Rock Flashback: Don Cornelius Is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself

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The Man Himself, 2005 (Getty Images/Frederick M. Brown)

The Man Himself, 2005 (Getty Images/Frederick M. Brown)

The year is 1974. I am 14 years old, growing up in a lily-white farm community in southern Wisconsin. Yet every Saturday, I can be found up in my room, tuned to Soul Train. I watched American Bandstand, but I adored Soul Train.

I was 11 when “Just My Imagination” by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]the Temptations[/lastfm] became the first soul record I couldn’t get enough of. “You Are Everything” by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]the Stylistics[/lastfm] was the first one I ever bought.

In those days, I probably didn’t distinguish between black artists and white ones. Yet even after I was old enough to realize the difference, I remained a fan of soul, least until soul became disco and disco earned the hormonally addled enmity of the late-teen boy I would become. So a lot of my favorite artists and songs were likely to show up on Soul Train.

But as I watched, I found that it wasn’t just the music that attracted me. I was fascinated by the host and creator, Don Cornelius — a bespectacled black man whose deep voice radiated a cool that was almost intimidating. When he said “you can bet your last money it’s gonna be a stone gas, honey,” you didn’t question it. It was gonna be, and where do I lay my money down?

Not only did Don Cornelius make Dick Clark look like a substitute teacher, the Soul Train dancers had much better moves than the ones on American Bandstand. I even liked the Soul Train Scramble Board, which asked dancers to find the names of important black figures in mixed-up letters. (What was Dick Clark doing to challenge us intellectually?) Even the ads, for Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen, and other products aimed at black consumers, were educational to someone as white as me.

My Soul Train years didn’t last long, but Soul Train did. Cornelius hosted it until 1993, and it remained on the air weekly until 2006. In recent years, Cornelius got himself into legal trouble stemming from a divorce. On Wednesday, he reportedly committed suicide at age 75.

I hate losing the icons of my younger years, but at least we’ll always have Soul Train video clips to watch, and the Soul Train theme to listen to. “T.S.O.P.” by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]MFSB[/lastfm] hit #1 on the singles chart in 1974. After all these years, it still brings back my soulful Saturdays.


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