RIP Don Cornelius: The Soul Train host who gave black America a proud voice on television
When I looked at Soul Train host Don Cornelius back in the ‘70s, I didn’t see a pro-black entrepreneur who would become the African American Dick Clark.
I saw my dad. And his entire generation.
Cornelius, 75, died early Wednesday morning in Los Angeles of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to police quoted by the Associated Press. Back in 2009, the host had gone through a divorce and spousal battery charges, admitting in court he had significant health issues.
But in the 1970s, there was no cooler man alive.
Big, perfectly-formed afros. Platform shoes reaching the sky. Satin suits so sharp you could cut your finger on them. And at the center of it all, a host so mellow, you could place a pad of butter on his tongue and it wouldn’t melt.
Cornelius, with his suave manner and taste for cutting edge ,‘70s fashion, was just like the proud, black men I saw every day in my Gary, Ind. neighborhood.
Filled with a passion for African American culture and giddy with the recent success of the civil rights movement, these were men ready to move up in the world while holding on to their unique culture and style, urged by achievers like Cornelius to “say it loud…I’m black and I’m proud.”
“My dad spoke the same language, so you respected him right away,” said Orlando Davis, 40, host of the morning show on rap station WLLD-FM (Wild 94.1), another child of Gary who grew up watching Soul Train on Saturday mornings. “When I was coming up, you didn’t get out of your PJs in the morning until Soul Train went off...And it was so cool that he knew everybody personally.”
For those of us living in the shadow of Chicago in Northwest Indiana, Soul Train felt like a local creation, developed by Cornelius for WCIU-TV in 1970 as a showcase for black artists who couldn’t get on white-oriented music shows such as Clark's American Bandstand.
Many of those performers were pals of Cornelius, a news reporter who covered Martin Luther King Jr. and local civil rights hero Jesse Jackson. I remember those days as a heady time for black folks: in Gary, just a 30-minute drive east, the city elected its first black mayor and had an amazing local group, The Jackson Five, who brought attention from Motown Records owner Berry Gordy and his signature star, Diana Ross.
“I had a burning desire to see black people depicted on television in a positive light,” said Cornelius during an interview for the 2010 VH1 documentary Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America. “I wanted to do a black American Bandstand.”
More than featuring black artists who couldn’t get arrested on mainstream television – Superfly-era Curtis Mayfield and Cornelius’ longtime buddies the O’Jays were early guests – Soul Train became a showcase for black culture.
And the conduit for that culture was the dancers. Cornelius may have brought them on to ape Bandstand’s well-scrubbed fans, but Soul Train’s kids also brought the latest dances and looks to his show – inspiring the host to showcase them with the legendary Soul Train Line.
A year later, Cornelius’ humble show had taken off for Los Angeles and syndication nationwide, where What’s Happening star Fred “Rerun” Berry and Rosie Perez would eventually join the ranks of Soul Train dancers.
It’s hard to imagine in a modern world where hip hop has more white fans than black and the latest Nicki Minaj release is a smartphone click away.
But Soul Train, especially when it added live performances, was one of the only places on television to see Al Green or Sly and Family Stone work a stage – a black owned showcase for black culture which felt pure and direct.
Like Ebony magazine, Soul Train created its own black-centered media universe, with TV commercials featuring products made by black-owned businesses.
These ads featured black people who weren’t doing the only other thing which got them on TV back then: rioting or breaking the law.
“Don Cornelius was hands down the MOST crucial non political figure to emerge from the civil rights era post 68,” wrote Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson on his Okayplayer.com website Wednesday (Thompson provided the musical score for VH1’s Soul Train film). “The TRUE stroke of genius in my opinion was how Don managed to show US how important we were…(through) the commercials.”
According VH1’s documentary, the show even influenced Michael Jackson, who picked up on the robot dance some of the show’s crowd was kicking around to develop his own moves, which eventually became his signature moon walk. Jackson was just following what we all did, copping dance moves for our sock hops and fashion ideas for school from the show.
At the heart of it all was Cornelius, whose signature sign off, “you can best your last money…it’s all going to be a stone gas honey,” sticks in my brain even now.
So what if he was a little wooden in interviews and tended to ask superficial questions? Cornelius was the benevolent godfather of a soul-based empire everyone respected.
But eventually, even the “hippest trip in America” had to wind down. The rise of hip hop – a form of music Cornelius admitted he didn’t understand – combined with mainstream success of the black artists who fueled the show’s early boom, also spelled trouble for Soul Train.
Like so many unique creations of a racially fractured society, Soul Train lost power as its monopoly on African American culture faded. And the spread of music videos allowed fans to see their artists on television in much glitzier settings than Soul Train’s cramped TV studio.
Cornelius stopped hosting the show in 1993 and it went off the air for good in 2006. But his influence showed in the flood of tributes crowding Twitter Wednesday, as celebrities ranging from Paula Abdul to PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill lamented the loss.
“He was the first African-American to create, produce, host and more importantly OWN his own television show," said ex-basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, current chairman of Soul Train Holdings, in a statement. "I thank him for trusting me with his Soul Train brand and I will carry on his legacy through it."
There may be no more fitting tribute for a man who wished all us fans, every week, “peace, love and soul.”