It was a horrendous shock to hear that Don Cornelius had died Wednesday morning, Feb. 1, at his home in Sherman Oaks, California, at the age of 75.
He had been enduring what he described as “significant health issues” (strokes and brain surgery) and apparently couldn’t take it anymore, so he ended his life.
Cornelius’ impact on television, Black music, Black culture and entertainment in general cannot be overstated. He was a visionary.
Oct. 2, 1971 is a special date, perhaps even a monumental one. It was then that “Soul Train” made its national debut, from Los Angeles, with Gladys Knight & the Pips as special guests. Prior to that, “Soul Train,” conceived, produced and hosted by Don Cornelius, had been a local TV dance show in his native Chicago.
“SOUL TRAIN” was an instant smash, the talk of Detroit and the six other cities that shared in the auspicious debut: Atlanta, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Houston.
The show became “absolutely must” viewing for thousands of Detroiters. We were glued to our TV sets on Saturday afternoons, thrilled to be watching the best dancing we had ever seen on a show of this type. And soon we even knew dancers by name, including Damita Jo Freeman, Tyrone “The Bone” Proctor, Patricia Davis and Lil’ Joe Chism.
As Cornelius said himself, “Soul Train” didn’t create the dance/entertainment show format. That would be attributed to “American Bandstand.” But “Soul Train” added a whole new dimension to it, and its impact was nothing less than extraordinary.
One of the most enduring contributions of the show is the “Soul Train,” which to this day is often done an parties, wedding receptions, etc., and it always will be.
On one occasion Don Cornelius himself danced down the line, first with Mary Wilson, and then with Jean Terrell and Lynda Lawrence, all three from the Supremes. The year was 1973 and song was “Doing It To Death” by Fred Wesley & the J.B.’s, prominently featuring James Brown.
THE GUEST lineup for “Soul Train,” which aired from Oct. 2, 1971 to March 25, 2006, reads like a who’s who of Black music.
The hundreds of guests include Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, Keith Sweat, Curtis Mayfield, Jody Watley (a former “Soul Train” dancer), Cheryl Lynn, Smokey Robinson, Whitney Houston, the O’Jays, Janet Jackson, Stephanie Mills, Barry White, Ike and Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye, Natalie Cole, Stevie Wonder, the Whispers, the Jacksons and Al Green…and that’s just a miniscule sampling.
Appearing on “Soul Train” was proof that an artist had “made it,” and if they were already established stars, these appearances added that much more luster to their status.
Spike Lee once described “Soul Train” as “an urban music time capsule.”
DONALD CORTEZ CORNELIUS was born on Sept. 27, 1936 in Chicago. Interestingly, he began his working career in the insurance business, but other things were beckoning, prompting him to enroll in broadcasting school in 1966.
He later secured a position as a substitute radio personality in the news department of Chicago’s WVON. By 1968 he was a sports reporter on WCIU-TV as well as host of a program titled “A Black’s View of the News.”
Around this time he was envisioning a show with kids dancing to the latest R&B records. Making the pilot involved using his own money, but it proved to be a wise investment. This new, local “Soul Train” made its debut in August of 1970 and was very popular in and around Chicago.
But Cornelius wanted more, much more. With the help of Johnson Products, “Soul Train” became a national attraction the following year. No one will ever forget the Johnson Products commercials for Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen. They will be forever associated with “Soul Train.”
They are almost as entrenched as Cornelius’s catchphrases, “And you can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey!” and, of course, “And as always in parting, we wish you love, peace, and soul!”
Don Cornelius stopped hosting “Soul Train” in 1993, realizing that it was time turn that job over to someone younger. Then too, by this time hip-hop/rap had become an exceptionally strong force, and clearly Cornelius was not particularly interested (it showed in his interviews during this period), but he knew how essential it was to keep the show up-to-date.
There were various hosts after Cornelius stepped aside but continued to produce the show. The most notable was actor Shemar Moore who hosted from 1999 to 2003.
One of the spin-offs from “Soul Train” is the Soul Train Music Awards, an annual ceremony that began airing in 1987.
Fortunately, there are many “Soul Train” DVDs that can be purchased from companies such as Amazon, as well as an array of clips from the show that can be viewed on YouTube.
It is appropriate to close this story with a quote from the iconic Don Cornelius: “I figured as long as the music stayed hot and important and good, that there would always be a reason for ‘Soul Train.’”
Indeed, there is…in the Black music galaxy and, just as importantly, in our hearts.