Don Cornelius, R.I.P.

All apologies to the Don Mega and Cartagena, but there was only one Don. The late Cornelius, who put himself to sleep at the age of 75. I spoke with him once for the LA Times in late September of...
By    February 1, 2012

All apologies to the Don Mega and Cartagena, but there was only one Don. The late Cornelius, who put himself to sleep at the age of 75. I spoke with him once for the LA Times in late September of 2010, right around the time the Best of Soul Train was being released. The conversation was brief, maybe 20 minutes or so, but he still had that honey- smoked, ripple-free baritone. Perhaps the most soothing and reassuring voice ever ingrained in my memory. The aural equivalent of a paternal pat on the shoulder — one that conveyed eternal wisdom, gravity, and rhythm. Cornelius was the born salesman, more soul sage than loose cannon. He might have occasionally matched Sly Stone in his paisley flamboyance, but he conveyed a garish gravitas that meshed perfectly with the libidinous funk that he reigned over.

You don’t need me to rattle off his list of accomplishments. Michaelangelo Matos did an excellent job of mournful contextualization at Sound of the City. Even though I was far to young to have seen the glory era of the long-running syndicated program, even into the 90s, a pre-adolescent Saturday ritual included Saved by the Bell and Soul Train. As rap eclipsed soul as the sound of the youth, he was able to parse it with a certain bewildered clarity. Despite his initial reluctance to embrace hip-hop, he did — with the resigned embrace of someone who knows that the kids can’t be all wrong.

It’s reductive to say that this is the end of an era. That era died a long time ago. Cornelius may not have even been as influential as his older predecessor, Johnny Otis, who died a few weeks ago. But he had the TV show and the great hair and suits and soul. There were the guests, the dancers, the bell bottoms, and his role as the great gatekeeper, everyone’s cool dad.  The dad became the granddad and everyone’s granddad is dead. So what are we supposed to say but peace and soul and rest in paisley. You and I both know that the only good advice is to keep on dancing.

My interview with Don Cornelius is below the jump, alongside a litany of classic Soul Train performances.

What was it about the glory years of Soul Train that allowed for the music to continue to have such resonance today?

The ’70s and ’80s were just the period during which the best soul music was created and the best records were done. Whenever I walk into a store or any kind of environment, these kinds of songs from that period still play and I wonder if it’s a “Soul Train” tape. Because during those two decades, we were on top of them all in one way or another, either presenting the guests or playing the records. We were just flat out in love with the music.

That was the period when soul music grew up. It was born in the ’50s and ’60s, but it became sophisticated during that era. Record stores were cropping up and Motown emerged to allow the music to cross over to the point where all cultures were listening to soul music. It was an incredible time. Chicago had Curtis Mayfield, the Chi-Lites; Philadelphia had Gamble and Huff; Memphis had Stax; Detroit had Motown; and all of that started to blossom in the 70s.

How did the program change when hip-hop became a force? Was it difficult to adjust?

I didn’t get it immediately, but then in the relatively short time, I got it. I kept getting stopped wherever I went — wherever black people were — and they’d ask how come you’re not playing this. It was always rap or hip-hop that the public was asking about, and eventually shortly after, we started to play it. The thing I liked the most about it, aside from the rhythm and the tightness of it, was the inclusiveness of it, in terms of people being able to participate in the industry without necessarily being trained. Prior to that, you had to be a trained this or a trained that in order to make it. Hip-hop gave everyone a chance.

Do you listen to much contemporary music today, and if so, what do you like?

Not much, but I still catch things now and then. It’s a different world now. I can watch the “Today Show” and “Good Morning America,” and I can get to see major stars — nothing really slips by. I turned on Letterman one night and Eminem and Jay-Z were performing together and they were so good. The acceptance of music on a total media basis is much more developed now, it’s much more available. When we started, we were the only program that a certain genre of artist could get exposure on.

What have you been working on now?

We’re looking to advance the “Soul Train” movie project. We’ve been in discussions with several people about getting a movie off the ground. It wouldn’t be the “Soul Train” dance show, it would be more of a biographical look at the project. It’s going to be about some of the things that really happened on the show. I had a discussion with Eddie Murphy not long ago, and he liked the documentary so much that he suggested that he might want to do something in terms of the show’s relationship with James Brown — if not play him, than just do a kind of vignette.

MP3: Black Milk-“Don Cornelius”

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