Don Cornelius Dead, Soul Train's Impact Lives On

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Don Cornelius, creator and first host of Soul Train, the iconic television dance show was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound early this morning in his Encino, California home.

The short, but obviously shocked response from ?uestlove, drummer of The Roots, is a good indicator of the weight of such a tragic end. The prolific musician and producer used both his musical chops and his encyclopedic knowledge of Soul Train to create the musical score for the 2010 VH1 documentary commemorating the 40th anniversary of the show. (?uestlove shares his further thoughts, and the fact that he carries around 400+ vintage episodes of Soul Train on him at all times, at Okayplayer.)

In 1970, Don Cornelius created the teen dance show in Chicago as a counter to Dick Clark's much more vanilla American Bandstand and out of the realization that there were very few positive images of African-Americans being broadcast in media at the time. What began as a show airing in a single city grew to become a cultural phenomenon bringing Black music into America's living rooms and reigning as one of the longest running syndicated programs ever.

While I don't exactly remember which local station carried Soul Train growing up, it's impossible to forget the animated opening of the show featuring a funky train chugging along accompanied by a lung-stretching call of "SOOOOOOOOOOUL TRAIN!" that extended those two syllables into ten seconds of heralding musical bliss. Cornelius's focus on R&B, soul, and funk from primarily African-American artists (primarily, because believe it or not, Elton John and David Bowie both made appearances) and on young African-Americans as an audience, while paralleling the continued civil rights efforts of the 1970s, also signaled a much more diverse world of music and pop culture.

Musically, we take for granted the prevalence and influence of James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and other icons of soul. When Soul Train started, Black music was primarily relegated to radio - that is, if a particular market had a sizeable African-American community. Soul Train's syndication push beyond the nation's largest media markets meant that even cities and towns with tiny African-American populations got a taste of some of the most exciting and relevant performers in all of music, and who happened to be Black.

It wouldn't be Soul Train without amazing dancers busting out the funkiest of moves. Young starry-eyed attention seekers from far and wide sought to christen the Soul Train studio with their own signature dance. Don Cornelius made it possible to watch and emulate new dance moves (like the Robot or the Roger Rabbit) in the comfort of our own homes. Jamming out at parties would never be the same without the innovation of Don Campbell and his Campbell Lockers (including Fred "Rerun" Berry) and the collective fun of the Soul Train dance line.

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David Bickford
David Bickford

Very nice salute to Don Cornelius. It reminds me of an interview with Elton John I saw on television a few years ago. He mentioned his "Soul Train" appearance. I recall him saying that he had been strongly influenced by African-American recording artists and musical traditions and was therefore especially gratified to see an African-American audience embrace his music.

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