For several years of my life, I shared a Saturday 12:00 PM EST appointment with millions of people I never met. At that time, we were basically required to tune our televisions to whatever channel was WGN to watch Soul Train.
The “hippest trip in America” provoked its viewers to stay put for an hour, intently watching the most interesting, entertaining dancer antics and guest performances of the weekend. Each week Soul Train televised the best fashion, music, and representation of Black entertainment. The antenna of the iconic broadcast was its towering host and creator, the late Don Cornelius.
Born Donald Cortez Cornelius in Chicago, IL on September 27, 1975, the former Marine and radio news reporter brought Soul Train to television in August of 1970. The show grew from its local Chicago origins into a national weekend house party that invited anyone with a television and an hour to spare. Families gathered together in front of their TVs, having their cake and eating it too. As Train’s host, Cornelius led these festivities with a cool not since duplicated.
Sadly, Cornelius passed away February 1, 2012. He didn’t take his acclaimed legacy or the mark he left on entertainment history with him. What he left for us can’t be written on a decorated sheet cake big enough to equal the number of lives he touched, including my own.
Growing up seeing Cornelius on television, he always struck me as an intimidating figure. He was this tall, deep-voiced master of ceremony who controlled the show on and off camera. Before artists performed on Soul Train’s stage Cornelius would introduce them with unmatched bravado. Just having him mention your name was an immediate career boost. He’d continue to elevate each artist by conducting post-performance interviews.
Behind his wire-rimmed glasses were the eyes of person who studied behavior. Cornelius knew the artists who spoke with him during those up-close conversations. Standing just inches in front of them and several more above them, Cornelius saw their potential and recognized their flaws. Invitations to perform on Soul Train was as much an evaluation as it was an opportunity. Not everyone passed. Those who did went on to flourish, some in ways wilder than their greatest expectations. Cornelius’ seal of approval spoke volumes, just ask Bowlegged Lou of legendary group Full Force.
The multi-platinum-selling singer, songwriter and producer proudly admits the two men were close friends for more than twenty-five years. “I loved him,” Lou says. Cornelius made his last television appearance on the TV One documentary series UNSUNG, specifically the episode dedicated to the award-winning careers of Full Force.
“He made that appearance just for me and Full Force after I spoke to him by phone,” Lou says. “He was such a great and humble man who I feel was never given enough accolades and just due when he was alive, for him to hear them and to smell those roses.”
For several years of my life I watched Don Cornelius elevate the careers of artists before and after speaking with them. They’d appear on Soul Train because of their music and would gain more or even lose some notoriety because of their personalities. What matters most is they were given an opportunity by Cornelius, an icon of a person who was in tune with the best fashion, music, and representation of Black entertainment.