Don Cornelius, who died Wednesday at 75, was a civil rights pioneer disguised as a dance-music-show host. He used to sign off the “Soul Train” show he founded in Chicago by wishing his viewers “love, peace and soul,” and devoted every programming minute to proving he meant it.
The baritone-voiced host slipped into many roles on “Soul Train” and made it look easy, as if he were trying on just another tailored double-breasted suit. He was a music tastemaker, fashion leader, smooth talker and business innovator, a national icon who could broker a deal or bust a move on the dance floor without seeming to break a sweat.
But his role as a civil rights leader is perhaps his most significant contribution, even though he isn't often portrayed that way. Cornelius worked uplifting community messages into his programming, and created a social context for “Soul Train” that was as radical and empowering as any equal rights speech or rally.
As Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson wrote Wednesday after Cornelius was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Mulholland Drive home in Encino, Calif., home, “Next to (Motown founder) Berry Gordy, Don Cornelius was hands down the most crucial nonpolitical figure to emerge from the Civil Rights era post-'68.”
Thompson went on to amplify that assertion on his blog at Okayplayer.com: “To say with a straight, dignified face that ‘black is beautiful' was the riskiest, (most) radical life-changing move that America has seen. And amazingly enough for one hour, for one Saturday out (of) the week, if you were watching ‘Soul Train,' it became contagious. Next thing you know you are actually believing you have some sort of worth. The whole idea of Afro-centrism in my opinion manifested and spread with ‘Soul Train' in its first six years.”
To do it, Cornelius had to break through the walls that had barred African-Americans from power in television and music. Cornelius was born in Chicago on Sept. 27, 1936, and grew up on the South Side. After graduating from DuSable High School in 1954, he served a stint in the Marines. He sold tires, cars and insurance before taking a course in broadcasting in 1966. In 1970 Cornelius began hosting a local, low-budget African-American answer to Dick Clark's “American Bandstand.”
By the next year, he was going national and soon every major black performer was clamoring to be on his syndicated show. James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Sly Stone were among his guests. Barry White showed up in a black velvet tux with a 40-piece orchestra in the midst of his larger-than-life heyday. The renowned Philadelphia songwriting and production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff wrote the show's theme song.
At a time when commercial radio was segregating across lines of style and race, Cornelius presented the richness of black music in all its variety to a national audience. He effectively became the most powerful DJ in America.
He also showed the ability to adapt, keeping the show relevant through the disco and hip-hop eras, even though he was not particularly a fan of either style of music. He hosted the most important hip-hop artists of the time, including L.L. Cool J, (then) Snoop Doggy Dogg and Public Enemy. For many of these acts, “Soul Train” would be the first national television exposure they would receive.
“We didn't get nationally known until we did ‘Rebel Without a Pause' on ‘Soul Train' in 1987,” Public Enemy's Chuck D said Wednesday on Twitter. “We thanked Don forever.”
“Soul Train” did more than just passively present the music. At its core, Cornelius' show was about a community responding — creatively, spontaneously, ecstatically — to the music made for it. The palpable excitement of that interaction opened up African-American culture to the rest of the world and made it not only more accessible but also desirable, hip, fun.
Cornelius' primary ambassadors were the dancers he hired. Initially, they were teenagers and young adults he met at the parties he used to DJ in Chicago. A number went on to become famous in their own right: Jody Watley, M.C. Hammer and future Bears running back Walter Payton. They brought a street flair to the show that made “American Bandstand” seem tame, and their dance moves — the pop and lock, robot, moonwalk — were studied and often emulated by viewers, including a young Michael Jackson.
The show's cultural cachet — documenting and spreading the gospel of not just music, but African-American dance, slang, hairstyles and fashion as well — was tied to Cornelius' acumen as a businessman. As Berry Gordy was to music, Cornelius was to the intersection of music and television. He cut a path for future African-American music moguls such as Russell Simmons, L.A. Reid, Sean “Puffy” Combs and Jay-Z, as well as Bob Johnson, who founded the Black Entertainment Television cable network in 1980. Cornelius partnered with John Johnson and Johnson Products, another black-owned Chicago institution, as an early sponsor.
“At the time, there weren't many black advertisements or black figures appearing in ads, so there really was no place else to put them,” said Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California. “If you want to go back in the late 1950s, Nat King Cole's show was canceled because they couldn't find a sponsor. By the '70s, Don Cornelius was pushing the (black) culture into the mainstream and also introducing concepts around sponsorship and advertising that previously had no other places to exist except the pages of John Johnson's publications (Jet and Ebony).”
Cornelius quit as host in 1993, but continued to oversee everything from behind the scenes until the show's demise more than 15 years later. (Tribune Entertainment syndicated Soul Train from 1985 to 2007.) Last September, Cornelius was coaxed back to Chicago from his California home for a week of festivities honoring the show's 40th anniversary. About 15,000 people attended a concert at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park headlined by his friends Jerry Butler, the Impressions, the Emotions and the Chi-Lites. Cornelius, dressed in black leather, got the biggest ovation, the decades of memories compressed into a sustained moment of appreciation.
“It was pretty emotional,” said Richard Steele, the old friend who co-hosted the concert with DJ Herb Kent. “To look out and see all those people who came because it was ‘Soul Train,' he was really moved by that.”
“At the end they also presented him with a street sign,” said Steele, now a host and producer at WBEZ-FM 91.5. “He was pretty shook up. … When he did the customary sign-off he used to do, ‘Love, peace and soul,' well, they went crazy.”
The Tribune's Steve Johnson and Tribune Newspapers reporters contributed.