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April 12, 2019

Back on Track

It's the perfect time to board the Soul Train again.

Jacqueline Cutler
  • Sinqua Walls as Don Cornelius

    Jace Downs/BET

It was the train everyone wanted to catch.

Soul Train was the epitome of cool, and for 35 years (1971–2006) its young audience grooved on singers from Ashford & Simpson to Zapp while watching and learning the latest dances.

Don Cornelius, who hosted the syndicated show, was also its trail-blazing creator and executive producer. His son, Tony Cornelius, had long searched for the right project to showcase his late father's accomplishments. He found it in American Soul, which debuted on BET February 5.

"People are happy we're bringing back the feeling they had when they watched the original show to a dramatic series," Cornelius says. "It's full of love and music."

Don Cornelius not only inspired his son; he inspired the actor who plays him, Sinqua Walls. "Integrity, ambitious, grounded and driven — those are words I use," Walls says. "He created something and never wavered in keeping it authentic. He never compromised himself in the process. He owned Soul Train, and no one else owned a piece of it."

The one-hour, 10-episode drama focuses on Cornelius's life and also showcases musical artists.

Current singers play period stars; for example, Kelly Rowland appears as Gladys Knight and Bobby Brown as Rufus Thomas. (If the format sounds reminiscent of NBC's American Dreams — a 2002-05 drama that revolved around the long-running American Bandstand — that makes sense: Jonathan Prince, a creator–executive producer on American Dreams, holds the same titles on American Soul.)

"Soul Train started because there was nothing that gave African-American artists a platform to show their work," Tony Cornelius says.

Given the turbulent times of the '70s that it reflects — and the hundreds of stars who performed on its progenitor — American Soul has long-term potential. Walls, whose credits include Friday Night Lights, Power and Once Upon a Time, believes he may have landed on another hit.

"I can see it going for a while," he says. "It is a dynamic story. It is the story of a man creating."

This article originally appeared in emy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2019

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