Jenice Armstrong: A 'Soul' suicide: Don Cornelius, creator of 'Soul Train' a suicide

Posted: February 02, 2012

AT OUR HOUSE, "Soul Train" was must-see TV because it was one of the only TV shows where you could count on seeing brown faces.

Negroes, as we were called back then, would be dressed to the nines, wearing the hottest street fashions, huge afros, hot pants, wide-brimmed hats, platform shoes and maxi coats. Good thing fire never broke out in the "Soul Train" studio, because there would have been a polyester meltdown.

For me, a black girl with practically no rhythm, "Soul Train" was my classroom, helping me navigate the social minefield of high school dances.

On Saturdays, I'd study the "Soul Train" dancers and try my best to mimic their moves. With my siblings, in front of our old TV, you couldn't tell me I wasn't hip, as we'd bounce around doing the Click Clacks, the Shaft or Son of Shaft dances. If I had any edge at all as a teenager, I owe every bit of to Don Cornelius.

Cornelius was one cool cat.

Always sharply dressed, in the early days he used to sport a perfectly shaped afro. He was social- minded and showed it, like when he interviewed James Brown onstage and brought up urban crime.

When he did the "Soul Train Scramble" - dancers would move letters around to discover hidden phrases or names - the answers often were historic black figures such as Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman.

It's ironic that Cornelius' death yesterday, an apparent suicide, was on the first day of Black History Month. He was 75.

Cornelius may not be widely recognized as such, but he was a music pioneer who helped lay the groundwork for a host of music-oriented shows that we take for granted today. Because he regularly showcased African-American soul singers who, at the time, had few other national outlets, the former journalist changed the American music scene. He introduced millions to R&B, to groups such as Earth, Wind & Fire, the Jacksons and Cameo.

"It was totally discriminatory," Kathy Sledge, of Sister Sledge, recalled of the times.

"Soul Train," which started in Chicago in 1970, went national the next year. "There was black and there was white. There was pop and there was R&B. You had to have a top R&B record before they would even think about including you in the format of pop radio. With Don Cornelius, he sort of circumnavigated the madness," she said.

"He gave us a profile. He gave us more than a chance to perform our songs. He gave us a chance to tell the world a little bit about ourselves," continued Sledge, who's based in Philly. "We had no Internet or MTV. He was our MTV. He was how we got a chance to show who we were. You had made it, if you got on 'Soul Train, she said.' "

One of my favorite "Soul Train" moments was watching Michael Jackson single-handedly kick off the Robot dance craze of the 1970s. He was performing "Dancing Machine" with his brothers when his face went blank and he started jerking around doing a series of robotic moves as if he were in a trance. Before long, the whole country was trying to imitate him. Usually badly.

Same thing with the classic line dance featured on the show. More than 40 years later the Soul Train Line remains a staple at most black weddings and other celebrations. Our time with the late, great king of cool was too short. But as he'd tell us, "it really was a stone gas . . . and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and sooouuul!"

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