Don Cornelius, the creator and conductor of the “hippest ride in America”–the groundbreaking television show, “Soul Train”–committed suicide yesterday in his home in suburban Los Angeles. He was 75 years old.
Cornelius was born on September 27, 1936 in Chicago. He grew up on the south side of the city and joined the Marines after graduating from high school. While working as an officer in the Chicago Police Department in 1966, Cornelius was encouraged by a local radio personality to apply his beautifully smooth baritone voice towards a career in radio broadcasting. Cornelius took a radio course, recorded a demo tape, and quickly landed a job with Chicago radio station WVON as a deejay.
He developed the pilot for “Soul Train” with $400 of his own money and based it on the popular “American Bandstand”, but with an emphasis on black music, style, and dance. After one year as a local show in Chicago, it was picked up for national syndication and its base was moved to Los Angeles. During the time that Cornelius hosted the show (1971-1993; he continued producing it until 2007), “Soul Train” was the most important outlet for popularizing the best in music.
Though the sets and styles changed, the format essentially stayed the same. The show derived its greatest appeal from guests that reflect the range and greatness of the music of the era, spanning from Motown (Aretha Franklin, James Brown) to rap (LL Cool J, Public Enemy), as well as other transcendent artists (Stevie Wonder, Rick James, the Jackson Five, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Gladys Knight and the Pips.)
In today’s Chicago Tribune, music critic Greg Kot noted Cornelius’s social importance, quoting Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who wrote, “To say with a straight, dignified face that ‘black is beautiful’ was the riskiest, (most) radical life-changing move that America has seen. And amazingly enough for one hour, for one Saturday out (of) the week, if you were watching ‘Soul Train,’ it became contagious. Next thing you know you are actually believing you have some sort of worth. The whole idea of Afro-centrism in my opinion manifested and spread with ‘Soul Train’ in its first six years.” Kot added, “‘Soul Train’ did more than just passively present the music. At its core, Cornelius’ show was about a community responding — creatively, spontaneously, ecstatically — to the music made for it. The palpable excitement of that interaction opened up African-American culture to the rest of the world and made it not only more accessible but also desirable, hip, fun.”
YouTube’s Soul Train channel features the video above. For those of us who recall watching “Soul Train”, particularly during its heyday in the 1970s, viewing it the day after Cornelius’s death is bittersweet. But it serves as a reminder for us–as well as for those who are too young to have seen the show–of the incredible influence that Cornelius and “Soul Train” had on the music, style, and sensibility of the time.
The video ends with Cornelius telling the audience in his uniquely rich voice, “And that brings us to the end of what we hope has been a beautiful trip for you and what certainly has been a groovy ride for me…Always in parting, we wish you love, peace, and soul.”