We lost a true cultural icon yesterday with the sudden passing of entertainment visionary Don Cornelius, the creator of the long-running syndicated television show, Soul Train. With a boldness and bravado that mimicked the aspirations of Black America at the time, Cornelius led viewers on the “hippest trip in America” every Saturday. I remember well first watching the program and being both entertained and filled with pride, watching Black recording artists and young people who seemed “hipper” than the scene that I was accustomed to seeing on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Black youth from around the country could not wait to see that animated train chug across the screen, and hear the theme music; knowing that for the next hour they would see some of their favorite performers. Soul Train quickly became a focal point of a Black community thirsty for entertainment that was culturally relevant. Don Cornelius did not disappoint.
Cornelius was as much the show as were the entertainers and dancers who graced the stage that was designed as a big train locomotive. His deep baritone and his fashion sense were hallmarks of the show, as was the comfort at which he engaged guests and his wisdom in letting the young dancers develop their own personas. Where Dick Clark had become almost a father figure on the Bandstand set, Don Cornelius was more like the cool older brother or young uncle who still knew how to get his groove on. The word that comes to mind in describing Cornelius is – smooth.
What Don Cornelius created was much more than a dance show. He created a safe place on television where Black people could be Black, where young people did not have to make excuses for their cultural identity, and where Black artists could be certain their music would be heard. Cornelius did even more than that though. Without being overtly political, he was the master politician, inviting artists whose music carried a social message and engaging Black owned businesses as advertisers. Many a can of Afro-Sheen flew off store shelves because Black youth saw the commercials on Soul Train, including a memorable spot with an actor portraying Frederick Douglass who comes back to chide a young man for not keeping his “natural” groomed in a prideful way. Make no mistake about it, Don Cornelius was the creator and originator; the boss. That much was evident at the end of each show when the credits would roll and the words would appear with the voice over – This has been a Don Cornelius Production.
Like most television programs, Soul Train eventually lost its luster and would leave the airwaves after Cornelius gave up his hosting duties to several younger hosts who could not fill his shoes. The emergence of hip-hop, music videos and the changing business model of the music industry contributed to the show’s demise. Though off the air now for nearly a decade, the imprint of the show on American culture is evident at weddings, family reunions, and neighborhood block parties when the “Soul Train Line” forms as a reminder of one of the most memorable segments, along with the Black History Scramble Board, from the television show.
Don Cornelius should be remembered as an entrepreneur, a shrewd businessman, a leader in the Black community, and a change agent in his own right. He championed the Black experience for all America to see and he enriched the culture every Saturday when he put on full display the richness of the African-American experience. Soul Train foreshadowed an America that would eventually see Blacks in space, serving as CEOs of corporations, sitting in state capitols and the White House. On television we could not see the end of the Soul Train line, but in society we could clearly see where Don Cornelius was leading us.
There is a measure of sadness in the manner in which Don Cornelius left us, after bringing so much joy in households across the country. His death reminds us that our lives are time-stamped, and that even success, even the making of history, is no guarantee that our journey will not be burdened. Don Cornelius will not be forgotten; he left behind a treasure trove of memories, thankfully on videotape, and a generation that grew up as part of his extended Soul Train gang. It’s in that spirit that we bid him adieu and wish him love, peace and sooooooul!
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.