Before the death of Don Cornelius stirred pangs of Soul Train nostalgia in the American public, a group of black entrepreneurs already had begun working to revive Cornelius’ creation and carry it beyond the continued popularity of the show’s dances and television reruns. What, exactly, can be done with Soul Train, given that it lasted nearly four decades and is considered an American institution, even though there hasn’t been a new episode in six years? Will the soul of Soul Train carry on, or drift into history?
Soul Train Holdings LLC, the entity created by NBA legend and entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson when he bought the Soul Train library and brand last year, has a lot of ideas. Among them are bringing a Soul Train variety show back to television, CEO Kenard Gibbs told The Associated Press. There have been discussions with writers about taking Soul Train to Broadway, Gibbs said, and also in the works are film opportunities, potential book deals and, in 2013, the first Soul Train cruise.
“The brand itself, we believe, has far, far other entertainment-based tentacles we can stretch,” Gibbs said.
During a memorial for Cornelius in Los Angeles last week, Johnson assured Cornelius’ son Tony, “The brand that your father has created will last a lifetime.”
Black Entertainment Network LLC, BET, and Centric TV, a BET Network, also has rights to the Soul Train brand and name, and have revamped the Soul Train Awards, which have aired on BET Networks since 2009. The awards show has been the network’s second highest-rated special, said Paxton Baker, Centric executive vice president and general manager.
Baker said the show has held its own and plans are under way for a tribute to Cornelius for this year’s show, planned for broadcast Nov. 25, keeping its Sunday-after-Thanksgiving air date tradition, on BET and Centric. “For our part, it was a great brand and made a lot of sense for us to go out and acquire the brand and put our stamp on it,” Baker said.
There are some 1,100 hours of Soul Train episodes and specials, many of which have only aired once on television. Some are posted on the Soul Train website, reminding viewers of celebrities’ past lives.
Talk show host Jay Leno recently reminded star athlete Johnson, that even he once grooved on the iconic show’s dance floor. Leno aired a clip of a younger, slimmer Johnson towering over the other dancers with moves best described as bouncing, and jokingly asked if Johnson bought Soul Train ”just so you could burn that tape?”
There is no shortchanging the impact that Soul Train still has today. Soul Train lines – some impromptu, some organized – popped up around the country in honor of Cornelius after his death Feb. 1. Well before Cornelius died, they were a staple at weddings or other festive gatherings, and even found their way into movies such as Spike Lee’s Crooklyn in 1994 and the family holiday story This Christmas in 2007.
“What Soul Train did was to make it so visible and make it almost a ritual for black America,” said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University.
In the 1970s, Soul Train alone provided a national, weekly showcase for R&B artists, black culture and fashion, and gave advertisers an entrée to the black consumer market. By the ’80s, mainstream audiences moved on while African Americans stuck with the show, said Christopher Lehman, author of A Critical History of Soul Train on Television. “As a result, mainstream audiences begin to see Soul Train as a show that is a relic of the ’70s just because it hadn’t been showing music that was popular with the mainstream since the ‘70’s, even though the music had been popular with African Americans all along,” Lehman said.
The success of Soul Train success got many others in the game, some that had far more resources to devote to the programming, said Marc Lamont Hill, associate professor of education at Columbia University and an expert on the hip-hop generation. Soul Train had to compete with video shows on BET that broadcast black artists, and eventually MTV and VH-1. A plethora of awards shows also provide competition, including the BET Awards. Now, Hill said, the entertainment culture has shifted, where shows featuring black culture are no longer owned solely by African Americans. “To some extent Soul Train’s legacy is partially dependent on people who didn’t create it, who may not be as committed to the culture as its original creators,” Hill said.
Gibbs acknowledged that it is not easy to continue a television show’s brand beyond its lifetime on television – and there are few shows that have. But he said he’s certain it can happen for Soul Train. “I think that dance, fashion and music, the best of music, are really the tent poles for Soul Train going forward. I believe those things are enduring just as the ideas and ideals of love, peace and soul are enduring,” Gibbs said.
Whatever the future of the show and its progeny, black independent media – what was the “germ” of Soul Train – are increasing their foothold in American mainstream culture, Neal said. Radio show producers Tom Joyner and Michael Baisden and Issa Rae, creator of the Web-produced show The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl are carrying on the Soul Train legacy and “all benefitting from something Don Cornelius set in motion with Soul Train,” Neal said. “When all is said and done, he wanted to be able to present black acts on television on what he saw as its most organic context …. He understood correctly there was an interest for that well beyond black communities,” Neal said.