The American landscape would not be nearly as rich, diverse and hip without pioneering forces such as Don Cornelius. As the creator of Soul Train, Cornelius did more than establish a profitable company/brand but also simultaneously uplifted people of color by giving them a platform to express their innate talents while reinforcing positive and inspiring messages through the creative disciplines of music, dance and fashion. Following news of Cornelius’ recent passing, BlackEnterprise.com spoke with Kenard Gibbs, current CEO/Partner of Soul Train Holdings and co-founder of Madvision Entertainment, to Decode how Cornelius went from investing $400 into the Soul Train pilot to forever changing American culture. —Souleo
In 1970, Cornelius created Soul Train and generated local success in Chicago on WCIU. Shortly thereafter the sensation grew and was broadcast nationally in 1971, leading to a 35-year run in syndication. Soul Train remains the longest running, first-run, nationally syndicated program in television history. With its emphasis on music, dance and fashion, the show helped introduce African-American culture to an international audience through an innovative business model that was cost-efficient and incorporated product integration. “I always used to tell Don that he created the genre of reality TV,” says Gibbs. “It was unscripted, it didn’t cost very much to produce and you had product placement within the show with Ultra Sheen and Afro sheen. It was an innovative and genius integration of targeted brands in entertainment.”
In 1987, Cornelius launched The Soul Train Music Awards, which eventually inspired two additional annual television broadcasts, The Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, which launched in 1995, and The Soul Train Christmas Starfest, which debuted in 1998. After a two-year hiatus, The Soul Train Music Awards relaunched in 2009 as part of a licensing deal with BET and it remains a top television draw. The 2011 broadcast attracted four million viewers, making it the No. 1 telecast in CENTRIC history. Still, as Gibbs notes the most significant aspect of the show is the fact that it offers a platform for unsung talent, especially with the recent elimination of many Grammy categories. “What we found is that similar to when Don originally launched the award show, a number of artists still don’t really have a platform to be recognized for their artistry,” he says. “For that reason the award shows franchise remains very well received and we have incredible artist support as well as the viewing audience.”
Over the years, Soul Train gave African American artists a national platform that equaled commercial success. For example, the show’s theme song “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)” by MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother), featuring vocals by The Three Degrees, hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the Hot Soul Singles chart and on the Easy Listening Singles survey. The show also led to the creation of Shalamar, comprised of Soul Train dancers Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, along with Howard Hewett, who went on to land a Top Ten hit with “The Second Time Around,” a Grammy Award for “Don’t Get Stopped in Beverly Hills,” and a string of hit singles in the U.K. When the group disbanded, Watley became a superstar, winning a 1988 Grammy award for Best New Artist and creating 32 Top Ten singles and 13 No. 1 singles. “Prior to the internet and the proliferation of other outlets, Soul train was very vital to the consumer purchase behavior of young Black kids,” says Gibbs.
Soul Train was notable for offering a platform for street dancers to showcase their talent and, in the process, many of those moves have become part of hip-hop and American culture. “So many dances came out of there like the robot and the GQ,” notes Gibbs. “The lockers first performed on Soul Train and it was the first time many people on a national level had seen moves associated with popping and locking.” Arguably the most influential and successful dancer has been Shalamar member, Jeffrey Daniel, who is credited with having taught Michael Jackson the moonwalk dance. He also choreographed Jackson’s “Bad,” “Smooth Criminal,” and “Ghosts” videos. Cornelius’ support of dance extended beyond the show when in the late 1970’s he established The Soul Train Dance Studio in Los Angeles. The Soul train line is perhaps the most recognizable example of the show’s lasting influence on dance.
In the wake of Cornelius’ passing, Gibbs is focused on ensuring that the legacy of Soul Train is expanded through a series of brand extensions. Thus far one of the most successful projects has been the creation of a digital identity resulting in a little over end of 27 million YouTube views and 25,000+ Facebook fans. According to Gibbs the online presence of SoulTrain.com has been so popular that the official site crashed three times on the day that news of Cornelius’ passing spread. With a newly popular awards show and solid digital presence, Gibbs is now gearing up for the launch of the 2013 Soul Train Cruise, and has plans for a movie, musical and a return to television for the brand. As Gibbs states the vision of Cornelius remains a vital force with endless possibilities to continue influencing American culture. “I think it’s a testament to what Don’s vision was and the fact that the platform that he built is so enduring,” he says.