The death of Don Cornelius was major news.
His impact was powerful, with multiple dimensions. I wonder if Cornelius, himself, realized his place on the American scene.
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 and Jackie Wilson on American Bandstand with half songs and restricted physical movement. Or you might have even seen Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., and Lena Horne on the Ed Sullivan Show.
But the Black performer had TV limitations, until Don Cornelius created Soul Train.
There were not a lot of Black faces on TV in the 1960s and ‘70s. No news, no reality shows, no entertainment shows, no talk shows. And then in 1971, the first episode of Soul Trainaired, literally paving a way for Black movers and shakers.
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 were doing their thing without apology and with culture force. It was the day of Black is Beautiful and the racial wrap was loosening.
The Advertising Impact
Though the recent passing of Don Cornelius was tragic, one of the real heroes of 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 was Soul Train’s exclusive advertiser and he and Don became perfect partners. Johnson saw his products get on major retail shelves and his sales increased fourfold thanks to the TV show.
To this day, Soul Train is a perfect business case of niche marketing and it should be studied in business school.
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 such as N’DIGO, WVON, Ebony, Jet, and 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?
Don Cornelius had his hand on the pulse of Black culture. He was fortunate to have such a faithful and exclusive advertiser in Johnson Products, because he was freed to be creatively devoted to his program.
It was brilliant marketing.
The White Impact
Another residual of the Soul Train influence was its crossover to White youth. Little did we know that as Black folk were watching and dancing on Soul Train, so were Whites!
Mark Brown of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote a profound column on his Soul Train experience.
Brown pointed out that he lived in a town where there were no Black people, so Soul Trainwas his introduction to another culture.
It’s amazing what happens when people die. You think about their life in wholeness, unlike you do during their actual living.
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 Brown’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’s 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 Gonna Come still resonates as much as a Malcolm X lecture.
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 Black Panthers.
This music was a backdrop to the Civil Rights Movement…and you saw it all on Soul Train.
Don’s Cornelius’ idea changed America. It gave Blacks a platform on their own terms and presented Black America to the world to appreciate. He provided opportunities for performing artists, advertisers, businesses, and it even improved race relations.
Soul Train made a prideful Black statement –– it was the hippest ride in America for a whole set of reasons.
We need to get back on board.