1. Arts & Entertainment

Soul Train creator Don Cornelius made an impact far beyond black America

Don Cornelius was the first African-American to create, produce, host and own a show on TV, according to Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
Don Cornelius was the first African-American to create, produce, host and own a show on TV, according to Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
Published Feb. 2, 2012

When I watched Soul Train host Don Cornelius back in the 1970s, I didn't see a pro-black entrepreneur who would become the African-American Dick Clark.

I saw my dad. And his entire generation.

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 while holding on to their unique style, urged by achievers like Cornelius to "say it loud. … I'm black and I'm proud."

Cornelius, 75, died early Wednesday in his Mulholland Drive home 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.

Of course, his Soul Train had an impact beyond black America, introducing the world to positive images of young black people, fashion and pop culture. In addition to giving exposure to such black artists as the Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Barry White, Cornelius also welcomed white rock artists such as Elton John, Gino Vannelli and David Bowie, stars whose songs appeared on black radio in less segregated musical times.

In the '70s, there was no cooler man alive: big, perfectly formed afro. Platform shoes reaching the sky. Satin suits so sharp you could cut your finger on them. And an attitude so mellow, you could place a pat of butter on his tongue and it wouldn't melt. As a nappy-headed 10-year-old, I gyrated along with the music on his show like an odd mix of James Brown and Michael Jackson.

Cornelius, with his suave manner and taste for hip '70s fashion, was just like the proud, black men I saw every day in my Gary, Ind., neighborhood.

For those of us living in the shadow of Chicago, Soul Train felt like a local creation. Developed by Cornelius for Chicago's WCIU-TV in 1970, it gained local fame as a showcase for black artists like the O'Jays and Curtis Mayfield who couldn't get on white-oriented music shows such as Clark's American Bandstand.

Many of the performers were pals of Cornelius, a news reporter and DJ who once covered the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It was a heady time: Gary had 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."

Orlando Davis, 40, host of the morning show on rap station WLLD-FM (Wild 94.1), was another child of Gary who grew up watching Soul Train and Cornelius on Saturday mornings. "My dad spoke the same language, so you respected him right away.

"When I was coming up, you didn't get out of your PJs in the morning until Soul Train went off," he added. "And it was so cool that he knew everybody personally."

It may have started as a music program, but Soul Train quickly became a showcase for young, black culture.

And it all came from the dancers. Soul Train's kids brought the latest dances and looks, 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 nationwide syndication, featuring What's Happening star Fred "Rerun" Berry and Rosie Perez as early Soul Train dancers.

It's hard to imagine in a world where hip hop has more white fans than black and the latest Nicki Minaj release is a phone app away. But like Ebony magazine and black-focused newspapers such as New York's Amsterdam News, Soul Train created its own black-centered media universe, with TV ads featuring products made by black-owned businesses.

"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 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."

At the heart of it all was Cornelius, whose signature sign off, "you can bet 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? He was the benevolent godfather of a soul-based empire everyone respected.

Eventually, though, even the "hippest trip in America" had to wind down. The rise of hip hop, a form of music Cornelius said he didn't understand, combined with the mainstream success of the black artists who fueled the show's early boom, also signaled the end 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 the show's cramped TV studio.

Cornelius stopped hosting Soul Train in 1993 and it went off the air for good in 2006, still heralded as the longest-running syndicated show in TV history. Two years later he sold the show to Madvision Entertainment.

Its influence remains, showcased in the flood of tributes crowding Twitter Wednesday, as celebrities ranging from Paula Abdul to PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill lamented Cornelius' death.

"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, 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 us all, every week, "love, peace and soul."


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