For the record, Don Cornelius danced down the precocious gauntlet of the famed Soul Train line exactly once, in 1973. Mary Wilson, then of the Supremes, was his partner.
You’d think that the man who invented the very idea would’ve more frequently joined the festivities. But that was not Don’s way.
Don Cornelius, 75, took his own life in the wee hours of last Wednesday morning.
The grapevine suggests the creator and former host of TV’s Soul Train had been despondent over serious health issues. The word on the street also indicated that Cornelius was having difficulty coming to grips with what he thought were the mind-bending terms of his recent divorce settlement. The exact reasons for his apparent suicide remain speculative however, for there was no note — no left behind explanation of his side of things.
Of course, when you think about it — or at least when I do–lengthy explanations or excuses was never Don Cornelius’ way. He’d always used an economy of words to communicate. He was lyrical, emphatic, ‘to the point’ and above all, ‘too cool for school.’ I also noticed, at least I did at certain times, that he had this gleam in his eye that conveyed, not arrogance but rather the notion that ‘I know something that you don’t (…and I’m still the coolest cat in the room’).
As it turns out, Don Cornelius did know things that other folks –particularly TV executives—didn’t know. Or refused to see.
Teenagers likely started dancing on TV to the beat of the latest Top 40 hits shortly after the dawn of rock, roll, rhythm and blues. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Dance Party shows sprouted like weeds on a fertile post-war landscape. Cities all over the nation had local shows: New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles and many others. The Big Daddy of them all, of course, was Dick Clark’s nationally telecast American Bandstand with their seeming bottomless mill of teen dancers streaming in from Philly’s West Catholic High School, itself located a scant few miles from WFIL-TV’s broadcast studios.
By and large, local dance party shows had the half-life of a lit match in a monsoon. One of the problems was that the dancing was buttoned down, neck-tied –-and decidedly bland. And while you could see kids making awkward stabs at the air and trying to do ‘The Jerk’, ‘The Stroll’ or a less than fluid ‘Cha Cha’, the waltzing dancemaster, Arthur Murray showed more dancing ability and was often more interesting to watch.
At the heart of the problem was there were few, if any, African-American kids on camera. If you looked hard enough in those days, you might spot a black couple dancing on American Bandstand, but even in the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ there existed the unwritten rule of “…few blacks or better yet, no black kids shown on screen.” Lunch counters had been integrated, but not yet the TV dance floor.
Then comes Donald Cortez Cornelius of Chicago. And while he’s an ex-policeman turned car salesman turned insurance salesman turned part-time deejay, Cornelius is above-all, an ‘idea man’ and he’s got few of them, especially when it comes to music and dance on TV. First, let black kids on the dance floor and on the TV screen. Second, add a little ‘flava’ and third,train the camera not so much on the obligatory recording stars lip-synching their hits but instead, focus the TV lens on the kids dancing and ‘…doin’ their thing’, he says.
Cornelius turns out to be no mere front man, though he was that too. Don ran the entire show. It was his complete gig once he engineered the Soul Train on the air –and the kids’ feet on the dance floor.
A little digging reveals that in the early days, Don did everything to keep the Soul Train moving smoothly down the track. (Smooooooooth’ve was Don’s only way.) From booking the bands to rehearsing the acts to placating the corporate suits at Sears (an early sponsor of the show) to feeding the kids KFC to keep their energy up on those days that he shot two shows in a rented studio, Cornelius did it all. One has the impression that beneath the his cool exterior persona, Cornelius was paddling like crazy to keep everyone’s head above water. That was Don’s way.
Don Cornelius did things his way for 35 seasons and over 1,100 telecasts. One hit wonders came and went; record companies sprouted and died; and dancing kids grew older and became parents and even grandparents. Through it all, Don Cornelius’ Soul Train stayed on and became part of the American cultural milieu. Or maybe, America became a part of Soul Train’s.
Judeau-Christian ethics suggests that suicide is a coward’s way. To be sure, it is hard to contemplate that Cornelius’ last act was a purposeful self inflicted gunshot. But the reader can be sure that Don Cornelius was no coward. Maybe his last act is a reminder that getting older ain’t at all easy… and that life can still be complicated, even when you’re a senior. Of course, I also wonder how many Judeau-Christian ethicists could have walked in Don Cornelius’ shoes — much less danced in them.
If, in these last almost forty years, you even once turned on TV on a crisp afternoon winter Saturday and laid eyes on a teenager hurling himself down the Soul Train line in what seems like infinite degrees of freedom, or in studied nonchalance or in gravity defying — maybe even death defying — grace, then for just a little slice of time you witnessed the euphoria, joy and possibility of youth. And of life.
And isn’t that what the ‘…hippest trip in America’ should be about?
Thanks, Don for all the ‘love, peace and soul.’ A whole lot o’ soul.