tagged w/ PRE-American Bandstand
How Don Cornelius became the 'pope of soul'
By John Blake and Todd Leopold, CNN
updated 4:34 PM EST, Wed February 1, 2012
Don Cornelius' impact on America went beyond music. "Soul Train" united white and black America together.
"Soul Train" host Don Cornelius' impact on America was bigger than music
"He was an ambassador, the pope of soul," one sociologist says
Show's message was "I'm black and I'm proud," Gladys Knight says
Stars and fans praised his cool persona, boldness and cultural "tightrope" act
(CNN) -- Don Cornelius never led a civil rights march, launched a boycott or gave a speech before a cheering crowd of protesters.
But his impact on America was as profound as virtually any civil rights leader, says Shayne Lee, a sociologist who grew up watching "Soul Train."
Cornelius' groundbreaking TV show didn't just captivate African-Americans -- it tied white and black America together in a way that had not been done before, says Lee, who teaches a course on hip-hop at the University of Houston.
"He was an ambassador, the pope of soul," Lee said. "For a lot of suburban whites living in segregated America, this was their first exposure to this exiting new world of movement and energy. He made black culture more accessible."
Cornelius, who hosted "Soul Train" for 22 of its 36 years on the air, died Tuesday. He was 75. Police reports indicate he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The suave Cornelius was known by an entire generation of African-Americans as the dapper host of "Soul Train" who signed off each show by blowing a kiss and declaring, "We wish you love, peace and souuuullll."
Most of the tributes to Cornelius that poured in following his death focused on his contribution to music. Others said his legacy was bigger than sound.
Cultural impact of 'Soul Train'
Kenny Gamble, co-founder of Philadelphia International Records, which produced the theme song for "Soul Train," says Cornelius was a great contributor to American, not just black, culture.
"Soul Train," like Apple and Coca-Cola, is an American brand, Gamble says.
"Soul Train" traditions, like dancers gathering to cheer on fellow dancers as they shimmied down a dance line, are now a part of pop culture.
"No matter where you go in this world, people are doing the 'Soul Train' dance line," he said. "What's a party without the 'Soul Train' dance line?"
Gamble still sounded stunned after hearing the news about Cornelius.
"Unbelievable," he said. "That was my man."
Singer Gladys Knight told CNN that Cornelius was an unsung hero whose show amplified the message, "I'm black and I'm proud."
"He encouraged us to be ourselves," she said. "We're going to give you this platform and you go out and do your thing."
Sociologist Lee said that message -- be black and proud -- drove the civil rights movement. And just as the civil rights movement overturned segregation, Cornelius erased cultural barriers that separated white and black Americans living apart in their own cultural cocoons.
"I see Cornelius as a civil rights activist," said Lee, author of "Erotic Revolutionaries."
"The civil rights movement changed the legal structure; Cornelius changed the cultural structure. Changing the culture can change hearts in a way that protests can't."
Cornelius first changed television.
TV had not been known as friendly terrain for African-Americans before "Soul Train." Blacks were often seen in caricatured roles -- as minstrels, servants or outlaws. They were seen through the lens of white America.
"Soul Train" changed the focus. It lifted the veil on black America and showed blacks being themselves, and not as whites imagined them, said Lee.
"The show introduced the notion that blacks were creative, we have something to offer and we're not going anywhere. And if you give us a chance, you might like some of our moves," Lee said.
Cornelius offered white America a new way to see black men, Lee says. He wasn't a sidekick or servant, nor was he angry.
"He walked a tightrope," Lee said. "If he was too in-your-face, he would have been offensive on television, or too accommodating he would have been perceived as an Uncle Tom.
"He was soooo cool."
The cool apparently wasn't an act to those who knew him and knew how he launched "Soul Train."
How Don Cornelius became the 'pope of soul'
By John... more