Voices: Remembering Don Cornelius [Culturelicious]

When I looked at “Soul Train” host Don Cornelius back in the ‘70s, I didn’t see a pro-black entrepreneur who would become the “African American” Dick Clark.

I saw my dad. And his entire generation.
- Eric Deggans, Tampa Bay Times

“‘Soul Train’ created an outlet for black artists that never would have been if it hadn’t been for Cornelius,” said Kenny Gamble, who with his partner, Leon Huff, created the Philly soul sound and wrote the theme song for the show. “It was a tremendous export from America to the world, that showed African-American life and the joy of music and dance, and it brought people together.”

News of Mr. Cornelius’s death prompted an outpouring of tributes from civil rights leaders, musicians, entrepreneurs, academics and writers. “He was able to provide the country a window into black youth culture and black music,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “For young black teenagers like myself, it gave a sense of pride and a sense that the culture we loved could be shared and appreciated nationally.”
- James C. McKinley Jr. New York Times

The genius of it all was THIS was the first time that black people were proud to be called AFRICAN.

Psssh. Before 1971? — I mean on the real – ’til like the early 80s on some schoolyard insult game ish? If someone called you “african” that was the most insulting degrading lower than low, “I’m finna f**k you up” type of insult.

I know right? Why?

To control our mentality during the slave period we were taught we were the lowest of low.

To control us AFTER slavery during the Jim Crow era we were taught we were the lowest of low.

The first introduction to entertainment (of which we were allowed to participate) was minstrel entertainment an over exaggerated buffoon display of shame and ugliness that we STILL CARRY TO THIS DAY (minus the makeup) (hello hip-hop….but that is another piece altogether).

To say with a straight, dignified face that BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL was the RISKIEST radical life-changing move that america has seen. and amazingly enough for one hour for one saturday out 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.
- Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, from The Roots, on OKPlayer

The ’70s and ’80s were just the period during which the best soul music was created and the best records were done. Whenever I walk into a store or any kind of environment, these kinds of songs from that period still play and I wonder if it’s a “Soul Train” tape. Because during those two decades, we were on top of them all in one way or another, either presenting the guests or playing the records. We were just flat out in love with the music.
- Don Cornelius, as quoted in The Los Angeles Times

Cornelius’ reported suicide, alas, tells us something about the nature of American success. All the man’s equity, affluence and well-deserved public acclaim were not, in the end, of enough comfort to salve his private pain — a struggle with illness, a nasty divorce.

To the people who make up the community that Cornelius created, the man is nearly a saint. We can see it now: the double line of dancers forming just beyond the pearly gates, awaiting the ingress of soul’s earthly impresario.
- Dan Charnas, NPR

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cocojams-Jambalayah/100000590546331 Cocojams Jambalayah

    Don Cornelius has made a positive difference in the world. Not many people have had such a tremendous impact on culture, self esteem, and group esteem as Don Cornelius had. 

    One of the much loved aspects of his legacy is the Soul Train Line. I love watching videos of those clips, particularly from the 1970s. And I got to wondering why Don Cornelius decided on that particular formation to showcase that television show’s dancers. It occurred to me that those two lines facing each other were like those that girls (in particular) used to form for certain game songs.  For those who might be interested, I wrote a two part series on the Soul Train Line Formation. In Part 1 of that series I very briefly quoted two commentaters from this thread, and gave this link. That first post is at   http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2012/02/roots-of-soul-train-line-formation.html 

    RIP Don Cornelius! Peace, Love, and SOOOUL! 

  • Anonymous

    Soul Train was ten times better than American Bandstand! With better music, better dancing and way better hair styles!  It was as close to a black church as this white girl could get growing up in those days–and even better cuz it didn’t try to make me believe in nothing except for the talent of the artists showcased. Nothing on tv has come close to it since. Revolutionary? Yes. Captivating? Absolutely.  And fun as hell to watch too! I always loved the scramble board myself.  MTV wishes it could do something half as interesting.

    RIP, indeed. Don Cornelius earned his place in the history of television as well as the history of music–not black  television, not black music–American. Period.

  • Anonymous

     I remember watching an episode of Soul Train as a 5-year old little black girl in Inkster, Mi, sitting in front of a T.V.; getting my hair done by my mother and struggling to open a can of Hair-Rep grease.  (Being a child at the time,I didn’t know that it was child-proofed).  I practically grew up on it and I’ve always loved the theme song  by MFSB (the Gamble & Huff studio house band  that practically forged the Philadelphia Sound into existence). I’ll always remember that cry of ‘The Sooooooooooul Train!” that opened up the show, as well as that animated train chugging its little heart out on the tracks to the rhythm of the theme song (my aunt had a record album of MFSB songs with the theme on it—I taped it off the record to a cassette once).  It’s a darn shame he didn’t see any other way out of his personal problems–at least he had the satisfaction of knowing that he’d left behind an influential legacy that made an indelible and lasting mark on American popular culture.

    Yeah, I hate it when black folks’ accomplishments are minimized–just take a look at the IMDB message board for RED TAILS, and you have some folks on there trying to claim that the Tuskeegee Airmen weren’t all that, plus one even claiming that anything black folks invented was a myth–of course that opinion was challenged, but apparently some people still have issues with giving black people due credit for anything. The hell with them though—at least RED TAILS is blowing up at the box office!

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad you included the Deggans quote in this piece. I read the NYT’s Don Cornelius obituary yesterday, and one of the commenters remarked that Soul Train was basically the “black version” of American Bandstand. While Cornelius may have been inspired by American Bandstand, Soul Train was a visionary program that stands on its own (and anyone who has ever been in a ‘Soul Train Line’ at a party knows that the program’s influence transcended television). I’m so tired of people who try to minimize the accomplishments of black people.

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad you included the Deggans quote in this piece. I read the NYT’s Don Cornelius obituary yesterday, and one of the commenters remarked that Soul Train was basically the “black version” of American Bandstand. While Cornelius may have been inspired by American Bandstand, Soul Train was a visionary program that stands on its own (and anyone who has ever been in a ‘Soul Train Line’ at a party knows that the program’s influence transcended television). I’m so tired of people who try to minimize the accomplishments of black people.

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad you included the Deggans quote in this piece. I read the NYT’s Don Cornelius obituary yesterday, and one of the commenters remarked that Soul Train was basically the “black version” of American Bandstand. While Cornelius may have been inspired by American Bandstand, Soul Train was a visionary program that stands on its own (and anyone who has ever been in a ‘Soul Train Line’ at a party knows that the program’s influence transcended television). I’m so tired of people who try to minimize the accomplishments of black people.