On this first day of Black History Month, we lose an icon -- Don Cornelius, creator of the groundbreaking, long-running, ever-so-funky show Soul Train, passed away early this morning in an apparent suicide. He was rushed to Cedars Sinai Medical Center in the wee hours after a family member found him in his Encino, California home with what’s believed to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was 75.
Though it’s a tragic end to his story, it is Cornelius’ life, not his death that should be highlighted. Let’s face it: Soul Train put black entertainers on center stage, which was a special blessing for those talented folks who didn't get booked regularly on mainstream shows.
For 35 years, Soul Train drew millions of viewers -- including two generations of Harrises because my mom and her siblings crowded around to watch it and then, years later, I did too (by myself because I, of course, am a lonely only child) -- and forged the distinction of being the longest-running, first-run, nationally syndicated program in television history. Between its debut in 1970 and its last episode in 2006, it racked up more than 1,100 episodes and flexed the star power of just about everyone who’s anyone in black music.
Soul Train became a huge platform for the talents of a countless number of black musicians, artists, even rappers, and without it, we would’ve been hard pressed to get to scream over the Jackson 5 or swoon about a favorite member of New Edition, marvel at the get-down greatness of James Brown or dote on the amazing, five-and-a-half-octave vocal litheness of Minnie Ripperton. The list of performers who've appeared on the show is just crazy. Earth, Wind & Fire (oooh). Michael Jackson (squeal!). Mary J. Blige (sha-zam). Luther Vandross (my, my). And on and on and on. In fact, it was a black performer’s rite of passage, next to signing in church and hitting the stage at the Apollo. Even blue-eyed soulsters like Hall & Oates and David Bowie got airplay on the Soul Train stage, giving them credence and respectability among music-consuming viewers with discriminating tastes and a fine-tuned ear for faux talent.
Here’s a little sliver of history for ya: Cornelius launched the legendary program back in Chicago on a UHF station (remember that?). In 1971, he syndicated it and moved production to Hollywood, acting as the show’s baritone-voiced, uber cool host. Would we ever have known to put “love, peace, and soul” together into one unifying phrase if dapper Don hadn't done it first -- and used it to close out every episode of Soul Train until he stopped hosting it in 1993? Even then, it continued when others took over his spot, including the yummy delicious Shemar Moore. It’s in the canon of standard black American catch phrases.
But Soul Train wasn't just about music. It was about the dancing, the fashion, and the inherent level of coolness that went along with it. The kids featured in the studio were trendsetters. Think about what American Bandstand meant to white teenagers, and add Afros, bell bottoms, and ridiculously smooth choreography. Those are the roots of the show’s legacy. That and the legendary Soul Train line, which will still, to this day, formulate at any black event at a moment’s notice -- weddings, cookouts, baby showers, whatever. There are certain songs that just have a Soul Train line feel to them, and I’m proud to report that my family has personally intuited them all.
So for all of that, I celebrate your life’s greatest work, Mr. Don Cornelius, and not just because of your death. I applaud your Afro in the '70s. Your custom-made jackets in the '80s. Your willingness to relent your distaste for hip-hop and give rap music a little shine in the '90s. But most of all, your commitment to being a visionary and giving the black community a weekly show where we could cut loose, have fun, and marvel at ourselves.
What's your greatest Don Cornelius/Soul Train memory?
Image via juggernautco/Flickr