Apr 19, 2012 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Those that believe in cosmic forces have to think this was all planned out in advance.
On the first day of February, Don Cornelius was found dead in his home, believed to be suicide. Exactly 11 weeks later, Dick Clark also passed away, the cause a heart attack.
Just ponder that notion – two men, both with the initials of DC, both of them television pioneers who made their main name hosting programs where, essentially, young men and women danced to the hottest tunes of the times. And both of them are now gone, their like never to be seen again.
With Dick Clark, of course, the story goes beyond that, with his ventures into game shows, award shows, blooper shows, a movie or two, and that moment every Dec. 31 in Times Square where one year ended and another began.
Yet there’s no question that Clark’s primary cultural impact was on that modest little dance program called “Bandstand” he took over at Philadelphia’s WFIL not long after his days at Syracuse University.
By 1957, they had put “American” in front of “Bandstand”, and the show had gone national on ABC. You know the rest. Every star from Elvis to Madonna, with hundreds in between, made their name, or built on it, by appearing on Clark’s pride and joy.
Barely a decade later, a Chicago TV and radio commentator named Don Cornelius used $400 of his own money to produce and host, for WCIU, a pilot of a program based on “American Bandstand”, but targeted for African-American audience. He called it “Soul Train”.
That show moved to Los Angeles in 1971 and went national, in syndication. Almost overnight, it became the place for black musical performers to stop, and it remained true for more than three decades. Even the dancers who brought it every week on that signature “Soul Train” line got famous.
In their own subtle ways, Dick Clark and Don Cornelius impacted our nation’s popular culture, even if they weren’t credited for it at the time.
Clark’s key point was to make rock-and-roll music palatable for the masses. When “Bandstand” went national, rock was denounced everywhere, from households to pulpits, and may have died or remained marginal, if left to wither.
Almost by himself, Clark made the genre easier for the mainstream to grasp, mixing the energy of clean-cut teens with the youthful performers they adored. True, it got antiseptic, and they lip-synched most of the time, but it worked.
Cornelius had a more difficult road to travel. Essentially, he made, from scratch, a TV program, production company and multimedia entertainment empire entirely run by African-Americans, something close to unprecedented at the time he started.
As such, “Soul Train” became an immense source of cultural pride. Black people not only saw their own singing, performing and dancing, they were also running the show and even starring in the commercials. In short, Don made people believe in themselves.
These two stories have so many parallels. Cornelius commissioned a theme song, “TSOP”, that went to number one on the charts. Clark saw his “Bandstand” theme song turn into a hit for that noted hipster….Barry Manilow. (Mom, that one’s for you).
At the peak of “Soul Train” in the mid-1970s, Clark, through his production company, tried to syndicate a program, “Soul Unlimited”, that blatantly imitated the winning Cornelius formula, but the ensuing furor caused Clark to back off.
As much as Clark may have leaned on teen idols in the early days, he did champion black artists from Chuck Berry (who name-dropped his show in 1958’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”) onward. Conversely, “Soul Train” was a black-themed show, but white stars crossed over and performed on it, especially Elton John and David Bowie.
And yes, both of their shows would decline and fall. MTV was the culprit for “Bandstand”, though some of that show’s characteristics would rub off on MTV’s programming before the channel abandoned music.
In the case of “Soul Train”, it did a better job adapting to the video age, but the rise of hip-hop made the soulful Cornelius feel dated, and he stopped hosting it in 1993, after which it kept going, but no one could replace him.
Now both Dick Clark and Don Cornelius have left us, but the sweet musical memories they helped to create for generations of Americans are eternal. So as Clark would do, we offer a final salute, and as Cornelius would so, we wish them both love, peace…..and soul!
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