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LIers recall 'Soul Train' legacy ahead of new BET series, 'American Soul'

Sinqua Walls as Don Cornelius from BET's "American

Sinqua Walls as Don Cornelius from BET's "American Soul."  Credit: BET/Jace Downs

By day, Jerome Smith is an elder at the Community Baptist Church on Granny Road in Gordon Heights. By nights and weekends, his alter ego emerges. That's when Jerome "City" Smith and his band, the City Sounds Music Orchestra, come out to play.

Smith, 53, has worked the party circuit on Long Island for 20 years — fundraisers, weddings, bar mitzvahs, that sort of thing. His music is familiar because his inspiration is as well. Smith is a walking Wikipedia entry on "Soul Train."

Growing up in Hempstead in the '70s, "we gathered around the black and white TV with other friends every Saturday morning. If someone had to use the bathroom, my job was to let them know the 'Soul line' was coming on. That was the moment that couldn't be missed."

He absorbed the show, even the commercials. "We'd wait for the Afro Sheen Blowout commercial to come on," says Smith, "and one day I went ahead and ordered it. I thought it was some sort of mechanical device you put on your head. I found out it was just a lotion."

He laughs: "I was very disappointed."

Smith will honor his lodestar during a free concert at Elmont Memorial Library on Feb. 16. He's calling it "The Soul Train Caboose."

The past, goes the famous quote, is a foreign country: "They do things differently there." But surely not the past for "Soul Train" fans like Smith. For them, everything and everyone from the show remains familiar — cultural implants that transcend space and time, and defy style and trends.

Close your eyes. Summon that opening "Souuuull Train" salvo and that rainbow train chugging along through the rainbow city. Recall Rosie Perez's defiant dance gestures or Tyrone Proctor's convulsive "locking" ones. For fans, host Don Cornelius' emblematic "love, peace and soul" was the equivalent of Johnny Carson's golf swing and Ed McMahon's "Heeeere's Johnny."

For millions of white viewers, from national launch in 1971 to the start of MTV in 1981, "Train" was a vicarious thrill and an incalculably hipper counterpart to "American Bandstand."   A nation of black viewers saw something else:

As the ninth of nine brothers and sisters in a Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment, Cynthia Walls — who now lives in Bay Shore — was "drafted" into watching every Saturday morning by her older siblings.

"If you were able to do a poll of every African-American household in Brooklyn," she says, "90 percent were tuned" to the show. For her, "Soul Train" was more than dance lines or fashion, even music. It was this "loving moment of watching African-Americans on TV, and from that I learned that you can become and be anything you want to be."

Toying with powerful, formative memories like these is a tricky business, and perilous, too. But on Tuesday, Feb. 5, BET will make the attempt with "American Soul," a 10-part series based on "Soul Train" and the vast cultural legacy it sired, from its earliest days in 1970 as a local Chicago staple to the waning days of 2006, when it finally wrapped, long after music — and most viewers — had shifted to the internet.

In a phone interview, Tony Cornelius, oldest son of "Train" impresario Don Cornelius — also one of "American Soul's" producers, and himself an in-house expert for all things "Soul Train" — admits that engaging this potent legacy is complicated. But Cornelius, after all, has complicated memories of his own.

On the morning on Feb. 1, 2012, he received a desperate call from his father, 75, in declining health and out of the spotlight for more than a decade. He rushed to his father's Sherman Oaks, California, home, and was the first to find him.

Don Cornelius' suicide is the opening scene of "American Soul." Cornelius — played by Sinqua Walls — is alone in his study, watching a  tape of Gladys Knight (played by Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child) on an early episode, then puts a gun to his head.

Tony Cornelius, 60, says he and the series' co-writer, Devon Greggory, wrestled over whether to open the series this way but ultimately decided it "would let the audience know where this all came from. It was almost like a flashback moment. We see my father end his life in the very beginning and then journey through time."

He concedes that "I still haven't put my eyes on that first scene. I was here at my office, alone, when I got the final cut. It's very difficult to watch."

"Soul Train" was TV's first truly black show — owned and created by a black man, engineered to celebrate black culture, and a direct descendant of the civil rights struggle. "Soul Train"  swam in a sea of white TV created for white viewers and could only find a beachhead among Saturday morning cartoons. Nevertheless, its influence was and is incalculable.

In his 2013 book on the show, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson of the Roots wrote that "to me, at least, 'Soul Train' was a sibling, a parent, a baby sitter, a friend, a textbook, a newscast, a business school and a church."

Nelson George, the filmmaker and writer — author of the 2014 book on "Soul Train," "The Hippest Trip in America" — said by email, "Migos, one of the hottest rap groups in recent memory, and Drake last year did a Soul Train themed video ('Walk It Talk It') which is a testament to the enduring appeal of its iconography. ...The spirit lives on."

Then there's BET. The Viacom-owned network bought the "Soul Train" empire — which includes the eponymous awards — a couple of years ago. Cornelius says BET is exploring a reboot of "Soul Train" itself along with other related ventures.

But first up, "American Soul," which could either consecrate the legacy or complicate it. The series will blend fact and fiction "in order to move the story along and protect the innocent," says Cornelius, who adds that his father had "always wanted to do a series or film" based on "Train."

"He was very serious about making sure that whoever wrote the story understood the black experience." 

Indeed, the 35-year sprawl of "Soul Train" history covers a considerable span of American music history itself, from R&B, funk and soul, up through New Jack Swing, with a smattering of disco and hip-hop in-between. (Don Cornelius at first looked balefully upon rap, which he considered a passing fad.) It launched careers or supersized established ones, from James Brown on. (In addition to a hit parade of classics, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds has written original music for the series.)

Then there was dance, or as George writes, "Soul train was the most important showcase for contemporary idiomatic dance in the world. " From waacking to popping, "Train" dancers had their own styles and following. Dance will also be a big part of "American Soul."

When told of middle-age viewers on Long Island like Smith and Walls who revere "Soul Train" to this day and who modeled their lives on it, Cornelius says, "There are people who have told me that a million times."  A few days before, a porter on the "Soul Train" cruise — which he's hosted for eight years — went up to him and volunteered, "You're not black if you don't know 'Soul Train.' That was really something."

His own memories, beyond that night in 2012, are personal and intimate, perhaps even a salve for his own life. "My father," he says, "was an African-American at a time when things were extremely difficult for black men in general. He was always fighting to gain his position and trying to figure out a way. He was constantly trying to figure out a way."

THE DON CORNELIUS STORY

Don Cornelius was complicated and at times unknowable — cool, aloof, dispassionate, according to some accounts. There was no question, however, about his passion for the franchise he created. Born in Chicago in 1936, raised in the South Side's Bronzeville neighborhood, he was a Korean War veteran who later sold insurance, became a cop, then joined a radio station — that deep resonant voice became his instant ticket. From there came an idea for a Chicagoland TV version of  a radio hit parade. "Soul Train" jumped to national syndication — and moved to Los Angeles — a year after launch, in 1971, and became an instant hit.

When "American Bandstand" czar Dick Clark created a rip-off ("Soul Unlimited"), Cornelius enlisted civil rights activist and Operation PUSH founder Jesse Jackson to fight off the challenger. Clark caved.

Sinqua Walls — who will play Cornelius in the first season — says that before "Soul Train," Cornelius "was on his way to becoming a professional boxer [which] told me that he was a man who wasn't afraid of too much."

Cornelius' later years were a struggle, his life reclusive. He suffered from dementia, per reports, and from lingering effects of brain surgery in 1982. There were business setbacks and personal ones — including a bitter divorce and, in 2008, an arrest on suspicion of domestic violence.

How to portray all this? Jesse Collins, one of the producers of "American Soul,"," says, "Like all of us, he had some good days and some bad days, some things he was proud of, some less proud of. We're showing it all. This is not a fluff piece."

The series begins with his death and will one day end with it. Tony Cornelius says he doesn't know why his father killed himself, and likely never will. (No suicide note was left.) Instead, he says he wants "American Soul" to honor his memory and the memories of dedicated fans. — VERNE GAY

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