Don Cornelius, creator of Soul Train, is gone. There are speculations concerning his death, and the way, in which he perished, however I am choosing not to dwell upon it. Instead, let all of us who remember the warmth of his smile, the size of his fro, and the soul of his show be the remaining factors that stay in our minds. Rather than think on his absence, let’s indulge in all the moments he was present. And before we wonder about his choices in the matters of death, let’s focus on his choices in life.
What Cornelius has created, continued to create, and left behind are far more influential than what he may have gone through in his last few years of life. And so, let’s dance our way through his past – as Don would see fit.
In the year of 1936, the legend was born. And Chicago, Illinois would be his birthplace. By the time Cornelius was in his 20’s, he worked as a sales person of insurance among other things, earning him the business skills that dub Soul Train as being one of the most successful television series it is today. But he was not yet at the point where hosting a show served to be at the top of his to-do-list. In 1966, Cornelius quit his job, and went on a limb by enrolling in broadcasting school. He then worked as a DJ and substitute on-air personality on WVON radio in his hometown of Chicago.
From radio, Cornelius took the next step and transitioned into TV, becoming an anchor and host of A Black’s View of the News on WCIU during the late 1960’s. And although he could have easily settled with his position there, he felt he could do more. So he pitched the idea of a music program aimed towards African American youth, and geared towards the latest in soul, R&B, and later rock, jazz and hip hop music.
Being a risky move for Cornelius and the television station, he offered to use his own money to start the show and prove its genius. And in 1970, Soul Train emerged, instantly becoming the popular must-see show that was always up-to-date, enticed with energy, and full of soul.
The show featured teenagers dancing throughout the space to both the DJ’s selections, and live performances by the best in music at the time. Teens would come from everywhere to try-out for the show, families would gather in their living rooms to watch the show, and celebrity artists would kill to be on the show. This was Soul Train.
Some may not see Soul Train as an accomplishment in musical history, and some may limit its reach to the black community. But all have to realize that it was much more than that. Cornelius did intend for the show to cater to black people, simply because we needed something positive to indulge in. Something that we could call our own. But music is way too powerful to keep within one race, and he realized that too. People of all racial backgrounds, musical talents, and physical skill (in dancing of course), were welcomed into Soul Train at one time or another; and that is why the show and its creator are so amazing.
We will miss you, Mr. Soul.