A genuine American icon has left the planet. (NYT obit here.)
People born during or after the ’80s might know Don Cornelius mostly from name-checks in interviews, songs and clips on YouTube. And there is nothing wrong with that. But for us older folks, we knew the man. Some of us grew up with him.
If a picture can sometimes speak more eloquently than words, a video can function as a truth bomb that tells you all you need to know. Check it out:
I only have a handful of comments. The Hair. The Glasses. The Shirt. The Pants (did you see those Liberty Bell Bottoms flowing when he moved up that line?). And The VOICE.
Simply put, Don Cornelius was a man who managed to do precisely what he was put on this earth to do. And better, he epitomizes the American Dream (the actual one, not the boilerplate that rolls so odiously off politicians’ tongues). If you read about his life, and you should, you’ll learn (as I did) Soul Train was entirely conceived and created by Cornelius, via a pilot that cost $400 of his own dough. Four hundred bucks to build an Empire. What a bargain. For him; for all of us.
From the NYT obit: “ ‘Soul Train’ was developed as a radio show on television,” Mr. Cornelius told The New York Times in 1995. “It was the radio show that I always wanted and never had. I selected the music, and still do, by simply seeing what had chart success.”
He said the show was originally patterned on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” but with a focus on black music, fashion and dance. “There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity,” he told The Associated Press in 2006. “I’m trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks, which they knew was for them.”
Or, more to the point, that was not America. Don Cornelius helped bring the music to the masses. Art that transcends trends and time will eventually, inevitably find its way forward. But sometimes tomorrow, or ten years from now, is not soon enough. In this regard, Cornelius helped American music and culture advance and evolve. If this meant we had to suffer through opportunistic but plasticized parodies like K.C. and the Sunshine Band, it also meant our country got early reads on everything from the latest James Brown or Marvin Gaye, to a necessary platform for never-ready-for-Prime-Time (in Honky America) rap music. Cornelius cultivated, and maintained, a street cred and kept it real for several decades. Not many artists are capable of that; and here was Soul Train, dedicated purely to the proposition of exposing worthwhile artists to a broad audience. That’s it.
Dig this history lesson:
Here is what I had to say on the occasion of David Carradine’s death, wherein I fondly recalled how those Saturday afternoons in the late ’70s and early ’80s provided entertainment and insight (full tribute here):
I can’t say I’ve watched a single episode of Kung Fu since the early ’80s when it was syndicated on Saturday afternoons, just after Soul Train and just before Soccer Made in Germany. This was sacred stuff for me and my Pops: we hunkered down and got it on. And just thinking back, for the first time it occurs to me, thank God America was so much more of a melting pot in those days. Soul Train, Soccer Made in Germany and Kung Fu? That’s some serious, if appropriated, cultural import right there. And the point is, it wasn’t self-conscious or anything we were even cognizant of; it just was. I say this with a nostalgic twinkle in my eye, considering my understanding (and appreciation) of these shows might have been a tad different if, for instance, I had any clue what those cool sing-song chants the large crowds were singing (in German) actually meant, or the act that most of these hip dance moves were approximating. But even then, I knew it was a stretch, at best, and awkward, at worst, that in the Kung Fu show, Carradine was (of course) supposed to be half-Chinese, leading to many of the bigoted taunts his character suffered. It certainly strained credulity on one hand, but also tended to make the portrayal that much more human. Credit Carradine for managing to pull that off. Mostly, this was righteous Shaolin shit, and it was of its time (’70s) and I was its ideal target audience: a young Catholic who heard priests talk the talk each Sunday but appreciated seeing the message carried out, albeit funneled through a pseudo-mystic far-East-via-Hollywood filter.
Soul Train, Kung Fu and Soccer Made in Germany: a righteous trifecta that imparted some necessary non-WASP perspective. Who knows how much of that soaked through and influenced my artistic and sociopolitical sensibilities (I reckon that one answers itself), but this is one of the (many) reasons I love/d the ’70s and endorse, without irony, an era when freak flags were flown high and a sense of inclusion combined with the atrocious wardrobes, drugs, music and malaise to contribute to a vibe that has never been duplicated. Look at the most popular shows on TV right now and tell me if we are wiser, hipper or happier today.
Don Cornelius will be remembered –and should hereafter be celebrated– for giving a voice to Black America. He should also be acknowledged –and praised– for making White America less white. Trust me, this was a very necessary and very good thing. It still is.
And above all, as always: Love, Peace and Soul.
The world just lost some. And we need it more than we ever have.