The death of Don Cornelius Wednesday marked a sad, unexpectedly violent end to the life of a man who used his show to wish us, as he put it at the end of the each “Soul Train” installment, “Love, peace and soul.”
Cornelius also gave a TV stage to some of the greatest music acts of our time. His imprimatur, offered in the laid-back, mellifluous baritone of authority, helped make him a musical tastemaker and pop culture figure worthy of mention in the same breath as the legends he put on his groundbreaking program.
Tuning into “Soul Train” in the 1970s and 1980s meant receiving visits in your living room from the likes of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Chuck Berry, Al Green and the Jackson 5, among many other greats. Cornelius also gave some of the first widespread exposure to the burgeoning hip-hop movement – including an early appearance by the Sugarhill Gang – during his more than two decades on the air.
Calling “Soul Train” simply a black or a cooler version of “American Bandstand” is both dismissive and misses the point. Cornelius, a producer and host with a sharp eye for talent, was smart enough and daring enough to expand TV’s musical landscape to a wider array of artists who, for reasons of race or perceived lack of mainstream appeal, didn’t always get the exposure they or the public deserved. His show seamlessly mixed R&B, funk, gospel, soul and rock, attracting performers from across the musical spectrum. David Bowie and Elton John were among the stars who played in front of the dancers whose moves and grooves filled the funky “Soul Train” set.
Cornelius’ approach presaged MTV by a decade, and his influence resounds in an age in which the Internet and iTunes give us instant access to a huge range of music. Though he’d been off the air for a generation, his name and “Soul Train” quickly became trending topics on Twitter Wednesday upon news of his death at 75.
Whatever the demons that drove him in his final moments, Don Cornelius should be best remembered for the music he brought to our TVs, our stereos – and for the peace, love and soul he spread in life.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.