What must it have been like to be under the sway of Don Cornelius back when he was a salesman? Damn hard to resist, most likely. Cornelius was a salesman before he was a DJ, a DJ before he was a TV host, a TV host before he was a mogul—a series of roles that require incredible patience and a knack for holding your cards close. Cornelius, with his miles-deep megawatt voice, wild sartorial tastes, and definitively unhurried manner, could have been a card sharp in a different era. Instead, he became the greatest Saturday-morning television host in American history and one of black music’s ambassadors to the world.
Cornelius, who was found this morning dead of an apparent suicide at age 75, was the creator, producer, and star of Soul Train, though he’d likely have disavowed the last honor—the show’s stars were the kids who danced every week. But his presence lent the show a weight unlike that of any other show of its kind. On American Bandstand, the model of the teen-dance show, Dick Clark played the eternal teenager, a slightly older ideal of a cool Philadelphia 16-year-old with some moves. First in Chicago, then L.A. once things got rolling for real, Cornelius was maybe Zeus’s idea of a teenager, but nobody else’s. He never raised his voice, you knew, because he never had to. Yet that gravitas worked in Soul Train‘s favor: This stuff was OK for your kids to like because a Very Responsible Adult was overseeing things—a super-fly bedrock for a troubled time.
Cornelius had married, started a family, been in the Marines, and sold insurance before enrolling in broadcasting school at age 30. He did radio and UHF-TV announcing sports and music before Soul Train went on-air in August 1970. The first guest star was fellow Chicagoan Jerry Butler. Fourteen months later, on October 2, 1971, Soul Train debuted in national syndication, its ratings trouncing American Bandstand in many cities when the two were placed head to head. (Clark came back in 1973 with Soul Unlimited, which flopped.) Cornelius hosted Soul Train for 23 years, finally stepping off-camera (but not from behind the scenes) in 1993 and ending new episodes in 2006.
Nearly every major name in R&B appeared on the show during the ’70s and ’80s: James Brown (here’s 44 minutes from 1974), Al Green (1974, his arm in a sling, doing wild versions of “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” and “Sweet Sixteen/Jesus Is Waiting”), Stevie Wonder (1972, a Q&A with the kids followed by “Superstition”), Marvin Gaye (1977, “Got to Give It Up”), too many more to count. And although it must have been excruciating to watch Cornelius look askance on hip-hop in real time—that stern-parent thing of his came into effect when Kurtis Blow appeared on the show in 1980 and caught some static from the host—seeing the clips now makes riveting viewing for anyone fascinated by the generation gap the music caused.
There’s a lot to say about Cornelius—a lot—and it’s going to be said many times, many ways over the next little while. But here are two big things to look at or listen to or read. One is the first hour of VH1’s The Hippest Trip in America, a great documentary about the show’s history. The other is an NPR interview by Michael Martin with former Soul Train dancer and R&B singer Jody Watley and J. Kevin Swain, Hippest Trip‘s director. Cornelius left us one of the information age’s great unending gifts. Here’s wishing him everlasting peace, love, and soul.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 1, 2012