I was surprised yesterday how hard I was hit by the death of Don Cornelius, the Soul Train impresario. I wrote about my experience watching Soul Train over at WNEW.com yesterday, and it opened a door into a whole season in the life of a young geek.
Often on Saturdays afternoons we would be banished outside, to the basement, or to our upstairs bedrooms to get us out of Mom’s way as she washed the floors or vacuumed the rugs. My brother and I had a portable black-and-white TV upstairs. We were fortunate in that we could get stations from both Madison, Wisconsin, and Rockford, Illinois, which gave us a wider variety of choices than many people got, and it was sometime in late 1973 or early 1974 that I discovered Soul Train.
Growing up in lily-white rural Wisconsin, I didn’t know any black people. In 1974, I had met only one—an inner-city kid from Milwaukee who had spent a week with us one summer as part of a program sponsored by our church. (It was not an exchange program—white kids from the farm did not get to spend a week with an inner-city family in Milwaukee, however enlightening it might have been.) Soul Train was on a Rockford station, because Rockford had enough black people to attract an audience, while Madison did not.
But what attracted me to Soul Train was the music. At first, it was just the theme music, the propulsive R&B number that accompanied a cool-looking train animation. This was, of course, “T.S.O.P (The Sound of Philadelphia)” by MFSB featuring the Three Degrees, which is exactly what it purports to be—the perfect distillation of Gamble and Huff’s art. It wasn’t long before I heard that song on the radio, and within a day or two I would have visited my favorite record store and snapped up the single.
But even after I had secured the theme song, I kept watching because Soul Train had more of what I wanted to see than American Bandstand did. It had Don Cornelius, for one thing. By 1974, I knew I wanted to be a DJ, and I admired his incredible voice. He was so cool it was almost scary, and as I wrote yesterday, when he said “you can bet your last money it’s gonna be a stone gas, honey,” you not only didn’t doubt him, you wondered where to go to put your money down. His complete self-confidence was evident. We know now that one of his goals for Soul Train involved instilling pride in black kids, and to that end, he was a powerful role model. Plus, he had everybody who was anybody on his show, and their coolness quotient seemed generally higher than the artists on American Bandstand. That cool extended to the Soul Train dancers, too—I had no reference point for the moves they displayed, and I was under no illusions about my ability to do anything like them myself, but I admired them nevertheless. (The fact that many of them were attractive girls in revealing clothes didn’t hurt.)
It occurs to me now that Soul Train may have been appointment viewing for only a short time, a matter of months at the outside, as I got older and found other things to do on Saturday afternoons. And as disco conquered all, I would likely have drifted away from it anyhow. I don’t remember precisely when that happened, but I never forgot the show, or Don Cornelius.
Had you asked me about Don Cornelius on Tuesday, I probably wouldn’t have named him among the icons of my younger years. But yesterday, after hearing of his death and thinking about where he fit in, that changed. Joni was right: often, we don’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone.
By the mid 70s, white artists were appearing on Soul Train.
Elton John was famously first, but here’s a clip of Cornelius interviewing a very nervous David Bowie, some audience questions, and a performance of “Golden Years.” For more classic performances, click here.