*Tony Cornelius sits in a red-upholstered box seat above the Millennium Stage on the m/s Nieuw Amsterdam, a Holland America cruise ship, during the 2019 Soul Train Cruise (which sailed from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from Jan. 20 through Jan. 27).
The official host of the annual ocean-going celebration featuring live performances by an array of beloved R&B artists, Tony Cornelius is the face of the Soul Train brand both on and off the ship. He’s just shown a rough-cut preview of the first episode of American Soul, the ten-part set to debut on BET on Tuesday, Feb. 5, to cruise attendees. Now that the audience has filed out, he is basking in the positive reactions.
“There’s so much to be proud of, but sometimes in the memories of what you have to go through, it’s painful, too,” he says with a smile.
Loosely based on the story of how the late creator/producer/host Don Cornelius (Tony’s father) developed Soul Train from a popular local teen dance show in Chicago into a nationally syndicated, global cultural force taped live in Los Angeles, American Soul is billed as an “unflinching” look at the show’s origins. Bringing the series to the screen has long been a goal of the Cornelius family, even before the untimely demise of Don Cornelius on February 1, 2012.
“It’s been in the works in a different way, even when my father was here,” says Cornelius of the long road to bring the Soul Train story to the screen. “He always envisioned a movie. Some years ago we had a guy who had a deal at Warner Bros. We tried to find someone to write a script at one time, like Ralph Farquhar [writer/producer of Real Husbands of Hollywood, South Central, Moesha, and more], so it’s always been something that my father explained about doing. Then when we sold the [Soul Train] brand to a private equity and that private equity sold to BET/Viacom. And BET being in the business of developing series, one thing led to another.”
Soul Train Story: Sunshine And Rain
BET has indeed been aggressively developing scripted series in recent years and notching hits. American Soul is produced by Jesse Collins Entertainment, the force behind BET’s ratings juggernauts The New Edition Story (2017) and The Bobby Brown Story (2018), both scripted series about real-life personalities. Jesse Collins, Jonathan Prince and Devon Greggory produce, with Tony Cornelius and Andy Horne as co-executive producers.
“In the end it’s well worth the ride,” says Cornelius of the finished product. “So when I talk about pain I speak about joy, too. It’s like sunshine and rain … I’m very grateful that my father was able to do what he did, but it was such hard work.”
The hard work of building Soul Train is told through ten weekly episodes, with viewers getting to see the eye-opening realities beyond Soul Train’s iconic studio sets, groovy dance segments, and thrilling performances by iconic R&B and pop acts from the 1970s. The series paints a multilayered portrait of its dapper and determined creator, Don Cornelius, delving into the challenges, triumphs, back-room dealings, celebrity relationships and family dynamics he experienced while at the helm of Soul Train. It also follows the travails of the teenage dancers, the burgeoning and established music groups that appeared on the program, as well as family members, including his first wife (and Tony’s mother), Dolores.
Ensemble Cast With Special Cameos
The new series features an ensemble cast, led by Sinqua Walls of TV’s Power and The Breaks, who portrays the elder Cornelius. “To play someone exactly the way they are is difficult, but Sinqua captures my father’s essence, and that’s really what it’s about,” Cornelius told the audience at the January 25th screening aboard ship, where he also thanked his mother. “There’s some very intimate moments between her and my father and things only they know. It’s kind of a love story,” he explained.
Kelly Rowland appears in the first episode as Gladys Knight, who agreed to have her name and likeness used in the series and handpicked the Destiny’s Child singer to play her. Others featured in the cast include Jason Dirden, Iantha Richardson, Christopher Jefferson, Katlyn Nichol, Jelani Winston, and singer Kelly Price as the mother of sibling dancers. Michelle Williams is set to play Diana Ross, Bobby Brown will portray Rufus Thomas, Gabrielle Dennis takes on Tina Turner and Luke James appears as Eddie Kendricks.
Producers expect viewers to be objective and keep in mind that some poetic license has been taken with the narrative.
Don Cornelius: A Fighter
From the first episode, American Soul doesn’t back away from the seamy side of show biz or the grittier side of Don Cornelius. “Yeah, he was very tough,” says Tony of his father. “Even in American Soul. He is probably the only man that I know of that, when people talk about ‘I fought for my business,’ he physically fought for his business. There’s a scene in American Soul where he gets a little physical with someone in the business, and those are very true stories.”
Cornelius says that making the series gave him a new appreciation for things that occurred while he was still growing up. Interested in cinematography, the younger Cornelius was put to work on the Soul Train set by his dad and learned every aspect of the show’s production. “He started me from the bottom. I started as a PA. I did production management. I was an associate producer, executive in charge of production, the cameraman. So my father really gave me the experience that no one could ever give me. I think about that a lot,” Cornelius muses.
Cornelius is one of few people of color on the national board of the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention; every sailing of the Soul Train Cruise includes a fundraising event, such as this year’s wine tasting. “We thought that was really important for the foundation to raise money for those that are involved in mental health and suicide prevention, ’cause obviously my father committed suicide,” Cornelius notes. “That’s part of the American Soul device as well, to make sure that suicide and suicide prevention information is given during every episode.”
If the reception for American Soul is as strong as everyone predicts, there could be a second season, as there are certainly plenty of stories, guest appearances, and backstage drama to cover. Soul Train ran in syndication from 1971 to 2006, though Don Cornelius relinquished his role as host in 1993.
Soul Train Cruise Gets Bigger And Better
In the meantime, the Soul Train Cruise is on course for its 2020 sailing with several high-profile artists: The Jacksons, the Isley Brothers, Johnny Gill, Cameo, Regina Belle, Peabo Bryson, War, Harold Melvin’s Bluenotes, Atlantic Starr, Karyn White and others. The ship will visit ports in St. Maarten, St. Croix, and Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas. Folks on the 2019 cruise lined up to nail down their cabins for the 2020 sailing.
The 2019 edition featured Gladys Knight, George Clinton, and building out a special off-ship venue in Puerto Rico for the Smokey Robinson show. In addition, there were high-octane performances by Al McKay’s All Stars performing the music of EWF, Morris Day & the Time, the Ohio Players, Stephanie Mills, Evelyn Champagne King, the Chi-Lites, Bloodstone, Heatwave, Ray, Goodman & Brown, New Birth, and Me’Lisa Morgan, with a newly instituted morning devotional series led by ordained minister Clifton Davis.
“It’s hard when you set a bar sometimes you don’t know how high you’re setting the bar. I had tears in my eyes when Gladys Knight was here the other night,” says Cornelius of the 2019 lineup. “I was on the Mothership last night with George Clinton. Smokey Robinson, we did a special thing in San Juan [Puerto Rico] where we created this stage where everyone on the ship was able to attend. It was magnificent.”
American Soul debuts Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. Central.