Cornelius, the Bronzeville native who launched Soul Train here in 1970, is known for never granting interviews. An entire book, A Critical History of Soul Train on Television (McFarland, 2008), had to be written without a single original on-the-record word from the man. But on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, where he took Soul Train into national syndication in ’71 while a local version continued here for years, Cornelius maintains his reclusive reputation is undeserved. “I need to be promoting something to be doing interviews,” the 74-year-old says, his bottomless baritone rattling my handset. Perhaps for the first time since ending his run as host in 1993, he has something to hype: a 40th-anniversary Soul Train concert in Millennium Park on Monday 5, featuring some of the show’s first guests, including Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites and the Emotions. Cornelius guarantees the show’s gonna be a stone gas, honey. “You can bet your last money!”
When you moved Soul Train to L.A., were you worried about leaving your hometown comfort zone?
What’s funny is I really thought I would be handicapped in Los Angeles because the kids had a real wild way of dancing, whereas back in Chicago it was really more on the cool bop side. I looked at the California style and I said, “This just isn’t gonna work.” I was completely mistaken.
What do you remember from your Chicago childhood?
I was never exposed to a great deal of racism, but the Chicago I grew up in was very, very segregated. If I went four blocks from my house, I was in a bad neighborhood where I might get my ass handed to me by someone who was black. If I went a mile farther, I might get my ass handed to me by someone who was white.
What’s your first music memory?
Nat Cole. That’s who my crowd grew up revering. We heard him on the jukeboxes in the stores in Bronzeville.
You and Cole both went to DuSable High School.
Not nearly at the same time, though. I always felt a love for music, but I never got my nerve up enough to try a musical instrument in school.
The legend goes that you were discovered while you were a Chicago police officer. You ticketed Roy Wood, the news director of WVON–Voice of the Negro, the station you eventually worked for as a news reader, and he said you had potential.
No, no. Never happened. How I knew Roy, for the record, was that I grew up in a three-story building on St. Lawrence Avenue next to a three-story building he lived in for a time.
When you turned on your TV in 1970, what did you see?
I saw the general-market world, the white world. I felt that it was my mission to see to it that black talent had an opportunity to get national television exposure. We wanted to make each show evolve into a shocking moment.
Early on, Dick Clark started Soul Unlimited to compete with Soul Train.
I went crazy. I was sending angry letters to every newspaper editorial board in the country. It was designed to step on Soul Train and destroy it. But Dick and I finally met up at ABC, and they agreed not to do it anymore. It’s something I never talk about because I don’t want to embarrass Dick Clark. He was very gifted at what he was doing. The only problem was that he was very white, and I thought it could be done another way.
Hip-hop was a shift from the soul and funk that were the early roots of Soul Train. How did you feel when hip-hop was first blowing up?
I didn’t give it very long. I thought it might work for five or ten years and then go away. I was wrong.—Jake Malooley
In addition to the concert, Cornelius will appear for a Q&A after a Sunday 4 screening of Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America at the Gene Siskel Film Center.