Jesse Collins has been instrumental in transforming the BET Awards, but if you ask him about the first awards show he ever attended, he’ll tell you it was the Soul Train Awards. “[Soul Train creator] Don Cornelius really was someone I idolized. When I got the opportunity to produce the BET Awards, I just in my head said, ‘What would Don do?’” Collins told Cablefax .
Now he gets an entire series to explore that question with BET’s “American Soul” (premieres Feb 5, 9pm). He serves as executive producer of the series along with Don’s son Tony Cornelius. It’s written by Devon Greggory and Jonathan Prince, with Prince (“American Dreams”) pitching the idea. The series blends fact and fiction, diving deeper than Cornelius trying to book acts weekly.
“The idea was ‘let’s show what life was like in Los Angeles in 1971, what the African American experience was,’” Collins explained. “We’re able to tell that with the dancers, and Don and the other people Don has to deal with. It’s great because you have the anchor of Don and the show, it allows you to grab on to certain things that are factual, like Gladys Knight performing on the first episode that was shot in L.A.”
Ah, yes, the music. It’s a huge part of American Soul, with Kelly Rowland guest starring as Knight. A performance is featured in each episode, fueled by star power. Bobby Brown plays Rufus Thomas, Wayne Brady guests as Little Richard and so on.
“The music has to serve a couple of purposes. It’s great when it drives story, and it’s great when it can take you to place of nostalgia. You remember the fashion, the sound…,” said Collins, who was ep for BET’s “New Edition Story” and “The Bobby Brown Story.” “Babyface is producing all those performances. I think when people hear Kelly’s rendition of ‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’ it’s just amazing.” Those reinvented classics are the extra hook that’s good for the American Soul.