Late last year and early this year have been pretty rough in terms of musical and entertainment icons that we have lost. In 2011, legends such as Gil-Scott Heron and Etta James went on into the next life, while this month, we had to say goodbye to the one and only Whitney Houston. But none of these deaths has been more shocking as of late than the apparent suicide of the legendary Don Cornelius. However, while we mourn his death and pray for his family, it’s also vitally important that we remember Mr. Cornelius as a true trailblazer and pioneer in terms of what African-American entrepreneurship and ownership look like in the entertainment world, as well as helping to spark the D.I.Y. movement in music and entertainment
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a lot of change and unrest going on in America, and much of it was happening in black communities throughout the country. One of the places where this change was taking place so rapidly was the city of Chicago, where Don Cornelius was born and bred. AS a young man, Cornelius was on the front lines of the Civil Rights struggle, both nationally and locally, as a local beat reporter in Chicago. However, Cornelius also had, and I quote, “a burning desire to see black people portrayed positively on television,” which of course, was the paramount medium of communication at the time. And with this desire, Cornelius began to formulate the ideas and the plan for what would eventually become Soul Train. He even went a step further and took his own money (about $400 to be exact) to finance the venture.
Eventually, Soul Train became a local success because Cornelius knew how to cater to his fan base. But, not satisfied with being a big fish in a little pond (if we can call Chicago little), he eventually did like LeBron before LeBron and took his talents (and his show) to L.A. to gain more mass appeal. What’s interesting about this feat by Cornelius, other than the risk and the guts it took, was that it coincided with other big time black entertainment and music events out in California, including Berry Gordy moving Motown to L.A. and the Wattstax Music Festival of 1972. But what’s even more interesting than that was, when Cornelius made the move, he didn’t have to compromise the show, its staff or its participants to appeal to a more mainstream audience. When he moved the show to Cali, Soul Train remained just as black as it had ever been, embracing the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the early to mid 1970s with full force and much vigor, and doing it both successfully and unapologetically. Simultaneously, Cornelius was able to use Soul Train as a platform for big names in black music at the time, from James Brown to Stevie Wonder to Al Green to Ike and Tina Turner to Barry White to…. (trust me, it’s a seemingly endless list).
But beyond all of the dancing, singing and viewership, Cornelius was essentially a businessman when it came to Soul Train. He was one of the first African-Americans to use his own production company (Don Cornelius Productions) to create and produce the content that was Soul Train on a regular basis. He used Soul Train as a platform from which artists could market and promote themselves and their product through live performance and song. He also used Soul Train as a platform on which black-owned businesses could promote their products to the Soul Train fan base in a positive light. He promoted ownership and entrepreneurship all around. He allowed Soul Train to stay on the cusp of popular music and culture, moving with the changes in musical tastes throughout the years, from funk to soul to disco to R&B to Hip Hop and beyond. He worked to make Soul Train so popular that, eventually, the mainstream music gatekeepers came knocking on his door, not the other way around. And most importantly, he broke down many doors so that future black entertainment entrepreneurs could follow in his footsteps and not wait for someone to give them a chance, but to TAKE a chance on themselves and their talents.
All in all, the story of Don Cornelius is on par with so many other African-American entrepreneurs and businessmen and women that entered the entertainment space, from Percy Sutton, Sylvia Rhone and Robert Johnson to Sean Combs, Shawn Carter and Percy Miller. Those of us that are beginning to make a path for ourselves in music, film, television, radio and many other entertainment areas owe him a debt for having the courage to stand up and be counted when many weren’t willing to reciprocate. And most importantly, Cornelius taught us the value and the importance of business ownership and control of media outlets, something that has become so important in this day and age with so many forms of new media at our disposal. I advise anyone that hasn’t watched the “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America” documentary to do so, and soon.
Thank you for your example, Mr. Cornelius. We won’t let you down!