The Engineer of 'Soul Train': To Don Cornelius, Song and Dance was a Revolution

Producer Don Cornelius accepts the 'Discretionary Award - Pop Culture' on stage the 2005 TV Land Awards at Barker Hangar on March 13, 2005 in Santa Monica, California. | Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Producer Don Cornelius accepts the 'Discretionary Award - Pop Culture' on stage the 2005 TV Land Awards at Barker Hangar on March 13, 2005 in Santa Monica, California. | Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In remembrance...

Did Don Cornelius have a working neck? I wondered that every time I saw him on television, which was every Saturday afternoon for the "Soul Train" faithful. I was among them.

In my world, DonCornelius (he really had just one name like Don Corleone, never being referred to as just Don or Mr. Cornelius) was a minor godlike figure with his fly threads, big tinted glasses and late-night deejay rumble of a voice that that was less about seduction than it was about a supremely dignified kind of cool.

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When DonCornelius interviewed his guests on "Soul Train," wielding that mic like a kind of scepter, he wasn't just asking them about their latest record, he was presenting us with a bit of cultural history that he, the first black man in television history to own his own show, was responsible for making. For that reason he was always more solemn than most dance show hosts and deejays at the time, but I appreciated the solemnity. I wanted to learn the lessons of DonCornelius even as I wanted to learn the bad (as in very good) moves of the uber-funky boogie-down "Soul Train" dancers that made everybody tune in to "Soul Train" the first place.

Appreciating history and appreciating the finer points of doing the Robot are two opposing things in theory, but DonCornelius put them together (like he frequently told everybody to "put your hands together for...") in a way that made perfect sense. Maybe that's why his neck didn't move - the effort of trying to keep all these messages together was paralyzing. Representing the aspirations of black people, especially young black people who were basking in the hot afterglow of Black Power required great equilibrium on his part. He had to be the adult who could credibly oversee a black youth movement that was already separating itself from previous generations and their historical wariness about appearing too wild in public. "Soul Train" was rewriting the rules, turning things inside out. DonCornelius was there calmly telling everybody that it was okay. And empowering to boot.

In my pre-adolescent and teenage years DonCornelius was a touchstone who was almost within touching distance. "Soul Train" was a local show, an L.A. phenomenon that radiated influence across the country and all over the world. That made me, a native Angeleno, very proud. As a black girl I was even prouder; that most people tried and failed every week to copy the "Soul Train" dancers' moves confirmed my belief that we had arrived, both L.A. and black folk. We were leading the way. That knowledge buoyed me in the early '70s when I was bused to a very white elementary school across town from South Central, where some of the local kids inspected me like a bug under class and demanded to know where I was from and what I was all about. In those worst moments when I felt I was losing my bearings, when I didn't have a ready answer for them, not even a ready word, I thought about "Soul Train" and my back got straight. My neck, too.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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