Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an honor not only bestowed on the trailblazing artists who elevated music to new heights but also on those behind the scenes who kicked down doors to give musicians a platform to share their art. Legendary music executive Clarence Avant and television producer Dick Clark have their names engraved at the hallowed Rock Hall grounds in Cleveland as recipients of the Ahmet Ertegun Award — an honor named after the famous co-founder and president of Atlantic Records.
And for an award given to non-performing industry professionals who impacted music and youth culture, it’s only fitting that this year’s recipient is Don Cornelius — the man who gave Black artists and dancers a space to express and promote their art with “Soul Train,” a syndicated TV series that for four decades broadcasted soul, rhythm and blues and hip-hop to millions of living rooms across the U.S.
“Every Saturday at 11 a.m., kids used to tune in to watch the music, the new dance moves and the clothes dancers were wearing,” Ron Weisner, a former manager who worked with Michael Jackson and Madonna, tells Pollstar. “It was the place to be.”
Cornelius worked at a Chicago TV station in the late ’60s and launched “Soul Train” in 1970. A year later, the variety show was expanded into syndication and broadcast in major markets, and Weisner, who worked at a record label at the time, was there to help his friend with his first big episode. He spotted Cornelius for the plane tickets that sent Gladys Knight & the Pips and Honey Cone to Los Angeles for the syndication debut, and the rest was history. “Soul Train” ran for 36 years on TV and made Black culture mainstream on the heels of the Civil Rights era. While some guests lip-synced their music, Cornelius managed to score unforgettable live performances from icons such as James Brown, The Jackson 5, Aretha Franklin and even David Bowie.
“I remember him as the guy who basically stepped up and fought for what he believed in and the door he opened,” Weisner says. “Everybody wanted to be on the show because they knew what the show meant.”
It meant a lot to Questlove, who wrote an essay following Cornelius’ death in 2012 and called him “the most crucial non-political figure to emerge from the Civil Rights era.” He saw Cornelius as an innovator with commercials that featured the show’s true stars: the fashionable, exuberant “Soul Train” dancers who exhibited their remarkable talent weekly, especially during line dancing segments.
“They also had to provide all of the production for the Johnson beauty products commercials that were funding the show. Often using the set and the [dancers] as lead actors,” Questlove wrote. “… The genius of it all was this was the first time that Black people were proud to be called African.”
And Cornelius’ genius will forever live on in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the man who inspired a generation by delivering what he always uttered at the end of every show: “We wish you love, peace and soul.”