The hippest cat in America

You know, even after four days of hearing about this obviously tragic loss of legendary Soul Train host Don Cornelius, I still am thinking of how shocking it was the day I first heard it. Reading on his back story prior to his death, I knew he was suffering but I never knew it was to this degree.

As we all know, Donald Cortez Cornelius, who rose to fame as the creator and host of the self-described “hippest trip in America (and later the world)”, Soul Train, was found dead in his Sherman Oaks, Calif., home at the age of 75 from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. What made this death so odd for me wasn’t really that Don seemed to be more cheerful and smooth during his tenure on the show, but that his problems had gotten so bad that he felt he had no choice but to pull the trigger and what’s worse is that he alerted his son about it and his son was helpless to do anything about it.

The more I think about it, most celebrities seem as if they’re real miserable. Despite rising to fame, it doesn’t really take away from their problems. Some try anything to numb the pain of the problems that they suffered from. I don’t know if Don himself did any self-medication. It’s clear Don kept his life very private and for that I can respect that because it’s hard to live under the public eye under intense scrutiny.

It can be hard for anybody be it a singer or a game show host.

But I would focus on the joy of what he brought to the world. For me, my childhood was not complete if I woke up and I didn’t hear the introduction of the show (with the New Jack Swing-styled version of the 1973-75 theme, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”), the smooth announcer (Sid McCoy, who also famously shouted the soooooooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuullll TRAIN!) and, of course, without seeing this smooth gentleman after being announced (“and now your host Don Cornelius”) and then announcing that the show was gonna “hit you with grooves that will make you wanna move” and for at least four years of my early childhood, I had the pleasure of seeing Don do what he did best until he gave in to have other hosts on his show once he got tired of hosting the show daily.

Every Saturday morning from 1987 until 2006 was full of Soul Train memories. I’m kinda upset I didn’t see the show during its real heyday, which occurred between 1971 (its debut year) and 1984 (my birth year). What’s amazing is the show covered all bases, from the Motown/Philly/Stax soul of the early ’70s, to the proto-disco and funk of the mid ’70s, through disco, funk and boogie in the late ’70s and early ’80s, through the early emergence of new jack swing, hip-hop and adult contemporary R&B in the mid-to-late ’80s, and finally hip-hop soul, gangsta rap and modern R&B from the ’90s onwards.

You could tell in most of the episodes featuring Don that there was a lot of joy in the audience as they carried on shaking their groove thangs. Unfortunately for me, I had to be witness to the “downfall” of dance culture as the ’90s approached but I was thankful to catch the tail-end of Don Cornelius’ historic run and was, like others, sad to see him go after he said “and you can bet your last money it’s all gonna be a stone gas honey” for the last time in 1993.

My best memory of seeing Soul Train was seeing Don and Stevie Wonder together in 1991. Stevie had always been a presence on the show dating back to the ’70s and for some reason this episode among all others touched me.

In passing, I couldn’t imagine how black media would’ve been had Don not created Soul Train. He took on a bargain and it paid off in a big way. Not only that but he introduced black commercials (can’t imagine not seeing Afro Sheen and Dark ‘n’ Lovely without Don’s presence) and also inadvertently contributed to the evolution of black music (his and Dick Griffey’s original Soul Train Records later gave way to SOLAR Records). Not only that but he had to have had the greatest theme songs of any show of all time. Every time I hear a ST theme, especially the early ones, I get a smile on my face. Not only was the show’s evolution phenomenal but so was the way they in fact educated folks also. The Soul Train Scramble Board is a classic and also what was so great was that he allowed the dancers airtime so we saw them show their moves during the playing of some of the best R&B, soul, funk and disco music, but also showed them during the Soul Train line. The line created some stars in the process:

Jody Watley

Jeffrey Daniel

Jermaine Stewart

Rosie Perez

And also was the place where many young R&B artists made their debuts. Who in the ’70s couldn’t forget Al Green’s national TV debut when he emerged with a pimp hat, a pink tank top, and hot pants? Of course he stepped his game up about a year later and had become the king of early ’70s R&B. Ike & Tina’s 1972 show set the stage on fire as did appearances by Chuck Berry and Little Richard least proving that the show was definitely there to stay. Then the dramatic return of Marvin Gaye was witnessed in 1974 and resulted in three eventful appearances by the Motown prince. Luther Vandross’ legend grew after he appeared on the show in 1982. Most other artists also benefited from being on Soul Train as it meant a spike in their album and single sales. Once the show’s distribution started to pick up, almost everybody could see Soul Train and it replaced American Bandstand as “the show to see”.

Then of course later on, building on an empire, Don created two awards shows – The Soul Train Awards in 1987 and the Lady of Soul Awards about eight years later.

I couldn’t imagine a BET or MTV without Soul Train. I also couldn’t imagine Oprah Winfrey with her own show without Soul Train. As it’s been brought up in his obituaries, Don not only created and produced Soul Train but he owned it too, making him the first black man to own his own show. Something Oprah obviously picked up after her talk show took national syndication in 1986. A lot of things Don did was definitely important in the rise of black culture and American pop culture in general.

For all of this and more, I can’t do nothing but thank Don Cornelius for everything and may his soul finally rest in eternal peace.

And as he would say, “as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!”

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