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A Smooth Operator in the Name of Soul. A Tribute to Don Cornelius

With his deep voice, his sharp suits, his aviator glasses and the stage presence of a grown-up music fan, Don Cornelius was every bit the smooth TV personality on “Soul Train,” the nationally syndicated Saturday-morning show he created, produced, wrote and hosted from 1971 to 1993. Behind his blend of suavity and enthusiasm, and what he called “the hippest trip in America,” was a cultural mission.

Mr. Cornelius, who died on Wednesday at 75, had been a journalist and a disc jockey in Chicago, and in 1970 he took the next step for many a D.J. on local television: hosting an after-school dance party, with guests from a fertile Chicago soul scene. But he quickly went national, with a low-budget format straight out of “American Bandstand”: stars performing in a small TV studio while dancers showed off their moves. He’d do brief interviews with the musicians and, between guests, records would play while pairs of dancers strutted their latest moves down the railroad tracks painted onstage.

Of course there was a crucial difference between “Soul Train” and “American Bandstand”: most of the performers were African-Americans and the music was soul, R&B and eventually hip-hop. (Rockers crossing over into R&B, like David Bowie and Elton John in the 1970s, were also welcome.) A quick “Scramble board” segment between songs had dancers reveal the names of historic African-American figures. In the interviews Mr. Cornelius might ask James Brown to say a few words about violence in “our communities” and introduce a 19-year-old Al Sharpton.

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