Soul Train host and TV-music pioneer Don Cornelius has been found dead in his Encino, Calif., home of a suicide, according to police. My colleague Madison Gray has more of the details, and it’s a sad ending to the life of someone who brought us one of the purest expressions of joy ever to take the form of a TV show. But Soul Train wasn’t just a good time. It was of its times, and it was an example of how something as simple as good music and dancing can actually make an important statement in a culture.
One of the more interesting lines in Cornelius’ life story, to me, is that he began his career as a DJ and radio journalist and was influenced by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And while that might have taken other people in a different career direction, Cornelius saw that developing a national media platform for soul music—at a time when the musical footprint of African Americans in TV music shows was relatively small—was its own kind of small-p political statement.
Soul Train wasn’t just a launch pad for the artists that appeared on it, it was a platform for its dancers: here, every week on syndicated TV, were (largely though not exclusively) young African Americans, appearing not as a threat or shorthand for a social problem, but showing off awesome moves and celebrating the music they loved. In its entertaining way, Soul Train was about asserting the importance of the black experience in American history, down to the Soul Train Scramble Board game, where players deciphered the name of a musical guest or famous African American figure “whose name you should know.” It was about putting black culture and black history on the agenda, back in the early 1970s, when simply having a TV show wish its audience “love, peace and soul” was a statement and—in the show’s good-time way—a challenge.
Cornelius had his own issues adjusting to change over time. As the show moved into the ’80s and ’90s, he resisted the rise of rap music, which he openly admitted he didn’t entirely get. But Cornelius, and the show he popularized, are rightly still touchstones among musicians and music fans today. In 2010, VH1 aired a documentary about the show, “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America”; in it Questlove of The Roots talks about the impact the show had on its medium and its audience. “It’s so important at an early age—a sense of pride, a sense of history”:
RIP, Don Cornelius. You helped write history, and you gave it soul.