This year, on the first day of Black History Month, Americans, and the African-American community in particular, mourn the loss of Don Cornelius, a media and music pioneer who created Soul Train, the first national platform to expose our musical lifestyle and history.
Since 1971, Cornelius, whose name is synonymous with the show, conducted the express Train into our homes and hearts, shaping the scope and setting the trend of what was hip and cool.
Cornelius’ impact was monumental. He was our Dick Clark and Soul Train was our American Bandstand. We tuned in each week to see our favorite recording stars, the latest fashion, dance moves, and hairstyles.
WATCH ‘TODAY SHOW’ COVERAGE OF THE DEATH OF DON CORNELIUS:
As an indication of the influence and importance of Soul Train, every last one of our celebrity icons — from Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Richard Pryor, James Brown, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Public Enemy to Mary J. Blige, have appeared as a guest on the “hippest trip in America” at some point in their career.
More 40 years after its debut, there’s not a black wedding reception, family reunion, block party, or backyard barbeque that doesn’t feature the famous “Soul Train line” as a guest of honor.
I can speak on behalf of all my African-American peers and proudly say that we were raised on Soul Train. When Cornelius retired as host in 1993 and passed the microphone to other guest emcees like Shemar Moore, the show didn’t have the same flavor, style, and spirit that we had all fallen in love with over the years.
R&B crooner and former MCA and Jive recording artist, Marc Dorsey, who was a friend of Cornelius that appeared twice as a guest on the show says, “I would like to extend my prayers to the family of the untimely passing of a great leader in black culture; not only in music, but the black experience.”
In 1996, while I was a marketing director at MCA Records, we released a Soul Train CD box set compilation in recognition of the show’s 25th anniversary. In an attempt to heighten our promotional efforts and pay homage to Cornelius’ program, I orchestrated a contest, in which local and regional music video outlets around the country would re-create the Soul Train dance line on their respective shows. The producer who submitted the best reenactment; would win an all expense paid trip to Los Angeles to attend the annual “Soul Train Music Awards.”
When I presented my proposal to Cornelius’ production company for approval, I was expecting a return call from one of his associates. As I answered the phone, I knew instantly, who the distinct, deep voice on the other end of the line belonged to. Both nerves and excitement overwhelmed me as I thought, “wow! Don Cornelius calling me?!”
There was no small talk or chit-chat. He was focused and made his point immediately. I felt put on the spot, like a Soul Train scramble board contestant as he said, “I like your idea, brother. Let’s move forward with the promotion. Thanks for thinking of me, brother.”
I answered: “thanks, Mr. Cornelius. I spent every Saturday morning of my life watching your show, Mr. Cornelius. This is truly an honor, Mr. Cornelius.”
“You’re welcome, brother. And one last thing,” he finally joked, but still serious sounding and direct, “Don’t call me, Mr. Cornelius.”
On this sad day, we all offer a variation of the famous tagline that he would end every episode of Soul Train with, and which we came to love each and every week: to Don Cornelius: “love, rest in peace, and soul.”