'An ad for blackness': how Soul Train made America do the Hustle

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It was the ultra-hip music show that put black culture centre stage – with the enigmatic Don Cornelius as its impresario

It was Aretha Franklin who made Don Cornelius realise he had hit the big time. Just two years earlier, the impresario’s show Stevie Wonder improvised an ode to Soul Train. James Brown, convinced that somebody, probably a white somebody, must be behind such a slick operation, looked around its Los Angeles studio and kept asking Cornelius: “Brother, who’s backing you on this?” Each time Cornelius replied: “Well, James, it’s just me.”

He wasn’t bragging. As the host (or “conductor”) of Soul Train from 1970 to 1993, Cornelius was an avatar of cool, with his glorious afro, wide-lapelled suits and avuncular baritone, signing off each episode with a funky benediction: “I’m Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace ... and soul!” Billed as “the hippest trip in America”, Soul Train didn’t just beam the latest sounds from black America into millions of homes, but – with amateur dancers who became as integral to the show as the performers – the fashions, hairstyles and dance moves too.

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