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Don Cornelius Dead, Soul Train's Impact Lives On

Don Cornelius Dead, Soul Train's Impact Lives On

Don Cornelius, creator and first host of Soul Train, the iconic television dance show was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound early this morning in his Encino, California home.

The short, but obviously shocked response from ?uestlove, drummer of The Roots, is a good indicator of the weight of such a tragic end. The prolific musician and producer used both his musical chops and his encyclopedic knowledge of Soul Train to create the musical score for the 2010 VH1 documentary commemorating the 40th anniversary of the show. (?uestlove shares his further thoughts, and the fact that he carries around 400+ vintage episodes of Soul Train on him at all times, at Okayplayer.)

In 1970, Don Cornelius created the teen dance show in Chicago as a counter to Dick Clark's much more vanilla American Bandstand and out of the realization that there were very few positive images of African-Americans being broadcast in media at the time. What began as a show airing in a single city grew to become a cultural phenomenon bringing Black music into America's living rooms and reigning as one of the longest running syndicated programs ever.

While I don't exactly remember which local station carried Soul Train growing up, it's impossible to forget the animated opening of the show featuring a funky train chugging along accompanied by a lung-stretching call of "SOOOOOOOOOOUL TRAIN!" that extended those two syllables into ten seconds of heralding musical bliss. Cornelius's focus on R&B, soul, and funk from primarily African-American artists (primarily, because believe it or not, Elton John and David Bowie both made appearances) and on young African-Americans as an audience, while paralleling the continued civil rights efforts of the 1970s, also signaled a much more diverse world of music and pop culture.

Musically, we take for granted the prevalence and influence of James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and other icons of soul. When Soul Train started, Black music was primarily relegated to radio - that is, if a particular market had a sizeable African-American community. Soul Train's syndication push beyond the nation's largest media markets meant that even cities and towns with tiny African-American populations got a taste of some of the most exciting and relevant performers in all of music, and who happened to be Black.

It wouldn't be Soul Train without amazing dancers busting out the funkiest of moves. Young starry-eyed attention seekers from far and wide sought to christen the Soul Train studio with their own signature dance. Don Cornelius made it possible to watch and emulate new dance moves (like the Robot or the Roger Rabbit) in the comfort of our own homes. Jamming out at parties would never be the same without the innovation of Don Campbell and his Campbell Lockers (including Fred "Rerun" Berry) and the collective fun of the Soul Train dance line.

 

Don Cornelius was already blessed with pipes that emitted a smooth, deep baritone, but then he augmented his cool by being one dapper dude. Even with garishly colored ties, butterfly collars, or an overload of polyester, the hip host pulled together outfits with a sharpness that rivaled Walt "Clyde" Frazier's flamboyant 1970s Knick swag. If you shudder at pictures of the Soul Train papa, just mentally photoshop Andre 3000 into the picture and you'll understand how killer his threads were.

It wasn't only Cornelius who dressed to impress, though. Everyone from performing artists and dancing teens tried to get wild out style-wise on the telly. There's no doubt red pleather zipper jackets in the '80s and the printed rayon button-ups of the early '90s made an appearance on Soul Train before anyone went looking for them at the mall.

Though Don Cornelius dragged his feet on letting hip-hop into the mix, he still managed to keep Soul Train the hippest trip on television for quite a while and the program undoubtedly left a lasting impact on American culture. Not wanting to be the old dude at the club, he gracefully bowed out of hosting duties in 1993. Without him, the show went on for another 13 years but it never seemed quite as cool. It's probably just as well since by then, MTV, radio, and the rest of the nation had latched on to west coast G-Funk and east coast mic thuggery for their music fix.

Over the past two decades, Don Cornelius would occasionally pop up at Soul Train-branded events and specials (such as the Soul Train Music Awards), but declining health in the last five years kept the pioneer out of the limelight. Sadly, Cornelius's later years were also marked by a second marriage that ultimately ended in a 2009 divorce following domestic violence charges against him.

It can be hard to reconcile the image of Don Cornelius as a guy who sought to make the world a better place while being nearly unflappably cool with someone who would exhibit violence against anyone, much less his own wife, and take his own life.

With the end of every episode of Soul Train that Cornelius hosted, he wished those present and his viewers, love, peace, and soul. It was a sincere, weekly benediction that we can only hope Cornelius understood was bigger than one man and that changed the face of entertainment for the better.

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