The news Wednesday morning that Don Cornelius, the iconic host and founder of “Soul Train” — a.k.a. “the hippest trip in America” — had died, apparently by his own hand, at first brought shock and disbelief. Then a sustained round of going back in the day.
Before BET or MTV, before cable television or the Internet, TV’s “Soul Train” taught a generation how to dance and let black America see itself having fun. At the center stood Cornelius in all his preternatural cool.
For one hour once a week, black people were the cultural insiders. It was fine if others tuned in, but all the fashion, all the jokes, all the references were black, even if that meant the rest of America didn’t get it. Even if the rest of America didn’t know Evelyn “Champagne” King, or wear their hair fried, dyed and laid to the side, or realize that there was a dance called the “Errol Flynn.”
“Don Cornelius made a major impact on television and on so many people around the country,” said D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray. “ ‘Soul Train’ really attracted a lot of African Americans when there wasn’t much for African Americans in that regard. . . . It was an opportunity to see people that you otherwise were not be able to see.”
Local music great Chuck Brown remembers Cornelius as “smooth, cool, extremely intelligent.” He met him on a “Soul Train”-sponsored tour in the early ’70s but didn’t get to perform on the program until 1979, when his definitive hit “Bustin’ Loose” topped the charts.
“I wasn’t satisfied with the performance, but he was,” Brown said. “He would make sure everyone was comfortable. . . . [He was] a great TV presence. He was the man.”
“Soul Train” trumpeted itself as the “longest-running, first-run, nationally syndicated program in television history.” In a span that stretched from 1971 to 2006, it produced more than 1,000 syndicated episodes. (Cornelius hosted the show until 1993.)
It was appointment television with superstars such as Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, and groups not likely to be booked on “American Bandstand”: The Bar-Kays. Zapp. Atlantic Starr. Barry White and his wife, Glodine. Cool white performers such as David Bowie, Hall and Oates, and Elton John also made their way to the “Soul Train” stage.
But black people didn’t just tune in to see the stars. They tuned in to look in the collective mirror. To hear themselves through the collective grapevine, because the black world still seemed like an extended family. They tuned in so they could talk about “Soul Train” at school and work. They watched together in their living rooms or on the pretend dance floors in their basements, where they tried out their best moves so that they, too, could feel like superstars.
In the 1987 hip-hop anthem “I Know You Got Soul,” Rakim laid it out:
Picture a mike, the stage is empty
A beat like this might tempt me
To pose, show my rings and my fat gold chain
Grab the mike like I’m on “Soul Train”
Viewers knew the dancers (the Omega with the purple feathers, the Asian woman with the hair that hung past her behind). The scramble board — “with the name of an artist you should know” — seemed rigged for ease, so that contestants could get back to dancing. Even the brought to you by Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen cosmetics commercials were part of the iconic mix.
Cornelius was the architect of all that Saturday morning blackness. He predated swagger and big pimpin’ with mellow, understated authority. There were no outsize displays of celebrity worship — no outsize displays, period (other than his towering Afro and neckties that nearly covered his whole chest). No matter what kind of energy was popping onstage, Cornelius’s post-performance interviews unraveled in slow dulcet tones with a musicality all their own.
“He’s so visible in my mind,” said WHUR (96.3 FM) personality Triscina Grey. “That deep voice, that perfect Afro.” Grey got a call from her husband as she was preparing for her 10 a.m. radio show and choked up as she thought about the music and memories Cornelius stood for. “It was a Saturday morning thing, and either you did the housecleaning before or after, but you know you had to be there in front of that television.”
Darryll Brooks, a local concert promoter and manager who landed Salt-N-Pepa on “Soul Train,” met Cornelius in 1975 when the television host appeared at a Stevie Wonder concert on the Mall, which Brooks had organized. “It was a major endorsement,” Brooks said. “This was a guy that everyone looked up to. He was a major thread in the tapestry of black America. . . . You wanted to sit in front of the television on a Saturday and learn the latest dance moves, see which girl looked good, which guy looked corny.”
It has been six years since that funky cartoon locomotive that bookended the show made its last stop, but America can recapture it all by going down the “Soul Train” line on YouTube. The dance moves — pop lockin’ and the “Feel.” The satin halter tops and platform shoes. The post-civil-rights sounds of one nation under the groove.
And there, at the end of each episode, was Cornelius, taking us home. Generations of Americans still know how it goes: Bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey! I’m Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!
Staff writer J. Freedom du Lac contributed to this report.
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