By NICK CHILES
For those of us over the age of 40, how can we find the words to explain how much of an impact Don Cornelius had on the air we breathed in the 1970’s? With the news that Mr. Cornelius ended his life early this morning, apparently with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, I feel a profoundly mournful sense of loss, of something ending.
Yes, Soul Train’s influence clearly waned over the years, as other venues like MTV and BET and music videos came along to provide black artists with additional platforms to reach their public. But before there was “106 and Park,” there was this iconic television show, created from the imagination and the will of this brilliant man, that was as powerful a defining force in our childhoods as the neighborhood streets we grew up on, as the teachers who told us we could make something of ourselves.
My parents owned a record shop in Jersey City, New Jersey—the first black-owned business on the city’s major thoroughfare of Newark Avenue. My father was a professional musician with his own band, so he saw the shop as a way of making a few extra bucks from a music industry that provided him so many awesome highs—and devastating lows. This meant that I grew up with the black music of the 1970’s as the literal soundtrack of my childhood—in addition to the lifeblood that put food in my mouth. My parents installed me and my two sisters in the record shop at an early age, figuring it would help us learn to deal with the public and talk to people if we had to serve as tiny little salespeople behind the counter. The store was started just a couple of years before Cornelius debuted “Soul Train” in 1971, so the music that flew out of the store was exactly the same as the playlist that the “Soul Train” dancers writhed and bumped to on Saturday mornings.
For the most part, “Soul Train” provided most of us with the first visual introduction to our favorite artists. They went from a voice on vinyl and a flat picture on the album cover to an exciting, sexy, gorgeous, compelling figure on the TV screen, wearing some outrageous costume, doing some cool new dance step. I was about 11 the first time I saw the incredibly sexy young Chaka Khan on “Soul Train.” As I sat there, transfixed, my body literally began to transform itself. By the end of the song, I was not the same little boy.
Every week, when I jumped on my bike and rode to the record store after “Soul Train” ended, I knew that the rest of the day and week would be consumed by the “Soul Train” report—most every other customer in the store would be giving their critique of that Saturday’s musical performances. Or they would be standing in the middle of the store trying out the latest dance step they saw on the show. “Soul Train” was our muse, our talisman, the source of everything that was right and good in our world.
I can’t even pinpoint the moment when that began to change for me. Certainly the advent of music videos had a lot to do with it. My parents had to close our store in 1980, a victim of the record superstores like The Wiz that started putting the small mom-and-pop shops out of business—a trend that eventually consumed every retail industry. One day I looked up and realized it had been years since I had tuned into “Soul Train.” Time and “progress” had opened things up for black artists—they had other places they could go to be seen on the small screen.
It was inevitable that Don’s influence would wane. That’s just the nature of these things. But we never forgot about him. He was as much a part of us as Martin Luther King, as Muhammad Ali or O.J. Simpson or Stevie Wonder. He helped form the people we went on to become. He was us. Now he’s gone. And a part of us has gone with him.
RIP, Mr. Cornelius.
1. Soul Holiday: The Ill MyBrownBaby Christmas Song Playlist
2. Celebrating Black History Month All Day, Every Day
3. The Beautiful Revolutionary: Remembering Lena Horne
4. MyBrownBaby Spotlight: Esperanza Spalding