Major Advertisers Finally Boarding Cornelius’ ‘Train’ : Pop: ‘Soul Train’ marks its 20th anniversary tonight with a nationally televised awards ceremony. The black-music show’s creator and host has bittersweet feelings about landing his first car ad.
Don’t look for a lot of starry testimonials to Don Cornelius, the creator and host of “Soul Train,” as he marks the 20th anniversary of the syndicated black-music television show with the fourth annual Soul Train Music Awards tonight at the Shrine Auditorium.
“I’m not the testimonial type,” said Cornelius, a somber and serious figure sitting in his West Hollywood office, which has been turned into a beehive of activity because of the nationally televised awards show. The program airs at 8 p.m. on KTTV Channel 11.
To the television personality and entrepreneur, the most significant part of tonight’s broadcast won’t be the awards, but a commercial: the first automobile advertisement to ever run on a “Soul Train” show.
“We’re finally getting--particularly for the awards show--the major advertisers, the Cokes and McDonald’ses . . . that probably should have been advertising on ‘Soul Train’ for the last 20 years,” Cornelius, 48, said in his familiar, measured baritone.
“We were stereotyped to where we weren’t supposed to sell anything but black hair-care products and records. Of course, now it’s known that we buy tires and shoes and houses too.”
That it took a full 20 years for the first automobile commercial to run on “Soul Train” (the breakthrough is by Chrysler) makes Cornelius’ victory bittersweet.
“Sometimes you have to beg for a while--or in my case, a long time,” he said. “It eventually does come, but it wouldn’t be encouraging to me if I was starting out now. Maybe if I knew it would take 20 years to get a car commercial and 12 or 15 for a major soft drink and the same for a major fast-food chain, I probably would have had an allergic reaction.”
Why have these advertisers been reluctant to jump aboard? One media buyer for an advertising agency explained it as pure economics. Ethnic minorities and other demographic sub-groups are already a part of the general audience that sees the ads on prime-time and sports programs, so there’s no need to purchase time on shows specifically targeted to them.
“Why would I spend more money to go buy more of a black audience?” asked Ben Benya, vice president and media director of the Bozell agency’s Los Angeles office. “From an agency standpoint, you’re already getting them. . . . The fact of the matter is media is not exclusionary. It’s mass media.”
Cornelius rejects that thinking.
“Whatever media you look at, it’s established--and was long before ‘Soul Train'--that given the opportunity or choice, blacks will listen to black radio and read Ebony and you can’t reach them through pop radio and Life,” Cornelius said. “The only medium that has resisted thought of division between these is television.”
But a Chrysler advertising executive believes that the advertising world’s view is changing.
“We always felt our advertising was reaching the black consumer, but three years ago we concluded it wasn’t reaching enough,” said Joe Hickey, manager of corporate advertising for the auto maker, noting that the model being pitched in spots targeted to the black audience is the upscale New Yorker Fifth Avenue. “We feel our dollars have been more efficiently spent this way.”
Cornelius’ battle for that separate kind of respect began on Aug. 17, 1970, when “Soul Train” first aired--live and in black-and-white--on the small Chicago station WCIU.
“It was somewhat a pilot I convinced WCIU to let me do as an experiment,” he recalled. “It cost me all of $400 of my own money. . . . The show centered on a live appearance by singer Jerry Butler and dancers and myself in some goofy outfit we came up with. But aside from the fact that is was the most inexpensive package imaginable, it was basically what we do today, same style and attitude.”
The show quickly became a daily fixture on WCIU, a successor to the after-school dance programs seen all over the country in the ‘60s. And just a little more than a year later, it went into national syndication, where it has helped expose both new and established talent, including some key appearances by the likes of the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder.
With the awards show--which last year moved into the 6,000-seat Shrine, the Los Angeles home of the Grammys for years--"Soul Train” has taken an even larger role in the black-music world.
Awards will be presented tonight in 12 categories, from R&B; and rap to jazz. England’s Soul II Soul leads the field with nominations in four categories, while Quincy Jones, Janet Jackson, Luther Vandross and Bobby Brown are among those artists with three nominations each.
Through it all, Cornelius has steadfastly sought to preserve black music as an active form in its own right, not just as a farm system for the pop music world, which he believes some in the music industry see it as.
“Why is there the phenomenon of a black person doing something well enough as to be accepted by a mass audience having to belong to another culture?” he asked.
As he thought back over those years, Cornelius was able to come up with one testimonial that he said would mean a lot to him. He sat back in his chair and paused before speaking.
“I guess the cover of Ebony magazine,” he said. “We haven’t worked up to that yet.”