DON CORNELIUS, R.I.P.
Sad to hear this week of the death of Don Cornelius, whose Soul Train is burned into my adolescent TV memory. From Bruce Handy at Vanity Fair (who opens with a quote from “American Pie”).
I know it’s corny quoting from “American Pie.” But it is February, and like a lot of people, I felt a genuine sense of loss and sadness at the news that Don Cornelius, the creator and host of Soul Train, died of gunshot wounds Wednesday morning in Los Angeles—a possible suicide at the age of 75. The show premiered in Chicago in 1970 and aired nationally for 35 years—the longest-running syndicated series in television history. Pretty much every great soul and R&B artist came out for Cornelius at one time or another, including James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Michael Jackson. In the 70s, without Oprah or BET or Shonda Rhimes or Dick Parsons, blacks didn’t have a lot of control over how they appeared in the mainstream media, and so in that sense, Soul Train was revolutionary. In a far less atomized but more racially segregated culture than ours—1970 was only half a decade removed from the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts—Soul Train felt like an official weekly communiqué from black America. At least, it did to preadolescent white people growing up in Northern California; it occurs to me now that, as far as my junior high-school social life went, I might have benefited from paying closer attention to Soul Train, with its dance floor full of smooth moves, sharp clothes, and bobbing, well-picked Afros.
Handy embeds the closing sequence to Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, which rescores the show to the hip hop of the time.