Artists from Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys to Charlie Wilson of The Gap Band reminisce about the life and legacy of the late Don Cornelius, whose show Soul Train changed American culture forever.
Written by Michael A. Gonzales (@gonzomike)
On February 1, 2012, when it was announced that 75-year-old Don Cornelius had committed suicide, Planet Pop went into collective mourning for the man with the musical plan whose groundbreaking show Soul Train shaped American culture.
“The two biggest influences of the '70s were Don Cornelius and Bruce Lee,” says Beastie Boys member Ad-Rock from his home in New York City. Earlier that day the 45-year-old rapper born Adam Horovitz was at the supermarket when he got a call from his brother telling him that Cornelius was dead. “I told the lady behind the counter and we were both in shock for a few minutes.”
For most kids who grew up in the '70s, Saturday mornings were all about cartoons and Soul Train. Growing from humble beginnings as a weekday dance program in Chicago, Soul Trainwas hosted by dapper Don Cornelius—who was also the creator and producer of the landmark Black-owned-and-operated show that later moved to Los Angeles and became the longest running syndicated program in TV history.
I remember seeing the
Jackson 5 on there doing 'Dancing Machine' and me dancing the Robot in front of the television set.
Yet, while new episodes of Soul Train aired until 2006, influencing more than three decades of soul babies, culture watchers, and music lovers, there were something about those bell-bottomed and blow-out-kit '70s shows that were exta-special.
For me, most Saturday mornings were spent inside a Harlem beauty parlor with my mom. I was bored until 11 o’clock, when Jackie the beautician always turned the television to channel 11 to watch Soul Train. As a budding urban cult-nat aficionado, I was blown away by the musical guests (James Brown, Marvin Gaye, David Bowie), the blackadelic Afro-Sheen commercials, the wildly dressed dancers, and the iceberg-cool Chicago-bred former disc jockey talking low into the mic.
Growing up in Manhattan—many blocks south of Harlem and thousands of miles away from the land of bright sun and twinkling starlets—Ad-Rock would also tune to “the hippest trip in America” when he was a kid. “Of course, man,” he says with a laugh. “I remember seeing the Jackson 5 on there doing 'Dancing Machine' and me dancing the Robot in front of the television set.”
Eleven years later, when the Beastie Boys' earth-shaking debut Licensed to Ill became a smash hit, they were invited to be guests on the show. Joining a small canon of pale-faced performers who had appeared Soul Train—including Dennis Coffey, Elton John and David Bowie—Ad Rock has little memory of what should’ve been a memorable day. “There was a little too much drinking and drugging during that time," he explains. "So I don’t really remember a whole lot.”
While the Beasties might’ve been too zooted, their friend, traveling companion, Def Jam graphic designer, and graf legend Cey Adams was always the sober one of the crew. “I don’t think Don was a big fan of rap music and the only reason the Beasties were on the show was because of a phone call from Russell [Simmons],” says Cey, who designed last year’s coffee table tome Def Jam Recordings (Rizzoli). “We had all grown up watching the show and were surprised how small the studio was," Cey adds. "It always looked massive on television.”
Two years later, the Beasties returned to Soul Train to promote Paul’s Boutique. “That was one of the best days of my life,” says Ad-Rock. Although the performance was lip-synched, the Boys had recorded a fake live version of the song to perform on the show. “There was crowd noise and different breaks and then there was our voices screaming, ‘Somebody say Don Cornelius!'" Ad-Rock recalls. “The crowd screamed his name, and one of my friends was standing near him. He said Don took four double takes.”
“When it was time for him to interview us, I pulled out an old Soul Train album and asked him to autograph it," Ad-Rock continues. "At first, he looked at me like I was trying to clown him. But, when I explained how big a fan I was, he signed the record, ‘Stay strong, best wishes Don Cornelius.’ That was it.”
In 1994, the Beasties threw Don’s name into the song “Flute Loop,” which appears on Ill Commutation. Other rap songs that name-dropped Cornelius include RZA’s “Airwaves” and De La Soul’s “Pass the Plugs.”
The sonorous voice, the elegant and distinctly hip diction, the glasses, the wide lapels, the giant puff of afro. Don looked part business man and part gangster—clearly in command of everything on and off camera.
Another fan of those early days was former Billboard magazine editor Janine Coveney. “Don Cornelius was unlike anyone I had seen before on television,” she says from her home in Virginia. “The sonorous voice, the elegant and distinctly hip diction, the glasses, the wide lapels, the giant puff of afro. Don looked part business man and part gangster—clearly in command of everything on and off camera. It seemed to me that by the sheer force of his personality, a wave of his hand or the arch of a brow, he commanded the teenagers to undulate, the TSOP theme to begin blaring, and the Soul Train logo to chug its percolating path across the screen.”
While Soul Train quickly picked up steam across the country and “transcended cultural barriers among young adults,” as Aretha Franklin noted in a statement released yesterday, the show was universal it its appeal. Don Cornelius became a hero to most.
Bowlegged Lou, whose group Full Force was the booming system of musicians and producers behind '80s acts like Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam, UTFO, and Latoya Jackson—as well their own hits “Alice, I Want You Just for Me” and “Temporary Love Thing”—also grew-up on Soul Train.
“The first time I saw Soul Train was over my aunt’s house,” the native Brooklynite recalls. “That was when they had the original theme, which was a King Curtis song. It was so exciting to see the train coming down the track and then a room full of Black people dancing and doing their thing. Believe me, Soul Train was a revolution.”
In 1985, while backing Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam, whose freestyle jam “I Wonder If I Take You Home” was a major hit that year, Bowlegged Lou met Don for the first time and their friendship grew. “Through all the ups, downs, and turn-arounds, I always knew I could call him at anytime and we would talk," Lou says. "He was a very private and proud guy, but I always had fun with Big D.”
“People don’t even understand how many times his Soul Train concept got rejected by sponsors,” says music journalist and teacher Erika Blount, who is currently writing a book about Don Cornelius and his historic TV show, tentatively titled Soul Train’s Mighty Ride. When the show first started in Chicago, it was sponsored by Sears Roebuck & Co. Later, when Cornelius needed money to go into the syndication market, Soul Trainpartnered with local business man and hair grease mogul George E. Johnson, whose Afro Sheen products were popular in African-American homes.
Soul Train was blackness that wasn’t watered down. It was that rare show where we could be ourselves and watch musical acts that nobody else showed.
“Don was an innovator when it came to business and he made it happen,” Blount observes. “Soul Train was blackness that wasn’t watered down. It was that rare show where we could be ourselves and watch musical acts that nobody else showed.”
One of those acts was The GAP Band, who made their first appearance on Soul Train in 1978 performing “Shake.” The group’s lead singer Charlie Wilson, who has also recorded five solo albums, was preparing to go to the studio when he heard the news of Cornelius’s death.
“When we met Don for the first time he was friendly and professional, but over the years we developed a close relationship and I considered him both a friend and a mentor,” Wilson says. “Soul Train, which was Don’s dream, became a staple across the country, and not just in Black households. Don created a show that had a major impact on pop culture. Don Cornelius was a man who shared his dream with others and Soul Train launched so many careers, including my own. He helped make so many people into superstars. We should remember him as an innovator, motivator and trendsetter.”