Dick Clark Was This Desperate To Profit Off Black Music? It Got Ugly

Posted On : May 2, 2021

[L] Don Cornelis; [R] Dick Clark
The year was 1971 when Don Cornelius expanded his television show nationwide and everybody couldn’t wait for Saturday morning to come so we could tune in.

While we were waking up, eating a bowl of cereal, and watching the dancers doing the bump and pop locking down the Soul Train line, Dick Clark was rigorously working behind the scenes to shut down our favorite Saturday morning show and trying to snatch Don Cornelius’ top-rated soul spot by doing what many people in his position had been doing since as far back as we can remember. Of course Dick Clark was the man when it came to dance TV during that time with his already well-established American Bandstand that primarily catered to a Caucasian audience, but it was only after he saw what Don Cornelius was doing, by bringing soul to mainstream TV, that Dick wanted to dominate that section of Black media and cash in with his own soul version that he was going to call “Soul Unlimited.”

Dick Clark on set of “American Bandstand”

It turns out there were eventually some cut throat, takeover tactics being used behind closed doors. Here is what happened as stated in the book, The Hippest Trip In America: Soul Train and The Evolution of Culture & Style (via Daily Mail):

‘The impact of Soul Train on the television landscape was not lost on Dick Clark. By 1973, Clark was no longer just cherry-picking talent [from Soul Train] but actively trying to co-opt Cornelius’s franchise by launching his own black-themed dance show, Soul Unlimited.’

Clark launched a special episode of his copycat show and despite it being amateurish, with ‘Clark’s power in the record and television industry, including the backing of ABC, this rip-off could have proved fatal to Cornelius’s dream’, the author writes.

Clark’s power move outraged Black political leaders who along with the Black community believed that having a black-owned show on television was not only cool, but an extension of the civil rights movement.

Jesse Jackson

Led by Chicago’s Reverend Jesse Jackson, they contacted Clark and ABC executives to protest. ‘The idea that Clark, with whom blacks had always had an uneasy relationship, could kill Soul Train led to threats of an ABC boycott.’

Black leaders were joined by one of the most powerful men in the history of the black music business—and also a consultant to ABC, Clarence Avant, who went ballistic when he learned about Clark’s power move.

Avant was invited by Clark to a meeting to discuss Soul Unlimited. ‘Clark wanted my okay’, Avant recalled. ‘He wanted me to endorse his idea. I freaked out. If you do this, there’s no Don Cornelius’, I told him. We had just gotten free enough to have something on TV. ‘I told Dick Clark no – I would not endorse his show’.
Avant then set up a meeting with top ABC executives in New York and met with ABC chairman and founder Leonard Goldenson and president Eldon H. Rule.
‘I was very upset, very upset. If Dick Clark had been allowed to do it, then there would have been no Don Cornelius’, the author quotes Avant.
Avant received a threatening letter from William Morris Agency that represented Dick Clark Productions telling him to stay out of their business. But Avant was a powerful force behind the scene in the black music business in the early 1970s and would not be intimidated.

“Soul Train” dancers

Word on the Old School curb is that after Dick Clark’s plotting scheme, Don Cornelius never uttered two words to him again.

The elephant in the room for this Clark vs. Cornelius situation is obviously the issue of race and in my opinion, Don Cornelius was the absolute best person to bring Black music and Black culture to the national spotlight, because he was of that culture and therefore was able to make sure that form of entertainment was delivered to the public in it’s most purest form. Dick Clark on the other hand, was the best person to bring the young Caucasian culture to national TV with his show, American Bandstand, for the same reasons.

Not that neither couldn’t have probably successfully brought other cultures to the forefront, but when entertainment is represented in the most authentic way possible, it’s always delicate.

Don Cornelis on “Soul Train”

At least Dick wasn’t a dummy and was able to recognize a viable market when he saw one though, but I’m ecstatic that his plan didn’t work. Could you imagine growing up without Soul Train and instead having his version called “Soul Unlimited?” The thought of it even makes me cringe. What would life have been without watching The Lockers pop-locking every Saturday morning; or the dude, Louie Ski Carr, who used to hop across the stage with shades and a hat; or not being able to watch Rosie Perez and Damita Jo dance like no other?!! Don’t even get me started on that cool, laid back, soulful swag Don Cornelius brought to the show and of course the soul artists were always off the chain.

So again, I’m extremely happy Don Cornelius won that battle. May both he and Dick Clark continue to rest peacefully.

-ILoveOldSchoolMusic, Old School news with a new point of view