February 1, 2012. It was like receiving bad news about a relative or old friend. Don Cornelius is dead. I’ll never forget that text message I received from another former Soul Train dancer that morning about his death. What made it even more shocking was when the dancer sent me another text message shortly thereafter informing me that he died from a self-inflicted gunshot.
News of Cornelius’ death spread through the entertainment world like wildfire. All kinds of questions went through people’s minds: Why did he do it? Was there foul play involved? What was going on in his life to make him want to commit suicide?
Many questions will remain unanswered. However, Cornelius’ passing, though sad and tragic, helped people to remember what this man did to help make black culture become part of pop culture.
I’m not sure if Cornelius realized how much he and his Soul Train program impacted and affected the lives of millions of people. For me, he was a part of my childhood, teenage and early adult memories. Soul Train was a cherished part of my Saturday mornings along with my Saturday morning cartoons. Growing up in Jersey City, New Jersey, when 11AM came, the TV set was turned to channel 5 to see that animated locomotive ride across the screen to the various Soul Train themes over the years to see who the guest stars were going to be, to check out all of the dancers and to see and hear the eloquence and smoothness of the show’s host, Don Cornelius.
As I got older, what really inspired me about Cornelius was the fact that he owned his program. As the credits would roll at the end of each broadcast, to see his production company’s logo and hear the voice of announcer Sid McCoy say, “This has been a Don Cornelius production,” was very inspirational to me. To see that a black man ran his own business, his own empire and called the shots gave me hope that I could someday do the same thing.
Here was a man determined to be his own boss. He fought hard for it after being a cop, selling insurance and doing television news. It didn’t come easy by any means, since there were many racist mentalities that couldn’t understand or accept a dance program featuring a black host, black recording artists and black dancers, created by a black man. But Cornelius kept pursuing his passion and dream with “stick-to-itiveness” and the rest, as they say, is history.
When I danced on the show, I was fortunate and blessed to see firsthand Don Cornelius at work. He would give careful guidance and instruction to the hosts (Mystro Clark, Shemar Moore and Dorian Gregory) during my time on the show. Moreover, he would always monitor the lighting and the sound and every other technical detail about the show. For instance, if he felt the lighting was not right or the sound level wasn’t right during a group or artist’s performance, he would do one retake or two or even three retakes to make sure it was right. Soul Train was Cornelius’s baby and he wanted to make sure his baby was taken care of properly.
Cornelius didn’t talk to the dancers all the time, but when he did, we paid attention. I remember when Yolanda Adams came to the show, he came up to us and told us that he wanted us all to put our arms around each other while Yolanda sang one of her gospel numbers. He told us, “Don’t be afraid to hold one another.” He wanted us to display brotherhood, togetherness and unity. Every time I see that clip, I still remember that.
Cornelius would talk with the program’s dance coordinator to ensure that the dancers were dressed properly for television. Although many of the girls wore revealing and provocative outfits, he nevertheless wanted to make sure they were tasteful and didn’t reveal too much. From time to time, right before the Soul Train line segments were taped, Cornelius would go up and down the girls’ and guys’ lines making sure that he approved what everyone was wearing. He would say “uh-huh, uh-huh” as he went down the lines as a sign of approval. If he saw something that wasn’t to his liking, out you would go. Again, Don had a vision for his program, and he wanted to be sure that his vision was carried out.
I was thankful to have been on the set for the 1,000th episode, when Don gave a heartfelt speech and thanked his staff and the many people he worked with on his program over the years and all the guest stars that appeared on the show. Then he did something I didn’t expect. He looked directly at me with a wide grin and said, “I also want to thank the dancers!” Word apparently got to him that I would travel from New Jersey to Los Angeles every month to dance on his show, and I think he really was touched by that.
Keeping a television dance show on the air for 35 years was not easy. Don has said in interviews that one of the hardest things for him was to have his program air at viewable times in certain major markets in the U.S. Indeed, I recall when Soul Train was airing at two in the morning during one point in the mid-eighties and I wound up missing several episodes. Other dance shows came and went, including Soul Train knockoff Soul Unlimited which American Bandstand host and creator Dick Clark put together to rival Soul Train, but there was no contest there. Soul Train chugged along and weathered the storm and survived, even during the era of music videos, MTV and BET. For this, Don must be lauded.
One of the major and important things Don did was give TV exposure to many recording artists and groups who may have gotten no TV exposure at all if it weren’t for him. The show featured all genres of music from soul, pop, funk, disco, jazz, blues and rap. Long before videos, BET, YouTube and the Internet in general, many TV programs were partial to black performers. There were some shows that were exceptions, such as Ed Sullivan and a few others. Even American Bandstand mainly featured black artists that were either popular or had big hits on the pop charts. But Soul Train changed all of that and gave exposure to a wide array of black artists whether they were popular or not. Artists not well known such as The Futures, the Smith Connection, and Leroy Hutson and many others got national exposure on Soul Train that they would not have received elsewhere.
Soul Train did not just feature black performers; the program opened its doors to white artists and artists of other genres of music. Artists such as the Chinese techno group Yellow Magic Orchestra and white rock group The Thompson Twins graced the Soul Train stage. In fact, there were certain white artists that, although they were huge pop superstars, never appeared on American Bandstand but did appear on Soul Train. They included Elton John and David Bowie.
Although Don had a reluctance to feature rap music on his show when that genre was in its early stages, he could not ignore the movement it became by the late eighties and thus Soul Train began featuring scores of rap artists, from LL Cool J to Run DMC, Shyne to Nelly, Ludacris and Public Enemy.
Even though it is impossible to feature every single act on any program (Sade, for instance, never appeared on Soul Train), Soul Train featured 99 percent of the major black artists and groups during its 35 year run.
Cornelius also gave many opportunities to people of color behind the scenes. The majority of the people who worked on his production staff over the years were black: black cameramen, black stagehands, black makeup artists and black production assistants. He wanted to ensure that not only were viewers seeing black people in front of the camera, but that the program they were seeing was the product and result of black people behind the camera.
One of the other important factors about Cornelius’ program was giving exposure to thousands upon thousands of young people to display their dance talents weekly on television. In the beginning, the dancers were all black, but starting in the late seventies to its final program in 2006, one could see dancers of all races on the show, even though black dancers still dominated the set. Everyone knows the many people who gained fame after appearing on the show such as Jody Watley, Adolfo “Shabba Doo” Quinones, Rosie Perez and many others. There were many dancers who, although they did not become rich or famous TV or movie stars, are still considered famous stars just from dancing on Soul Train. When I interview former dancers for my Diary of an Ex-Soul Train Dancer column, they tell me that people still remember them from when they danced on Soul Train.
Speaking of dance, Don paved the way for nearly every dance style one could think of to be featured on his show such as locking, the funky chicken, the breakdown, the robot, the freak, the Smurf, popping, breakdancing, the running man, the harlem shake and just basic free-styling.
After Cornelius’ passing, many of the former Soul Train dancers got together at Maverick’s Flat in Los Angeles, which is one of the many clubs the early dancers would dance at, to celebrate his memory and Soul Train. All across the country, Soul Train line tributes were held in honor of Cornelius’ memory. All of this was a testament to what Cornelius meant to many people around the world.
Now one year later after Don Cornelius’ death, the Soul Train brand is still thriving under new ownership and it will continue to be fresh and vibrant with different plans for the brand in the works.
In hindsight, regardless of how Cornelius left this earth, one thing is clear: he opened doors for many people over the years. Moreover, he helped make black music, black culture, black dance and black fashion a part of popular culture and showed that with drive, hard work, determination and passion, you can make your dreams come true. Don Cornelius might be gone, but his legacy of love, peace and soooooooooul lives on forever.
– Stephen McMillian
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, former Soul Train dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music historian.