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.