Like most music industry veterans touched by the incalculable influence of "Soul Train" producer and television host Don Cornelius, Michael Bivins has his own memories of the stoic and baritone man who passed away on Wednesday morning. "You couldn't just call up Don and just ask to speak to him," recalls the founder of legendary vocal group New Edition, currently on the tour celebrating their 30th anniversary. In 1991, the well-connected music mogul, who in addition to being a member of the multi-platinum N.E.-offshoot group Bell Biv Devoe, was eager to showcase his chart-topping acts as Boyz II Men and Another Bad Creation. And the best place to do it was on Cornelius' highly rated 'Soul Train" Music Awards.
"I would be the one calling Don when it came to setting us up to appear on the shows for New Edition and my side acts," continues Bivins. "But the crazy thing is every time I would call Don he would say to me, 'Michael Bivins, what the f--- do you want now?' That's how he would address me," he laughs. "And I would say, 'Well, I'm trying to book New Edition and BBD -- I got the hottest acts in the industry.' And Don would respond, 'You know what, man? You little piece of sh--. I don't understand why you always want to call me and suggest what you want to do on my show. You remind of P.T. Barnum. I'll call you back and let you know what slot you have.' And he would hang up in my face, but I would be booked on the show. That was Don's way of showing me he liked me."
That was Don Cornelius: Brash, cantankerous, no-nonsense, protective and above all ambitious. Not even his apparent suicide at the age of 75 can eclipse the overall impact he has had on African-American music, culture, style, business and beyond. Starting off as a local Chicago program on WCIU-TV, Cornelius' "Soul Train" went on to gain massive national syndication, eventually moving its production to Los Angeles and hitting over 100 markets during its peak. But for an African-American man stepping on the historically white turf of television production, Cornelius was an unlikely success story.
"My experience of producing the show in Chicago gave me confidence of almost knowing what the viewer reaction to the syndicated version of 'Soul Train' would be even before it was aired," Cornelius told Billboard during a September, 28 1974 interview. "Because of "Chicago, I knew something that most of my doubters didn't know and when they smirked, I smiled. As I look back I realize that my insistence on perfection occasionally annoyed people."
Indeed, when the Chicago native launched his local music variety program on August 17, 1970 -- a show geared primarily toward African-American youth -- it was truly groundbreaking. No one knew what to make of "Soul Train." Who wants to sit around and watch black kids dance to R&B songs? white television broadcasting execs would ask Cornelius.
Undaunted, the former disc jockey and news reporter secured a sponsorship deal with Sears, Roebuck and Co. and launched his black and white live show on WCIU-TV. Not only were local high school kids recruited to dance on the show, Cornelius tapped into his Chicago music contacts and pulled Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, and the Emotions to perform on its first broadcast. "Soul Train" was on its way. There was the "Soul Train" line, a sweat-inducing fixture in which dancers were given free reign to cut loose and unleash the hottest moves of the day, from the funky chicken to the robot. There was the "Soul Train" Scramble Board, a segment in which two contestants were given 60 seconds to unscramble letters to spell the name of a notable person in African-American history. There was the iconic performances: Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, the Jacksons, Rick James, and in later years Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Erykah Badu and the Backstreet Boys. It was often, as its mantra proclaimed, the hippest trip in America. And a brazen Cornelius, mic in hand, was at the middle of it all.
"Don Cornelius was a pioneer," Cash Money Records founder and CEO Bryan "Birdman" Williams tells Billboard. " 'Soul Train' was a big part of Saturday mornings…for [all] music fans across the nation and his belief in giving artists a platform was inspirational."
For former Def Jam executive Chris Hicks, Cornelius sits at the same table with another genre-shifting figure in entertainment. "To me he's in the mode of a Berry Gordy," Hicks says of the larger-than-life Motown founder. "For Mr. Cornelius to create his own individual television platform where he introduced artists from his own culture and then create a platform where white performers like David Bowie and Elton John wanted to cross back and touch the urban market place was incredible. 'Soul Train' wasn't just for African-American people. It was being watched by everybody."
Grammy-winning soul singer Betty Wright, who performed on "Soul Train" during the '70s, says as a door-opening television change agent (he owned the syndication rights to "Soul Train," an aberration for an African-American), Cornelius does not get enough credit.
"What Don did was unheard of," Wright glows. "No one could imagine that there would be a show with black people dancing as the primaries and not the secondary, and that it would practically last forever. Don had a vision, which was a huge undertaking for a black man. He was giving you real soul music. Nowadays when they say 'soul' you don't know what you are going to get. But with 'Soul Train,' you knew what you were getting every time."
Cornelius would end his history-making duties as host in 1993. By that time, "Soul Train" had already branched out to an awards show in the late '80s, cementing its status as a cultural institution. The show's 35-year run ended during the 2005-2006 season, but publishing vet Kenard Gibbs wanted to keep the party going. As one of the principle partners of the MadVision, Gibbs led a deal to purchase the entire rights to the "Soul Train" library in May of 2008.
"I'm a 'Soul Train' baby," Gibbs says. "Just having grown up with the brand and being close to the culture, myself and my partners just decided to see if Don would entertain the notion of selling the 'Soul Train' brand. We we're very fortunate that Don was open to the idea that we would treat the brand with the dignity and respect that it deserved. We want to keep Don's legacy alive."
Since then, classic "Soul Train" episodes have found a home on the Centric cable network. Gibbs says there are plans for another "Soul Train" awards show in 2012, a movie based on the program and a theatrical musical. But as always, the conversation goes back to the man who rolled the dice on a vision.
"In terms of the impact Don has had on the sheer number of people's lives both as entertainers and the viewing public-he touched everyone. Don was everything…he was the talent, the producer, the executive producer, the visionary. It was all him. So many artists and business executives have been very clear about the impact Don had on them. He was huge for everyone's careers. There are few in this business like him."