Music industry says goodbye to an icon
Published: Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 8, 2012 12:02
For 23 years, Don Cornelius hosted "Soul Train," "the hippest trip in America." For many young African-Americans and fans of R&B, soul and eventually hip-hop, the syndicated Saturday morning mainstay's tagline was the indisputable truth.
Cornelius was found dead Wednesday morning at his Los Angeles-area home of a gunshot wound, an apparent suicide. He was 75.
Back when Cornelius created the show in 1970, there was no MTV, no BET, no VH1, no record label-driven YouTube channels. There was just "American Bandstand" and "Soul Train."
And while "Bandstand" featured some black artists, "Soul Train" was the show to watch to find out what was really hip and happening. And Cornelius, the show's creator, writer, executive producer and host from its debut in his hometown of Chicago on WCIU-TV, was one of the coolest cats on television.
His smooth radio-trained velvety baritone, snazzy threads, cool, perfectly sculpted afro and relaxed, debonair demeanor let viewers know that for the next hour of airtime we were in the hands of someone who knew our music, our artists and was one of us.
There weren't a whole lot of us on television back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Yeah, there were a few places we could see ourselves on shows such as "The Jeffersons" and "Diff'rent Strokes," and those shows' socioeconomic polar opposite, "Good Times." There was also the then-standard comic sidekick: a sassy maid; some recognizable character actor playing a not-too-bright crook on a cop show; or "Starsky and Hutch's" favorite snitch, Huggy Bear.
But Cornelius gave us a vision that came closer to our own: cool, confident and hip. He introduced many viewers and R&B fans of all races to up-and-coming artists as well as established stars we didn't get to see very often elsewhere.
"Soul Train" wasn't simply the black version of "American Bandstand," trotting out the latest Top 40 hitmakers. On "Soul Train," viewers saw the latest fashions and dances and heard the newest music. They also saw a cadre of dancing regulars that included Asians and Latinos and some funky white folks all grooving together to the same Earth, Wind and Fire or New Edition tune. Cornelius made sure to mix in history and social lessons in the show to educate, unite and entertain.
It wasn't until I became an adult that I came to understand what Cornelius had managed to do in the context of his time.
When "Soul Train" started in August 1970, the Civil Rights Movement was still happening. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the unrest his assassination wrought were still recent history.
In its second year, "Soul Train" was nationally syndicated on eight stations, with many others around the nation passing on the show, interested in neither the concept nor the largely untapped market share at which it was aimed.
However, within a few years the show and its host became so popular nationwide that in 1973, "American Bandstand" creator Dick Clark attempted his own version called "Soul Unlimited" with embarrassingly clueless and short-lived results.
With little more than self-determination and belief in himself and the needs of his underserved and largely discounted audience, Cornelius created an African-American cultural bellwether and pop culture icon one grooving hour at a time.
"Soul Train" was also a proving ground for white artists seeking a wider audience with artists such as David Bowie, Elton John, Average White Band and mixed race groups admitting to feeling a little bit hipper (especially Bowie) by being asked to be on the show.
Cornelius also created the Soul Train Awards in 1987, giving fans an opportunity to see their favorite artists and celebrate their contributions.
For kids like me growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, "Soul Train" was the perfect ending to the Saturday morning cartoon block, bringing us back to reality with undulating dancers, music and of course, the Soul Train line, still a staple at many weddings and gatherings of friends and families.
Cornelius quit hosting "Soul Train" in 1993 and the show ended its run in 2006. However, without Cornelius, it quite simply lost its heart. With a plethora of music-dedicated cable channels and that new thing called the World Wide Web, the show's time as tastemaker had simply passed.
Today, the musical cross-pollination of artists and genres is commonplace, and few young music fans would bat an eye if an R&B singer records or performs with a country singer, or a rap star with a rock band.