One of the most amazing things about the life of Don Cornelius (and to be clear, this post is about his life… not his death) is the trajectory of his rise to prominence as an ambassador of Soul.
Starting out as a radio journalist here on Chicago’s WVON in the early 1960s, he built important relationships with both Chicago music stars and National acts. These relationships would prove invaluable later.
When Soul Train launched in 1970 here in Chicago, voiceover work was by Joe Cobb (another WVON radio personality), who continued to be “the voice of Soul Train” for many years along with another Chicago radio legend: Sid McCoy. Cobb was the voice that called out “Sooooooooul Train” on each episode. One more Chicago connection: the first Soul Train theme song was a funky instrumental called “Soultrain” that was by an outfit called the Ramrods; and the song that took viewers to commercial breaks was “Familiar Footsteps”, a deep, doo-wop drenched slow jam by Chicago’s Gene Chandler.
Don Cornelius later expressed regret about the second (most famous) theme song: “TSOP” by Philadelphia’s MFSB. Gamble and Huff related that they worked on the song specifically for the show, and asked Don if he had a request for the song’s title. He didn’t. The song went on to sell over a million copies.
Initially, the show aired on Channel 26 WCIU, and an early sponsor was Joe Louis Milk. For the first episode, Don Cornelius put up $400 of his own money; but he soon landed the most famous sponsor of Soul Train’s 35 year run: Johnson Products, a quintessentially Chicago Based black business behemoth, and the makers of Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen.
The following year, the show’s production was moved out to Los Angeles, but an additional program called Soul Train Local continued to air on WCIU here in Chicago throughout the 1970s. For more on this, click here.
Don Cornelius was more than a television host, he was a producer and an entrepreneur who broadcast visions of Soul to Omaha, Nebraska, Hartford, Connecticut, and all points in between. Soul Train was the conduit that transmitted the music of lesser known artists (such as Chicago’s own Brighter Side of Darkness) to a much wider audience.
Once called a “time capsule” of Soul Music and Culture by Spike Lee, the show also documented beautiful intimate moments with superstars (such as the 1979 appearance of Aretha Franklin [pictured above] during which she played the piano and sang amidst a circle of fans). Another such moment with Aretha Franklin (a frequent guest on the show) involved Aretha and Smokey Robinson sitting at the piano, reflecting on their early days in Detroit. They even sang the Miracles’ classic “Ooh Baby Baby” together.
Soul Train also documented electrifying live performances (no, not all Soul Train performances were lip-synced) by artists like Sly Stone, James Brown, and Al Green.
In short, Don Cornelius was a visionary who created a show unlike any before (or since). It proved that there was an audience for what was once considered an unprofitable niche market. What many didn’t realize is the ultimate impact of Don Cornelius’ creation. He made Soul a Household Name.