The death of Don Cornelius was major news. I wonder if Cornelius, himself, realized his place on the American scene. His impact was powerful with multiple dimensions. Without a doubt he took Black music mainstream. He gave contemporary artists a TV platform that was little to non-existing. Every now and then you saw James Brown, Jackie Wilson on American Bandstand with half songs and restricted physical movement. Or you might have even see the late Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horn on the Ed Sullivan Show. The black performer had TV limitations, until Soul Train. There were not a lot of Black faces on TV in 1969. No news, no reality shows, no entertainment shows no talk shows. And then in 1969, there was Soul Train. Black folk were dancing, singing and having fun with style -- Afros, sharp dressing, and just being soulfully, beautifully hip, doing it like we do it. Blacks was doing their thing without apology and with culture force. It was the day of "Black is Beautiful" and the racial rap was loosening.
Last Saturday, at Rainbow PUSH, Rev Jesse Jackson hosted a panel discussion on Don Cornelius with those who worked with him. Participants included, Melody Spann of WVON, George Johnson of Johnson Products, Mark Brown of The Chicago Sun Times, Abe Thompson, a radio/events executive, and Romonski Luv, a Clear Channel radio disc jockey.
The Advertising Impact
A hero on the Soul Train has not been discussed much. George Johnson of Johnson Products was the financier and the primary advertiser. His hair products, Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen were the hair products for a new style of black hair -- "La Natural." He became Don's partner. He was Soul Train's exclusive advertiser and they were perfect partners. Johnson saw his products get on major retail shelves and his sales increased fourfold.
To this day, Soul Train is a perfect business case of niche marketing and it should be studied in B schools. Target marketing works and it can be magic because there is no audience waste. This is the case of Black media to this very day. This is the advertising case Black media like - N'DIGO, WVON, Ebony, Jet, The Defender still make. I wonder if Walgreen's, Wal-Mart, Coke Cola, Venison and Cadillac would have given Don a media buy to realize the potential of his new innovative TV program. He had his hand on the pulse of Black culture. Don was fortunate to have such a faithful exclusive advertiser, in Johnson Products, because he was freed to be creatively devoted to his program. It was brilliant marketing.
The White Impact
The other residual of the Soul Train influence was the crossover to white youth. Mark Brown of The Chicago Sun Times wrote a profound article on his Soul Train experience. Little did we know, as Black folk were watching and dancing on Soul Train, so were whites? It's amazing what happens when people die. You think about their life in wholeness unlike you do during their actual living. Brown points out he lived in a town where there were no Black people. Soul Train was his introduction to another culture. Media is a powerful force. You never know who is looking and watching and how it is changing or influencing life. It's important what you say; it's important how you look. You are making an impression. Mark's world stretched. Soul Train impacted race relations in another way when people were marching in the streets with clenched fist and protesting. Entertainment is powerful. James Brown, "I'm Black and I'm Proud", provided cultural context to the movement as much as a King speech. Sam Cook's, "A Change is Going to Come" still resonates as does a Malcolm lecture. The music of The Impressions, "People Get Ready" was a clarion call as forceful as Jesse Jackson preaching and The Staple Singers "Respect Yourself" had the same clarity as the Panthers. This music was a backdrop to the Civil Rights Movement. You saw it all on Soul Train. Don knew how to sharply fuse, focus and showcase Black culture on TV. Perhaps, just perhaps, Soul Train was the first "Reality Show."
Don's Cornelius idea changed America. It gave Blacks a platform on their own terms and it presented Black America to the world to appreciate. He provided opportunities for the performing artist, advertising, businesses and it even improved race relations. Soul Train made a prideful Black statement. All in one step, Don was on message, politically and culturally correct.
It was the hippest ride in America for another set of reasons. We need to get back on board.