Maybe I was 11 or 12 years old. It’s hard to remember now, but Don Cornelius introduced Soul Train into the living rooms of America in an era of creative and political expansion. There was the peace movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement and the black power movement. Don changed the cultural landscape on the strength of body movement.
It was the age of John Shaft, Priest, Goldie and Foxy Brown, film characters who were armed, dangerous, colder than ice and exhibited sufficient self reliance and agency to overthrow “the man” by the end of the third act of their revenge fantasies. Their adventures were often paired with Asian martial arts films in the long ago programming staple of the independent cinema house, the double feature. By raising the financing, marketing, directing and starring in his own project, film pioneer, Melvin Van Peebles started the fire with Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Assness and flipped the movie game on its ear. In response to this new development, an industry that had previously ignored black tastes and buying power attempted to replicate his success by replicating his formula.
More “responsible” segments of the Black Community labeled these films that featured actors who shared my skin tone as negative. Historically, this strain of middle-class cultural overseer rears its head whenever some new form of valid creative expression emerges to represent the tastes of the masses in a more urgent way than was previously thought of as appropriate. These “responsible” cultural watchdogs had ideas and tastes that had been formed in a previous era and were the inheritors of a tradition maintained by those who had previously decried the legitimacy of the blues of rock and roll, and they were also the progenitors of the haters who would later show disdain for hip hop.
You would have thought they’d never listened to funky soul classics on an 8 track tape while riding in a Lincoln, a Caddy or an Elektra 225, more colloquially known as a deuce and a quarter. Or that they’d never spent a portion of Saturday afternoon at the barber shop chopping it up cross generationally while everyone discussed the latest heroic feats from their favorite athletes, the current news from Jet Magazine and repeating jokes from the previous Thursday night’s Flip Wilson show.
Isaac Hayes scored one of the more important films of this derided genre and for his efforts, he was awarded an Oscar on national, prime time tv that he accepted while wearing a blue tuxedo, trimmed in rabbit fur. The fur was baby blue and the bow tie matched. Judging from his fashion choice, he had obviously known the sublime pleasure of hearing his funk while cruising in a gas guzzling luxury model from Detroit.
At about the same time, across the country, on the radio, stereo FM broadcasting was supplanting the network of old AM stations that dotted the nation and formed the main network of information access for black folks, and they were also the primary source of exposure for Southern Soul singing and working class rhythm and blues. Suddenly, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha, funk and Motown could be heard in stereo at any time of day for free, and the sound of a people’s joyful consciousness raising melodies and grooves were felt in crisper fidelity. Change was in the wind.
With few exceptions, the television industry was lagging and hadn’t begun to participate in this cultural explosion until one man saw an opportunity and seized it. I’m not certain that he was inspired by the entrepreneurial spirits of Van Peebles, Berry Gordy, or Stax Records’ Al Bell, but Chicago native smooth daddy, Don Cornelius had vision that was grounded in that era’s contemporary zeitgeist. As it is with most ingenious ideas his was fiendishly simple: play a few hot records, book a couple of hot acts and give some kids who danced, a sandwich for shaking their groove things to the current sounds, and pay the acts scale, in exchange for television exposure. It was a concept that was older than Alan Freed and Chubby Checker, and “America’s Oldest Living Teenager”, Dick Clark had already amassed a fortune by doing the same thing. But Cornelius would add one major innovative twist, make it black. Until then, no one had thought to feature the styles, moves and fashion of young blacks while playing the most current releases with the deepest grooves.
In my home, this brilliant concept became available around the time my mother bought our first color television. Every Saturday, funkiness for free. The combination of youth culture, contemporary soul, funk and afrocentric messaging was stronger than a Long Island Ice Tea. The animated train, puffing smoke and fueled by economic self empowerment, aspiration and creative self expression rhythmically chugging at you; the late Sid McCoy’s sonorous voice over inviting you to take, “the hippest trip in America”; the montage of that week’s guest lineup; the wide shot of the dancers putting it down and the pulsating theme music combined to create an almost Pavlovian response. Soul Train brought the elements of a strong house party into your living room every Saturday afternoon. All other activity was suspended or delayed when it was on because you knew you were about to see some shit that could not be seen anywhere else on the tv landscape. I was an early adopter.
Because of his time spent in radio, Don had loads of the only currency that’s important in entertainment circles, relationships. He knew many of the early acts and their managers, they were veterans of the standup vocal harmony tradition and some had even gotten their start in doo wop. Top tier performers frequented the show in those days too. The Curtis Mayfileds, Marvin Gayes and Stevie Wonders appeared in living color and rocked it. But the records that were chosen for the dancers to get busy with were dope, and among the most cutting edge at the time. This authentic cultural choice, seperated the show from everything else that was happening on tv then, and positivley linked it with black radio and the newer hipper FM broadcasting. Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie”, Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”, the Ohio Players “Skin Tight and the Staple Singers “Respect Yourself” were but a few examples of the aural Love Peace and Soul. My record collecting was tremendously influenced by the way the show’s playlist was curated.
That was from the early days of the show’s history when it quickly changed from barely wanted syndicated stepchild to bonafide cultural phenomenon. Of course it all seems somewhat quaint and old fashioned now. In the age of Obama and in an environment of OWN, BET, Hulu, Love & Hip Hop, DVRs and On Demand, the idea of a syndicated dance show owned and operated by one black man doesn’t seem like much, but back then, Don Cornelius was the future.
When you heard TSOP-what I believed to be the definitive theme music from the several used during the show’s 35 year run- the one that Gamble & Huff produced for the show with the thumping baseline, the lush strings, the insane saxophone solo, the organ fills and the Three Degrees shouting the commanding and unifying lyrics, “people all over the world/let’s get it onnnnn…/it’s time to get down” you knew what was up. I miss those days and the hipper than hip Cornelius, he inspired a revolution.