I’d tell you exactly where I was when I learned of Don Cornelius’ death … but in the name of confidentiality, I won’t. However, I’ll tell you exactly what went through my mind as I looked up at the television, tuned to CNN, and saw the text underneath the video of Don Cornelius, in a spiffy black pinstriped suit.
As a fan of R&B, Motown, soul and hip-hop music, I was shocked to learn of Cornelius’ death as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I was saddened. A person who bridged a racial and societal gap in pop culture and who revolutionized music was gone. His legacy will live on in so many episodes of “Soul Train,” a show that needs no words to explain its premise.
If you have Centric TV on your cable, I highly suggest you tune in to old episodes of “Soul Train.” Furthermore, I highly suggest you watch VH1’s documentary on “Soul Train.”
There were two shows I HAD to watch when I was a little kid: “The Muppet Show” and “Soul Train.” Both enriched my desire for sensory stimulation with bright colors, music, audience engagement and interaction. While the Muppets brought alive my love for comedy and satire, “Soul Train” helped create and refine my taste in music.
My parents faithfully watched it, and sang along and danced to the hits that played over our television. My dad has a love for music, and he forged a lot of connections and friendships while working in Prince Georges County in the late 1970s and early 1980s through not only his outgoing, approachable demeanor but also through his appreciation of music and sports.
I grew up in a predominantly white, upper middle-class neighborhood in suburban Washington D.C., where my classmates’ musical tastes drifted more towards Jane’s Addiction, Metallica and Nirvana.
Not my cup of tea, unless it came with two Tylenol and a cold compress.
While my classmates were buying CDs of Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, I was picking up cassette singles by Karyn White, Mint Condition and Johnny Gill. Instead of WHFS, the Baltimore-Washington alternative station that was in its heyday in the 1990s, the preset dial on the radio of my first car was tuned to WPGC, the Prince Georges County-based R&B station that played everything from Rare Essence to Toni Braxton.
(WPGC newsman David Haines had a saying: “Burnt toast and coffee time.” That was my morning signal to get the hell out of the house and head to school.)
My second preset: Howard University’s WHUR. I still recall my amazement when a high school boyfriend of mine had it pre-set on the dial of his car, too. D.C., by the way, had a killer music scene 20 years ago.
But I’m going off on a tangent. Back to “Soul Train.” Which, yes, I watched and danced around in my living room to, during high school and college.
A Chicago-based show originally broadcast on a small handful of stations, it went into syndication as a result of cooperation with Johnson Products, the creators of Afro-Sheen – a coalition of two African-American entities. “Soul Train” was a conduit brought African-American music into our living rooms and into the mainstream. It showcased not only music but fashion, youth, creativity and a positive environment that encouraged appreciation of all of these things.
When the show exceeded critical mainstream mass, “Soul Train” incorporated traditional white perfomers – Elton John, David Bowie, Teena Marie (who, as ESPN’s Jemele Hill once stated, was the first white girl with soul.) … Bowie’s performance of “Fame” – clearly lip-dubbed – is a thing of strange beauty.
“Soul Train” broke racial barriers and established cultural trends. It promoted the African-American community during a time of racial strife in the United States … and continued to keep its hold on America as our society grew more progressive.
Don Cornelius’ idea not only promoted music – it revolutionized pop culture and created societal connections. Sadly, his death had to remind us of all of this.