A genuine American icon has left the planet. People born during or after the ‘80s might know Soul Train creator and host Don Cornelius mostly from name-checks in interviews, songs, and clips on YouTube. And there is nothing wrong with that. But for us older folks, we knew the man. Some of us grew up with him.
If a picture can sometimes speak more eloquently than words, a video can function as a truth bomb that tells you all you need to know. Check it out:
I only have a handful of comments. The Hair. The Glasses. The Shirt. The Pants (did you see those Liberty Bell Bottoms flowing when he moved up that line?). And The VOICE.
Simply put, Don Cornelius was a man who managed to do precisely what he was put on this earth to do. And better, he epitomizes the American Dream (the actual one, not the boilerplate that rolls so odiously off politicians’ tongues). If you read about his life—and you should—you’ll learn (as I did) Soul Train was entirely conceived and created by Cornelius, via a pilot that cost $400 of his own dough. Four hundred bucks to build an empire. What a bargain. For him; for all of us.
The NYT obit quotes Cornelius, from a 1995 interview, explaining “‘Soul Train’ was developed as a radio show on television. It was the radio show that I always wanted and never had. I selected the music, and still do, by simply seeing what had chart success . . . There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity. I’m trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks, which they knew was for them.”
Or, more to the point, that was not America. Don Cornelius helped bring the music to the masses. Art that transcends trends and time will eventually, inevitably find its way forward. But sometimes tomorrow, or 10 years from now, is not soon enough. In this regard, Cornelius helped American music and culture advance and evolve. If this meant we had to suffer through opportunistic but plasticized parodies like K.C. and the Sunshine Band, it also meant our country got early reads on everything from the latest James Brown or Marvin Gaye, to a necessary platform for never-ready-for-Prime-Time (in Honky America, circa the mid ‘80s) rap music. Cornelius cultivated, and maintained, a street cred and kept it real for several decades. Not many artists are capable of that; and here was Soul Train, dedicated purely to the proposition of exposing worthwhile artists to a broad audience. That’s it.
Here is a nice history lesson:
The re-runs of Soul Train that played on Saturday afternoons during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were syndicated rites of passage, imparting some necessary non-WASP perspective. It is one definite reason I endorse, without irony, an era when freak flags were flown high and a sense of inclusion combined with the atrocious wardrobes, drugs, music, and malaise to contribute to a vibe that has never been duplicated. Look at the most popular shows on TV right now and tell me if we are wiser, hipper, or happier today.
Don Cornelius will be remembered—and should hereafter be celebrated—for giving a voice to Black America. He should also be acknowledged—and praised—for making White America less white. Trust me, this was a very necessary and very good thing. It still is.
And above all, as always: love, peace, and soul. The world just lost some. And we need it more than we ever have.