“Soul Train,” which aired for more than 35 years, was the longest first-run syndicated television series in broadcast history. In addition to its cultural importance, with regular appearances by such musical giants as Michael Jackson,
James Brown and Aretha Franklin, the show represented a major advance in entertainment for African Americans.
Recognizing that the major TV networks had virtually no programs geared toward black audiences in 1970, Mr. Cornelius designed “Soul Train” as what he called “a black ‘American Bandstand.’ ”
As the show’s host, he promised — in a burnished baritone voice — to take viewers on “the hippest trip in America.” He drew dozens of star headliners to “Soul Train,” but Mr. Cornelius’s greater achievement might have been as a behind-the-scenes producer and businessman who helped persuade mainstream companies to spend advertising dollars on largely black audiences.
“Most of what we get credit for is people saying, ‘I learned how to dance from watching “Soul Train” back in the day,’ ” Mr. Cornelius told Vibe magazine in 2006. “But what I take credit for is that there were no black television commercials to speak of before ‘Soul Train.’ There were few black faces in those ads before ‘Soul Train.’ And what I am most proud of is that we made television history.”
Mr. Cornelius later launched a record company and a series of awards shows and was recognized, along with Quincy Jones and Berry Gordy, as one of the most influential African Americans in the music business. Younger entertainment entrepreneurs including Debra Lee, chairman and chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, and performer-producer Russell Simmons credited him as a major influence on their careers.
“Soul Train” first aired in Mr. Cornelius’s hometown of Chicago in 1970, then moved to Los Angeles a year later, when it was syndicated nationally.
Viewers were initially attracted by the hit songs of top performers, but the infectious dancing of teenagers at the show’s studio kept drawing them back. Young people of all races looked to “Soul Train” each week as a monitor of cultural currency.
“It was extremely influential,” Ron Simon, curator for radio and television at the Paley Center for Media in New York, said in an interview. “It opened up a window on African American culture, not only its music but fashion and dance, in homes all across America.”
By the 1990s, with musical tastes changing from rhythm-and-blues to the blunter approach of spoken-word hip-hop, Mr. Cornelius found himself falling behind the times. In one tune, rapper Ice Cube said in 1990, “ ‘Soul Train’ done lost they soul.”