The first entry in our Author Reflections series comes from Matt Delmont, author of The Nicest Kids in Town. In The Nicest Kids in Town, Matt deftly places the TV show American Bandstand squarely in the civil rights struggles going on in Philadelphia during the 1950s. Here, Matt shares his thoughts around the passing of the great Don Cornelius, creator and host of Soul Train.
Like music fans across the country, I was deeply saddened to hear of Don Cornelius’s untimely death. While the obituaries for Cornelius have noted that as the creator and host of Soul Train he brought black culture into American living rooms, Cornelius needs to also be remembered as one of the last members of a generation of black television pioneers.
Long before Soul Train black deejays and entrepreneurs fought to bring black music to television. Singer Lorenzo Fuller’s “Musical Miniatures” became the first show with a black host when it debuted in 1947. The Billy Daniels Show and the all-black music variety show Sugar Hill Times, which featured a young Harry Belafonte, also debuted in television’s early years. The Nat King Cole Show debuted to great expectations in 1956, but failed to attract national advertisers and lasted only a year.
In Chicago, where Cornelius’s Soul Train debuted locally in 1970, the Al Benson Show and Richard Stamz’ Open the Door Richard, both had brief periods of success in the 1950s. Black deejays in other cities also made the transition to television in the 1950s and 1960s. Bob King’s Teenarama Dance Party achieved success in Washington DC, while deejay J.D. Lewis hosted the longest running local dance show, Teenage Frolics, in Raleigh, North Carolina from 1958 to 1983. In my research for The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia, I also uncovered The Mitch Thomas Show, a black teen dance show that started broadcasting to the Philadelphia region in 1955, fifteen years before Soul Train.
These locally produced black music television shows were particularly important in the 1950s and 1960s because American Bandstand, television’s most popular music program of the era, used racially discriminatory admissions policies to keep black teenager dancers out of the studio and off of American television screens. As rhythm and blues and became a dominant musical form in America, American Bandstand elected to travel what Los Angeles deejay Johnny Otis called the “lily-white Jim Crow route.”
Like American Bandstand’s host Dick Clark, Don Cornelius profited from bringing black music to television. These commercial goals made Clark and Cornelius rivals throughout much of their careers. In 1973, for example, when Soul Train started to draw many of the top black R&B performers and competed with American Bandstand for viewers on Saturday afternoons, Clark developed Soul Unlimited, which broadcast in place of American Bandstand every fourth Saturday on ABC. Cornelius felt that Soul Unlimited was a blatant attempt to push Soul Train off the air and with the help of Rev. Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH, successfully persuaded ABC and Clark to drop the show.
For Cornelius, keeping Soul Train on the air was both a commercial and a political goal. He viewed Soul Train as an important step toward securing more black-oriented, black-produced, and black-owned media. While the dance moves, fashion, and Afros on Soul Train received most of the attention, Cornelius needs to be remembered as the first host to sustain a nationally broadcast black music television program. Viewing Cornelius as part of a generation of black broadcast pioneers makes it clear what a remarkable accomplishment this was.