"Soul Train" creator Don Cornelius, who died early today of an apparent suicide at age 75, spoke with Billboard many times over the last 40 years. Here is a look at some highlights from those interviews.
When Cornelius came up with the idea for a black-oriented weekly dance series, he personally searched for someone to sponsor the show, without finding any takers. Finally, after weeks of arduous work, he connected with someone at Sears in Chicago. Cornelius told Billboard in 1974: "The man at Sears was George O'Hare, a merchandise manager for a group of five stores, all of which were located in Chicago's inner city. He was a very socially conscious man that was deeply concerned with getting behind a 'community-type' show. George was a guy that people bounced ideas off and was always receptive to new concepts. When I went in I expected him to tell me what so many others had said about programming for blacks. This is the theory that blacks 'need' cultural or historical programs and not necessarily entertainment. There are whites you can go to with a black history idea and they will get behind it because they feel it's what blacks need. Perhaps it is what we need more of on the air, however, it is not necessarily what blacks want. And you can't force people to accept something they don't want, whether it's good for them or not."
"Soul Train" debuted as a local show in Chicago on Aug. 17, 1970. Two months later, Cornelius gave one of his earliest interviews to Billboard. "With 'Soul Train' we are trying to give people a choice between general market TV and ethnic programming. Actually, there is no general market or wide appeal TV in Chicago. All the stations are aimed at the upper middle and upper classes in the suburbs. I'm willing to help get ethnic TV going, although it shouldn't be necessary. If the media was doing its job, it would serve all the people. We're just trying to give black people something to identify with. Right now, we're only competing with cartoons and movies."
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Fifteen months after its local Chicago debut, "Soul Train" became a nationally syndicated show, though on its premiere date, Oct. 2, 1971, only seven stations had signed on. Cornelius had a new sponsor in Johnson Products, the world's largest black-owned manufacturer of hair and facial cosmetics products. "My experience producing the show in Chicago gave me the 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. "Because of Chicago I knew something that most of my doubters didn't know, and when they smirked, I smiled. I also knew [Johnson Products president] George Johnson's criteria for quality and I was determined to attain it no matter what the cost. As I look back I realize that my insistence on perfection occasionally annoyed people."
As a successful producer in the era of shows starring black performers like "Sanford and Son," "That's My Mama," "Good Times" and "Get Christie Love," Cornelius asked in a Billboard interview, "After that, what do you get? An increasing visibility of blacks on the screen that leads the layman to conclude that television is integrated….Control lies with the people behind the scenes, the decision-makers, and that's the arena where the industry is totally negligent and blatantly discriminatory. The minute number of blacks - and other minorities - represented as writers, directors and producers is appalling. And when one considers the fact that there is not one prime time show on any of the networks that is produced by a black man, or woman, one is further reminded of the existing discriminatory practices that prevail in the industry."
In 1975, Cornelius was a panelist discussing "Rock on Television: Stepchild or Starmaker" when he talked about "Soul Train." Billboard's Jean Williams covered the event and reported what Cornelius told the attendees about the success of his series: "We didn't try to imitate Dick Clark. Others did, and they failed. 'Soul Train' doesn't differ from any other dance show. Except that it has a character of its own, which is the single thing that makes it successful."
In 1995, when "Soul Train" was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Cornelius spoke with Billboard's J.R. Reynolds about the reasons for the series' legacy. "The business of television has always been my life, and 'Soul Train' is the longest-running, uninterrupted, first-run syndication TV show in history," he said. "That says a lot for soul music. The show and its franchise will last as long as soul music thrives."
Ten years later, when he was awarded NARAS' Trustees Award for his contribution to his lasting contribution to our culture, Cornelius had another chance to reflect. He told Billboard's Gail Mitchell in 2005: "We've always focused on straight, up-the-middle entertainment and keeping mistakes to a minimum. In the larger sense, the key is our base - black music. It has continued to prosper and stay relevant."
He also talked about his decision to retire as host of "Soul Train" in 1993. "I stepped down before people said, 'When will that old brother get his butt off TV?' "