BET’s American Soul premiered Tuesday night, kicking off a 10-part period piece, set in the 1970s, detailing the life of Don Cornelius — not only as host of the groundbreaking show Soul Train, but also as a sharp, media-savvy businessman and loving husband.
“My father always wanted to do something on the big screen,” says Don’s son Tony Cornelius, executive producer of the scripted series. “We’ve had writers write scripts for a Soul Train movie. The scripts were never really good enough in his eyes.”
Last week, BET invited NYC media to a screening of an extended sneak peek of American Soul. The series merges fictional and real-life occurrences in the life of Don Cornelius as he fought to build the Soul Train brand from the ground up. There were moments of triumph, anguish, injustice and elation within just a few minutes. Much of the team behind BET’s recent successes, including The Bobby Brown Story and The New Edition Story, are involved in this new series as well, which Cornelius says was a major factor in his decision making.
“It was kind of a match made in heaven,” he said. “Through the leadership of [president] Scott Mills at BET and Connie Orlando [SVP of Music, News and Specials], we got together with Jesse Collins, one of the executive producers, along with Jonathan Prince and Devon Greggory, and we decided not to do a one-off, but a 10-episode series.”
Singer/actress Kelly Price plays Brianne Clarke, one of the fictional characters based on the reality of a tumultuous era. “My storyline represents the life of the African-American family at that time,” she revealed. “No two families are exactly the same, but we deal with the struggle that an African-American household would be dealing with at that time. So you see how the civil rights movement and the draft affect my house. You see how the [Vietnam] war affects my house.
“I’m not a single mother, but I am because my husband is off at war while I’m back at home, holding it down, raising the kids, who are teenagers that want to become stars. … I think everyone knows a Brianne Clark.”
As for her own memories of Soul Train, the songstress says it was a sense of pride and ownership that stands out the most. “In my case, growing up in the projects of New York City, there were several times where we were homeless, before I became an adult,” Price recalls. “So this became a fixture, a ritual and a happy memory. Even if we didn’t have anywhere to live or we were crashing on somebody’s floor, this was an hour every Saturday where you could forget about whatever was going on. You could get up on Saturday morning and forget that you hadn’t had anything to eat on Friday night, that didn’t stop you from dancing with the dancers on Soul Train. It was just knowing that it was there and it was mine.”
Tony Cornelius revealed that his father’s shrewdness in business, particularly with his team, was from more of a protective stance than anything else. “Sometimes when people create something,” he said, “They do give options for your ideas, but he once told me that if you were wrong, he didn’t want you to have to take the blame for it. He wanted to take the blame for it.
“He’d rather it be his fault,” Cornelius continued. “He was very focused and serious about the decisions [regarding the show].”
That sort of conviction and cemented self-assurance would leave a huge challenge for whoever was cast in the role of Don, but Sinqua Walls (Power, The Breaks) was dedicated to figuring out who the host was as a person. He revealed that a part of his research included watching 100 episodes of Soul Train, in addition to every documentary that he could find.
The first conversation Walls had with Tony Cornelius was about finding “the essence” of who the man was, instead of trying to become him. “In the first step, as far as talking to Tony — I always say that I’m just so grateful that he’s a part of this project — was just to unpack the history of the man. You know, temperament comes from experience and history, so for me it was really about understanding who his father was in his life.
“From there,” Walls explained, “You can pick and pull and put colors in there because you know how the man would move and where he would react that would be organic because then you’re sitting in a moment of volatility.”
The actor was just a kid when Don Cornelius was on as Soul Train’s host, but he says that he remembers every bit of what the show represented through the years — even by way of all the hosts thereafter. In fact, Walls has an idea about who he’d like to see if the live show is ever revived.
“Drake,” he said, matter-of-factly, without taking a breath. “Heck yeah. I’d say Drake, because I just think he’s a very talented person and I know the hip-hop heads get into arguments about the elements and the influence of Drake, but I think he’s a smart individual, a smart artist, and you know Soul Train was all about the performance.
“I would just love to see — just off of that video that he did with the Migos [‘Walk It Talk It’] — I’d love to see what he would do with his Soul Train performance. The rebirth of Soul Train should include Drake. Just like the birth of Soul Train was with Gladys Knight.”
American Soul airs Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. ET on BET.