This past week, Mister Boomer discovered, along with the rest of America, that Don Cornelius, creator and owner of the Soul Train syndicated show, had died. Mr. Cornelius began his media career as an announcer and radio newsman in 1956, then substituted for DJs when the occasion arose. Enjoying the connection to music, he moved to a small station where he could spin records as his primary job a few years later. From there he began moonlighting at WCIU, a TV station in Chicago, where he was asked for input on ethnic programming. When he suggested a show patterned after American Bandstand that would primarily focus on black music and dance, his concept, funding and airtime all fell into place with station backing, and Soul Train was born. The first episode aired August 17, 1970. It was destined to become the longest-running nationally syndicated show in history.
In a 1995 interview, Don Cornelius told the Associated Press, “If I saw American Bandstand and I saw dancing and I knew black kids can dance better; and I saw white artists and I knew black artists make better music; and if I saw a white host and I knew a black host could project a hipper line of speech — and I did know all these things [then it was reasonable to try].”*
Mister Boomer, like most white boomers born in the 1950s and raised in suburbia, grew up with American Bandstand. But, as a student of human behavior, Mister B could see the gradual transition that took place in the way the kids danced on the show. The exciting swing-style bopping of 1950s rock ‘n roll slowly gave way to couples dancing without touching each other (except on the “slow dances,” which was the whole point). Even by the time Chubby Checker appeared on AB around 1961 to ask kids to “twist again, like we did last summer,” the “round and round and up and down” seemed more a series of steps to be counted out than an exaltation of personal movement by the audience participants. In other words, having a good beat and being able to dance to it wasn’t enough to keep Mister B’s interest.
When Soul Train came along, Mister B once again could see dancing that was fresh and exciting. The kids, especially in the Soul Train line, treated dance more like jazz — plenty of room for improvisation and free-form self-expression — than exhibited by the predominantly white kids on American Bandstand. For years, black singers had influenced boomers’ mode of dress and dance moves. For boomer boys like Mister B, they were the epitome of style and cool, ergo nothing would impress the ladies more than smooth moves on the dance floor … or so they thought.
In any case, in a very short time, there wasn’t a house party worth attending that didn’t have a Soul Train line, where couples or individuals could dance their own style between the two parallel rows of on-lookers who cheered them on to show their best moves.
While never directly adopting dance moves from Soul Train dancers (though he’ll admit to “borrowing” from James Brown and Jackie Wilson), Mister B was greatly influenced by their exuberance, originality and flair — they owned it, and in the process made it unique. This philosophy of personal dancing didn’t really come into clarity for Mister B until one evening in the early 1980s when he was invited by a friend and business colleague to a benefit concert. After an energetic display on the dance floor, Mister B was heading back when his friend motioned him to come over. “I want to introduce you to someone,” he said, “this is George Clinton!” In front of Mister B stood the funkmeister himself, there to perform with his band that night. “Hi, man, nice to meet you,” uttered the star-struck Mister Boomer. He was shorter than Mister B imagined, but, not surprisingly, decked out in outrageous ribbons of clothing that somehow formed a complete outfit, echoed by a series of white and yellow ribbons that tied back his gray and black hair. Mr. Clinton was audibly chuckling as he greeted Mister B with one sentence. In a voice that continued to chuckle yet sounded like it was filtered through a grater, he said, “For a white boy, you can dance.” Then he returned to his table of local dignitaries. For Mister B, this was the supreme compliment.
Thank you, Don Cornelius, for bringing some peace, love, and — especially — soul, to this suburban white boy.
What memories of Soul Train and Don Cornelius flash through your brains, boomers?