SOUL CONDUCTOR: Don Cornelius, dead at 75, transformed American culture with 'Soul Train.'
“Peace, Love, and Soul.”
That’s how he used to bid us adieu at the close of every show, that bespectacled man with the velvety voice and cool disposition. The apparent suicide death of Soul Train creator and host Don Cornelius caught us all off guard, while immediately transporting us back to those more soulful days of yesteryear — pre-MTV days, when the music wasn’t just an afterthought but the main event.
We tuned into Soul Train each week to see our favorite soul and R&B stars, sometimes for the very first time. (The four sisters of Sister Sledge looked as cute as they sounded, and imagine my shock as a 6-year-old to discover that Elton John was white!) But we mostly showed up for the array of colorful dancers — to check out their moves, to see what they were wearing, and to imagine ourselves right there with them. We knew that if we didn’t see any other black images on TV all week, we could at least see ourselves on Soul Train every weekend. Don Cornelius, the radio-deejay-turned-television-impresario, gave that to us — a refuge for African American pride and empowerment disguised as a TV dance show.
In honor of Mr. Cornelius, we asked our UrbanFaith columnists and regular contributors to share their favorite memories of Soul Train. Check out their reflections below the video, and then share yours in the comments section. — Edward Gilbreath, editor
MEMORIES OF ‘SOUL TRAIN’
It was soon proven otherwise, but Don Cornelius through Soul Train, told me I was a good dancer. Every Saturday morning after cartoons went off, feeling like a grownup, I’d tune in to move to the music any kind of way just like the Soul Train dancers. Going down the Soul Train line, some of them looked so crazy. But at home, bounding through an imaginary line of people, so did I. Don Cornelius made it cool to love music enough to dance no matter what. By the time I came along, his ’fro wasn’t as big, but the cool he carried was bigger than life. And I felt just as hip rhythmlessly dancing with my own portion of soul. — DeVona Alleyne, staff editor and contributing writer
I am very saddened by the death of Don Cornelius, a black legend! Back in the ’70s and ’80s before the dominance MTV or BET, there were very few outlets to see my favorite R&B acts like Michael Jackson, New Edition, or DeBarge perform on television. Since my parents were pretty conservative at the time, I wasn’t allowed to watch Soul Train but as a lifelong R&B and pop culture aficionado, I found ways to watch this great show without “technically” breaking the rules. I wasn’t allowed to go inside of childhood friends’ homes either unless my parents knew their parents. I remember I had one friend who allowed me to literally sit on the pavement outside of her apartment. We would speak to each other through the open window, and if she happened to have Soul Train on the television behind her, who was I to say what she could watch inside her home? I remember that one light-skinned woman with extra long black hair that whipped around her body (pre-Willow Smith) as she danced on what seemed like nearly every episode for years! I couldn’t wait until I got a perm so I could whip my hair around like that! A towel wrapped around my head sufficed until I finally got a perm. I remember all of the fresh dance moves that would not be duplicated on American Bandstand, even though I was a fan of that show too. Simply put, there was nothing else like that show at that time, an oasis of black grooves and moves in a desert of white programming. RIP Don Cornelius … —Jacqueline J. Holness, contributing writer
I’ll never forget Soul Train, from the chugging train at the intro to the various incarnations of the Soul Train dancers. Don Cornelius made this show an institution that definitely shaped the culture and gave us memorable performances on the stage and dance floor. — Dr. Vincent Bacote, contributing editor
Being in a military family, every so often we’d get stuck in the boonies with no television we could relate to. When my dad got orders to a big urban city, we kids were ecstatic. It was my job to watch my younger siblings on Saturdays while my parents worked, and at the time when I announced SOUUULLL TRAINNNN is on, my brothers and sisters would run from outside like they’d lost their minds. Oh, and then the party was on. We bumped, spanked, wormed, or whatever the latest dance craze was, along with the hippest kids in America. If there had been just two or three more of us, we could have formed a Soul Train line right there in the living room. It grieves me to know that Don Cornelius couldn’t find another way; which serves to remind us that we must get the word out about the only One who can bring us out of our troubles, the only One Who can bring us out of the lies that Satan tells us when we see no way out. There is a world of hurting people who don’t really know Him. Someone needs to tell them. We need to tell them. — Wanda Thomas Littles, contributing writer
Despite being a child of the late 70s and 80s, I didn’t have many actual experiences of watching Soul Train. Most of my memories regarding Soul Train were at various school dances and wedding receptions growing up, when folks would start up “the soul train line” and line up to cut a step. Most of the influence of Soul Train I witnessed were in derivative television shows (like Solid Gold), subtle homages (like when Theo and Cockroach fought over who was getting into Dance Mania) or actual parodies (like In Living Color‘s “Old Train” sketch). Still, I got a little misty when I got the news of Don Cornelius’ passing. No one will ever really replace him and what he meant to the black community. — Jelani Greenidge, columnist
As a girl growing up in small-town New Jersey in the 1970s, my primary exposure to black culture was Soul Train, and oh how I loved Soul Train! It was sandwiched between Saturday-morning cartoons and Saturday-afternoon roller derby on our television station. It never occurred to me that by introducing me to some of that era’s best music and most accomplished musicians, Don Cornelius was drawing me into a richly textured world that was not available to me then. I just knew I loved hearing his smoky voice and dancing to the sounds of soul. It saddens me deeply to learn that, like my son, this gifted man apparently died by suicide. I’m reminded that depression and despair don’t only visit the downtrodden, but even the most accomplished among us. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. — Christine A. Scheller, news & religion editor
I remember the Jackson 5 barely had enough room to dance on that stage. Fans could literally touch Marvin Gaye as he sang (and they did). You could feel the sweat dripping off of Barry White’s collar. This was Soul Train, Black America’s debutante ball. As a child it always felt RAW, like a grown-folks party that I could only watch from the stairs. It seemed fun enough, but in reality Soul Train was about rebellion: finding a way to create in the midst of the chaos of injustice. Black people were thrown into America’s basement, and Don Cornelius found a way to host a house party there every Saturday. It remains our challenge to find hope in the midst of great darkness; to dance when the forces of life threaten to steal all rhythm. And when I look at black music today — videos that portray the worst potentialities for our young men and women, dancing that has turned into “Sex Lite,” and artists that lack intimacy and authenticity — we need not ever forget Soul Train. The truth is, we need it back. Thank you Don Cornelius, from the little boy who watched your party from the stairs. — Julian DeShazier, contributing writer
Sitting in my parents’ living room, the back of my legs sticking to the plastic covering mom’s gold velvet couch, the funky music from the Jacksons, the Sylvers, and Joe Tex would blare from the black-and-white screen. I would fix my eyes on the Afro puffs, braids, wide brim hats and bellbottoms, imagining their psychedelic colors (mom and pops did eventually get a color TV) as they danced the funky chicken or the robot. As Jermaine sang, they would be “movin, she’s groovin. Dancin’ until the music stops now, yeah” down the Soul Train line. My older sister and brothers would bust all the moves, blocking my view of the TV along the way. But back then, when you were the baby brother, you just kept quiet and thankful that they let you hang out with them on Saturday morning. We were raised in a 12th floor apartment in The Tilden Houses (The Projects) in Brownsville, Brooklyn (NY). Watching Soul Train was more than a temporary escape from what was immediately outside the door, down an elevator that often stuck, or the stairwell that was owned by depressed brothers and sisters high on dope. Soul Train was a weekly, encouraging dose of positive black life, of people who were happy, talented, and free. And they looked like me. Mr. Cornelius, you did a great thing, sir. I pray that your soul has found the peace that you wished for us all. — Wil LaVeist, columnist
Michael Jackson is dead at 50. And that’s the end of it. On a day already made gloomy by the death of actress Farrah Fawcett, the King of Pop’s earthly reign came to an end.
And while I’m devastated for his family, mourning alongside countless fans around the world, my heart is mostly numbed by the news. After hours of watching media coverage of Michael’s death — the replaying of his music videos, the reaction interviews with celebrities, and the speculation over what will happen with his children and multi million-dollar estate — I am empty.
My sadness seems echoic, its source distant and remote. After all, the Michael Jackson I love died years ago, back in the ’90s before pajama-clad court appearances and fatherhood foibles turned him into a shadow of the king he once was. That Michael, the one from Off the Wall and Thriller who provided the soundtrack for the ’80s and inspired generations of men to float like feathers on their feet, died long ago. And though he’s periodically released new albums like HIStory or Invincible, hoping for a resurrection as if singing careers rise from the dead like Lazarus, I, like many of his fans, have been grieving the loss of the man he once was for decades.
And though the tones of grief are muted, my heart does break a bit in this moment for the marred legacy he leaves behind. Despite 40 years in the music business, over 75 million albums sold, and at least a half billion dollars earned, this is where his life ends — his reputation sullied by rumors of pedophilia and tarnished by eccentricity.
And while I hate to think of someone else’s life as an object lesson from which to learn, there is insight to be gained from this, our tragic loss. Michael was a consummate artist whose talent unequivocally transformed the music industry and opened the doors for black artists the world over. Inarguably, he was the best falsetto singer, the best dancer, the most generous celebrity, and the most creative entertainer of our time. And yet, I imagine the final song Michael’s life will sing is that the best is not enough. As brightly as his star shone in its height, his life ended in darkness. He was a modern Solomon sans wisdom, living life in excess unto death.
And maybe that explains the part of the King of Pop’s death that leaves me feeling hollow. Because I suspect in the deepest recesses of my heart, I’ve wanted to be Michael — well, maybe Michael without the glove, high-water pants, and plastic surgery. But to some degree his lifestyle exemplified the realization of some of my darkest desires.
I don’t mean to preach or dishonor Michael’s memory; but, let’s be real. When you consider the striving of our lives — our daily efforts to obtain more wealth, achieve greater success, improve our looks, or indulge our amusements — we are all, to varying degrees, becoming Michael Jackson. He was just better at it than we are. And throughout his life, and now more so in his death, we see where it leads. Want money? He had millions, and it isolated him. Want fame? Then trade in your privacy and give up ownership of your life. Want some ideal of beauty? Prepare to lose the brilliance with which God created you. Want to recapture former glory? Then live a stunted life, freakishly trying to replicate past success. For all his record breaking and making, Michael died a misunderstood, isolated, and financially insolvent artist.
This isn’t to say that his life was lived entirely in vain. Michael undoubtedly brought joy to millions through his music and humanitarian work, and he will leave a legacy of entertainment for many generations to come. But his permanent seeking, the self-acknowledged desires to be Peter Pan or become immortal, reveal that the things of this world never quite satisfied. I pray that his death becomes our own permission to stop trying so hard to be rich, famous or successful. Maybe now we can be content to live small lives, full to the brim with quiet purpose and satisfaction. (In this current economic environment, perhaps this will be an easier lesson for us to grasp.)
Of course we’ll miss Michael Jackson. We have for quite some time. But let’s make our tribute to him one that lasts. As he would have encouraged us to do, let’s look at the man in the mirror and live lives that are changed for the better by his story.
Let the wall-to-wall Michael Jackson coverage continue. As soon as I heard the tragic news about his passing yesterday afternoon, I knew it would mean nonstop fodder for all the CNNs and WGCIs and TMZ.coms (sorry, Farrah). This will be just like Princess Di’s death, I thought. And for a brief moment, it was just as shocking and unexpected. Then, after a few minutes, the horrible truth sank in: Michael Jackson had already died many years ago. Or at least that’s how it felt.
I posted that thought on my Facebook page and was surprised to see a steady stream of friends chime in with their agreement. “Around ’92, I’d say,” wrote my college friend Christopher. “You got that right, he’s been gone for a good long time,” added Karin, another former classmate. “Yes,” continued my work colleague Bruce, “it feels like we’ve already grieved his death … as sad as the news is.”
Maybe it was around 1992. That’s when the plastic surgeries and ever-whitening skin began to morph him into something more noticeably un-real. Or perhaps it was back in the early ’70s when, under the harsh rule of a demanding stage parent, he was not allowed to be a child, but then years later didn’t seem to understand how to be an adult, either.
By the late ’90s, the “ABC” – Off the Wall – Thriller versions of Michael Jackson were clearly notions of the distant past. I’ll never forget the day in 1997 when my wife came home from her job as a daycare worker and told me she had overheard a discussion among the 9 and 10-year-olds about Michael Jackson. After she offhandedly referred to him as an African American, the kids’ eyes widened in disbelief: “You mean Michael Jackson is black?”
Many of us used to think that Michael Jackson’s constantly changing looks were the result of his desire not to be black. The narrowed nose, straightened hair, and lightened skin all suggested a person who was attempting to escape his genetic fate. Yet, Jackson always spoke about being proud of his racial heritage. And his continued influence on the black urban and hip-hop artistic communities was immense, despite the fact that he appeared to be running away from his race.
Could it be, as Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page has suggested, that Jackson was not trying to escape his race so much as the image of his father that he saw in the mirror?
The truth is, despite all the controversy and dysfunction and tragedy in his life, Jackson was one of the great pop-culture reconcilers of our time. Like Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Nat King Cole, and Bill Cosby (as well as many others), Jackson broke down racial barriers by virtue of his talent and ability. I recall seeing white girls in 7th grade walking the halls with the Thriller album in their hands and thinking, Wow, white people like Michael Jackson too? Before that, in my limited 12 or 13 years of life, I had never seen white people so publicly claiming a black pop star as their own. But for the ’80s generation, Michael Jackson demolished the walls. Everyone, regardless of race, talked about the “Thriller” video or Jackson’s legendary performance on the Motown 25 TV special or whatever Jackson’s latest fashion statement happened to be.
Of course, we also talked about his problems and freakish behaviors later on. But my sense is that there always was more sympathy than condemnation for this man whom so many once wildly celebrated.
The outpouring of sadness and grief after the announcement of Jackson’s death yesterday proves that he still occupies a special place in our culture. Folks whom I would’ve never imagined cared about Jackson have chimed in on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs with notes of sympathy and fond memories of “the King of Pop.”
I was about 8 when Elvis died in 1977, and I remember not knowing much about who the guy was until that day. Suddenly, I received a whirlwind education on “the King” and his importance in music and pop culture. In death, Elvis Presley became real to me. I suspect it may be that way for many younger folks today as the tragic figure that Jackson became in his latter years takes a backseat to the musical legacy of one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever known.
No one knows what the condition of Jackson’s spiritual life was at the time of his death, whether or not he’d made peace with God. The assumption is he was still searching, still unfulfilled, still trying to recapture the success of his ’80s heyday while trying to escape the fallout of that same success.
Today, we fondly remember our favorite Michael Jackson songs: “I’ll Be There,” “Rock with You,” “Beat It,” “Black or White.” We celebrate the joy he brought us as an artist. But we also pray that, perhaps in his final moments of life, he was finally able to see things clearly.