Swing Low, Sweet Soul Train: Don Cornelius (1936 – 2012)
It was 1992. Don Cornelius, the host and visionary of Soul Train, the long running syndicated dance show in television history (36 funky seasons), was walking up the stairs onto the stage to greet his guest artist of the day: Stevie Wonder. For those of us who watched Soul Train on the regular, Cornelius was a stoic force, engaging and interviewing the show’s performers with stark seriousness, and sometimes, depending on the guest, downright curtness. The latter was visible more often than not by this time, as he witnessed the familiar sounds of powerful singers and exploding musicians give way to young rappers and flashy DJs. So, Stevie’s presence was more than welcome for the 56 year old host. He strolled up to Wonder as he sat at his keyboard, who was flashing his signature smile. Cornelius put his hand on Stevie’s shoulder, bent down and kissed him on the forehead, prompting Stevie’s already blinding grin to widen more so. Out of the tens of thousands of episodes of Soul Train up to that point, and the dozens after that, before his retirement the following year, that moment summed up every aspect of Cornelius’ personality: strong willed, uncompromising, under control and genuinely sincere.
On February 1, 2012, we lost our conductor, our engineer. Right now, the world scrambles to find the true circumstances of Don Cornelius’ apparent suicide at age 75, but unlike the Soul Train Scramble Board, the answer is not so obvious. But the Well-Dressed Headphone Addict will choose not to speculate why it happened, but we will choose to expound on the true importance:
Don Cornelius was a shepherd for Black American culture; a true leader of the highest order, the same way that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were leaders. Why, because he provoked change, took ownership and refused to settle, all while celebrating the celestial glory of his culture and heritage. He found a way to showcase the talents and gifts of his people to earn a substantial profit without exploiting or demeaning them; a razor thin line that few – maybe no one – can walk. Cornelius was the embodiment of what all Black leaders have stressed for decades: ownership of property. Don owned, produced, hosted and financed the intellectual property of Soul Train, turning it into physical property for himself, and historical property for millions of viewers and fans. He gave birth to once-in-a-lifetime moments in music history – Aretha and Smokey singing “Ooo Baby Baby,” Michael Jackson doing the Robot during “Dancing Machine,” Al Green tearing down the house with “Here I Am” with a broken arm, and the gift that keeps on giving…the Soul Train line.
Don understood what it meant to maintain ownership of his product, and opted not to relinquish his control for the benefit of his own personal fiscal ascension, at the expense of downgrading the stature and perception of Black Americans, unlike others who shall remain nameless at this time. And when he was challenged, he met his competitors head on with unwavering conviction. When American Bandstand impresario Dick Clark launched Soul Unlimited, Cornelius said, “I’ll be DAMNED if I’m going to let Clark take this.” Clark relented. Don knew the history of white America’s exploitation of black culture. There was nothing Little Richard could do when Pat Boone covered “Tutti Fruitti;” there was nothing Big Mama Thorton could do when Elvis Presley covered “Hound Dog;” Don succeeded where so many great men and women of color fell short, through no fault of their own.
Soul Train sprouted a great many offspring: BET Video Soul, 106 & Park, Yo! MTV Raps, to name a few. Each program follows the shows template of exposing the best and most innovative of Black American music, fashion and dance. Through all the fads, trends, changes, births and deaths, Don Cornelius was the one constant image. He was a shepherd, a maverick, an owner, a warrior, a quietly dynamic force of nature that left a permanent impression on our lives. The Soul Train line in the great beyond can now official commence now that its architect has arrived, and with past guests like Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Luther Vandross, Minnie Riperton all making their way down that line, you can beat your last money, Heaven’s gonna be a stone gas, honey.