; I realized that blacks were no different than me, except for color and that they could dance a heck of a lot better.

  • Elizabeth

    I was about 10 years old in 1985 when I first saw Soul Train.  I remember it perfectly.  In the basement, flipping channels and bored with cartoons.  For a lonely little girl in Salt Lake City that moment changed everything – a whole world of music and fashion and life I had never seen!  Thank you Don Cornelius and all the Soul Train performers and dancers. 

  • Tncanoeguy

    The Jeffersons!  I loved that show – the sassy maid. 

  • Filmi Girl

    What a great conversation!! Tom working it with Renee and Danyel has been the highlight of my morning.

    One question – what do the guests think of the adoption of Soul Train and artists like Aretha by white culture?

    • Anonymous

      Honey inspired white culture to fight against Knewt and Mittens.

  • Sfdithomas

    Thank you Don!  You made my Saturdays.  I would come home from early morning catechism classes, do chores as quickly as possible to be ready for Soul Train.  I loved watching the dancers and dancing in my living room!

  • Ray

    My condolences to the family. Mr. Cornelius provided myself and  the world with a vehicle to see some of the most wonderful performances and positive black images they would have completely missed without his hard work and sacrifice. He proved the power structure wrong and the whole world benefited from what he created.


  • Tina

    Did I love Soul Train!!!  It filled the gap that opened up decades earlier when the Allen Freed show went off the air.  I lived in the NYC area where that show aired; I think it went off because Freed was accused of Payola.  Anyway, the Dick Clark show started at 4 p.m., but at 5 p.m. (which I couldn’t wait for!), we’d turn off Dick Clark before the show was over and start watching the fabulous dancers on Allen Freed!  So, some of us were busy dreaming Soul Train into existence by our deep felt wishes for years and years!  The show made the wait more than worth it!!

    (I missed much of today’s show, so I don’t know if you already mentioned Allen Freed.)

    • Anonymous

      White people can’t dance. Sometimes it is too funny. sometimes its dangerous.

  • Devorah

    Thank you for that tribute to the great Don Cornelius. The best part of my youth was Soul Train. God grant his spirit peace.

  • Helen J

    This was one of the BEST interviews and broadcasts EVER!!!  I had heard about Soul Train 
    for years, (I’m a 68-year old white lady)  but never had the opportunity to watch it.  Renee was a wonderful guest, I had all the radios in our house on through the entire broadcast. How great to hear a ‘younger’ Aretha, James Brown and others.  I feel so enriched by this broadcast.  What a wonderful tribute.   Thank you, Thank you! Tom and Renee! 

  • Sandy Untermyer, Appling GA

    Soul Train did NOT compare to American Bandstand. And it wasn’t an ‘American Bandstand’ for black folks either. 

    American Bandstand was a 50s/early-60s show, and there were NO live performances on AB; ST didn’t come on the scene until rock was established, after Woodstock. Eddie Cochran lip-synched from the balcony on AB, and Duane Eddy — then a bigger star than Elvis — faked his guitar playing, and performed solo (without The Rebels). Blacks such as Lloyd Price and Fats Domino were perfectly welcome on AB, though I doubt Little Richard or Bo Diddley ever showed up. Unfortunately, by the end of the 60s, there was simply no longer any point to AB. We grew up. 

    So another way to understand the difference between the two is this: AB began before the first million-seller rock LP (‘Elvis Presley’ on RCA); ST began just as The Beatles were breaking up, after Woodstock. 

    I wasn’t much of a ST fan, because in those years I was into going to the Fillmore West, around the corner from my job at the Glide Foundation in San Francisco. Janis Joplin (or Bob Dylan or the Electric Flag) would perform one song for 15 minutes — there was no way they could show up on Soul Train or Bandstand, either one. (And the Dead would do one song for half an hour. And then go on to perform another.)Black performers were certainly welcomed at the Fillmore West: Buddy Guy, Aretha, Muddy Waters, Otis Redding, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, the list goes on. But these were not — at least, mostly — the kind of folks who would show up on Soul Train. Nevertheless, the Fillmore West, unlike the New York version, was a real ballroom, where people actually danced. The San Francisco teen audience was already used to those long sets, as we’d seen Miles Davis and John Coltrane at the Blackhawk, where the extended solos, alone, lasted 15 minutes, and there were three or four per song. For us older kids, Soul Train was more for little children, fans of The Jackson 5, and so on. Real rock music in the late 60s, as Gracie Slick later explained to Dick Cavett, did NOT show up on TV. Because the tv speakers were tiny and tinny-sounding, without any bass. 

    • Anonymous

      Lady have you ever been to an indigeous war dance? Fillmore west was a war dance for those that went and those that were too scared to go

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/MXCEEIFNW6LM7WRFBEDAS5Q7EQ 91Bear

      Stevie Wonder is lip-synching in that clip.

  • LarryB

    I grew up in Brooklyn and when I went to college in Buffalo in the late sixties we loved Motown and we would even listen to get loose before we went to our final exams.  I am a child of the fifties so when I first saw Soul Train, I was surprised to see a show that was so clearly about black culture and thought “they are allowing this on mainstream TV?”.  I think the show changed a lot of perceptions and I certainly watched intently and absorbed, or at least tried to, the fluidity of the movements and the creativity. In later years, I moved to VT and learned and taught various folk dancing including an english form known as morris dancing. Strangely enough I think my approach to the dances I taught, even though the students would not have  known this, owned something to the loose and lyrical moves I saw on this ground breaking program.

  • Anonymous

    Soul Train was a window into the world we were somehow excluded from. A world of celebration when hope was supposed to be at it’s lowest level. Thank you loise day hicks. We had two black kids bussed to our school and we did not know what to say. Thank you for giving us lift.

  • Anonymous

    Spell check would be helpfull. I think its indigenous.

  • Anonymous

    The Virginia Reel. For Real.

  • Joan

    Soul Train changed our lives at our suburban NJ home…7 white kids and their parents could not WAIT for this show each Sat morning, watching the dance moves, the acts were amazing, and what wedding would be complete without the soul train line up dance routine…??? I am 50 and we still do it!! So sad to hear of Dons passing he was the “true” super cool dude…

  • Metrowade

    Thanks for a great show! A 7 year old white boy, dancing and trying to get down in the living room on Saturday mornings on WTTG Metromedia Chanel 5 in Washington, D.C., probably around 72-73.  I loved the outfits, hair, SHOES, and the moves down the line.  I still want to dance that line!   Don’t forget they had a word game rearrange the letters kinda thing, and a couple from the floor would get a chance to win what ever it was, but I loved that show. 

  • Suburbianna

    While watching the Soul Train line dancers this week I was stuck, viewing them after all these years, with how thin everyone was then.  This was an America right before the proliferation of High Fructose Corn Syrup, processed food, etc; the sedentary lifestyle was also not as prevalent as it has become in this country.  And there was no sitting in front of a computer!

    Maybe off-topic but something that struck me.  Food for thought, perhaps…

    RIP, Mr Cornelius.  You brought much excitement into my sheltered white Jewish suburban world.  You will be missed.

    • Suburbianna

       Oops, I meant “struck,” not “stuck,” in the first sentence.

  • William J Martin Jr

    Raising my daughter in the early ’80′s in affluent Fairfield County Connecticut, I was very concerned about her connection to the African American community and culture.  We joined a large Baptist church in Bridgeport, CT and joined the local Jack & Jill chapter and I sat my daughter down in front of the TV every Saturday morning to watch Soul Train.  It was like getting thrown a life preserver on this white island she resided on during the week and opened her eyes to our music, dancing, fashions and products that we used in our household.  Thank you Don Cornelius for all the joy you brought to millions of people worldwide.

  • Jean Nelson

    I really enjoyed your tribute to Don.  Tom, you had a great time during the interview, and I liked that.  I believe I was about 10 when I first began really watching “Soul Train.”  I wasn’t aware that there were live shows until I saw a magnificent Al Green performance around 2007; by then reruns of the show were shown as “The Best of Soul Train.”  One of your guests said something about Blacks liking non-Black artists like Elton John–she’s correct, as I’m a big classic rock fan.  Keep up the great work, Tom!  (I live in Houston, and I didn’t know your show actually runs for 2 hours.  Station 88.7 only runs 1 hour of the show.) 

  • Patricia4470

    Tom, I really enjoyed this show, even though I never saw Soul Train on air.  I was stuck in a boarding school during high school so I never saw American Bandstand either.  American folk music was the rage when I entered college.  I listened o Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt and other great Delta Bluesmen. One great experience for me was driving across Mississippi at night after a football game and hearing  those Delta musucuans on the radio.  Magical.

  • OnPointFan

    Absolutely wonderful show. Thank you!

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