don cornelius and soul train -- 7/05/17

Today's selection -- from Never a Dull Moment by David Hepworth. With his television show Soul Train, Don Cornelius unexpectedly revolutionized popular dance:

"Don Cornelius was a thirty-five-year-old black TV presenter work­ing for a Chicago TV station when, in 1970, he persuaded his bosses to let him try launching a music show. To his amazement, they didn't insist he give up his rights to be the show's owner. Cornelius wanted his program to do for black music and black kids what Dick Clark's American Bandstand had done for white music and white kids since the fifties.

"There were scarcely any black faces on television either side of the Atlantic, and black youth had more chance of appearing on-screen as threatening elements on news reports about urban strife than as talent. In April 1971, when Ebony magazine published its list of the one hundred most influential black Americans, there wasn't a single TV presenter on the list.

"In 1971 Cornelius took Soul Train national and joined the exodus moving the rest of the music industry to Los Angeles. In California the show's vibe was immediately different. It was now shot in color, with the dancers recruited from the rich supply of exhibitionists who hung around the city's various arts initiatives, and suddenly Cor­nelius's show, which he hosted himself with the decidedly self­-important air of a well-dressed young congressman, was America's first interesting music TV show."Initially, Cornelius put most of his effort into persuading acts to appear on Soul Train, leaning on locally based talent such as Curtis Mayfield and B. B. King. Like everyone who ever started a music TV show, he craved respectability most, but he found the excitement coming from an unexpected direction. As the show gained momen­tum and, thanks to a tie-in with America's biggest manufacturer of black hair products, was taken up by more stations, it became clear that the musicians were not as important to the TV audience as the young people who danced to the hits in the TV studio.

"The dancers, who were unpaid and were expected to sustain themselves through marathon taping sessions on a diet of soda and fried chicken, were what made it great television. The young men were snake-hipped and tall, with massive penumbras of natural hair treated with Afro Sheen. The girls were slender and dressed to ensure the maximum camera time. There was nothing vampish about their appearance, due partly to American TV's traditional prudery and partly to the atmosphere of the show, which was as much church social as discotheque. In their homemade jumpsuits and hot pants, the girls exuded the breeziness of Sesame Street rather than the stickiness of Top of the Pops. Cornelius was keen to make sure his people were shown in a good light. There was a regular fea­ture in which the studio guests had to rearrange letters on a board to spell out the names of distinguished African Americans. To make sure nothing went wrong that might reflect badly on the people he was pledged to represent, this part of the show was fixed.

"The sweet spot of Soul Train was the soul train line. Here the dancers formed a guard of honor down which couples took their turn to parade, showing off the moves that they had spent the week perfect­ing in the hope that all over the nation kids in the school yard would be attempting to imitate them over the following week. These dance moves, which took the generic frugs and twitches of pop dance and reclassified them into an entirely new terpsichorean taxonomy, swept the nation. They reached the black kids in the inner cities, giv­ing their playground culture a national stage. They reached the suburban white kids, who for the first time saw a different and excit­ing way to move and to carry themselves.

"Music is as much about body language as anything else. The Soul Train kids took the lead, and the music business began to follow. The musicians seemed to recede into the background. The cameras didn't go in for admiring low-angle shots. Instead they pulled back from the acts to show the dancers who were elbowing their way in front of each other as if their lives depended on it. For some of them, it did. Soul Train made the names of many people who didn't make rec­ords but instead danced to them. It made display a central part of popular music. In that sense it changed popular music even more than Stevie Wonder did."



David Hepworth


Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year That Rock Exploded


Henry Holt and Co.


Copyright 2016 by David Hepworth


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