No matter what Don Cornelius was saying, he always sounded smooth, as he led us on the “hippest trip in America.”
For many black Americans, Soul Train was must-see, can’t-miss television. If it was on, you were watching. This was before we had the Internet and DVRs that allow us to watch whatever we want, whenever we want. Then, if you missed a show, you missed it.
And nobody wanted to miss the opportunity to see Aretha Franklin as she rocked steady, Marvin Gaye asking you to get it on or The Jackson Five dancing, dancing, dancing.
James Brown wasn’t taking no mess. Elton John was singing Benny and the Jets. Prince was going crazy. LL was rocking the bells. David Bowie, Salt and Pepa, Rick James, Ike and Tina Turner and Bill Withers all graced the stage on Soul Train, which had a 35-year run starting in 1971. Cornelius ran it from its inception until 1993.
So it was certainly sad news to hear that Cornelius, 75, was found dead Wednesday morning in his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. He apparently died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, according to published reports.
I called my mom to tell her about his death and she wondered if he had some ailment or other problem that might have led him to do this. Then we talked about the show’s impact. It was more than a variety show for African Americans.
Listen to my mom, a Headstart director in Baldwin, Louisiana.
“I always did watch Soul Train even after they went off the live broadcasts,” she said. “That was the black American bandstand, you could say. Everybody watched Soul Train. From the time it started, that was something that we just didn’t miss. The word scramble, a couple unscramble the name. A lot of the fashions came from there.”
Her memory mirrors mine. My siblings and I would make sure our chores were done so could watch the stars of the day and, of course, the Soul Train line at the end of the show.
It was a highlight of the week. And it’s all thanks to Don Cornelius, who introduced us to the latest music and fashion.
But the most enduring legacy of the show, and Cornelius, was the Soul Train line. I mean, we do it at birthday parties, weddings, barbecues in the summer and even some funerals depending on the crowd involved. The line is perfect because everybody—even the most uncoordinated—can do something. While the youngsters are jerking and jumping, the cool dads and grandpas single walk down the line, throwing up a stray hand or stopping mid-stride to pose for a second or two. It’s all great fun and a part of the culture that might not exist without the silky smooth man at the helm. Rest in peace, my brother.
As with the iconic show, there’s only one way to end a post about Don Cornelius:
Love. Peace. And SOOOOOUULLL!
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