Yesterday, for nearly three hours inside the echoing Hall of Liberty auditorium in Forest Lawn, Hollywood, Don Cornelius’ life was celebrated by celebrities, athletes, musicians, community activists, and everyday people
—an eclectic mix reminiscent of the days on the “Soul Train” set.
“Soul Train” has been on the lips of fans since the tragic suicide of the Chicago-born soul titan. A flash mob danced with abandon in tribute, with high-kicks and splits, in a “Soul Train” line as smiling policemen looked on in New York’s Times Square three days after his death on February 1. People dug in the back of their closets and their attics, wistfully eyeing their psychedelic nylon bell bottoms, thinking maybe there’s a chance for one last round. Other tributes came pouring in including a 24-hour run of old episodes on the BET’s Centric channel.
Friends and family at the service intimated that much has been said about what Cornelius gave the world through his show, but not enough has been said about Don Cornelius the man -- a man with a voice like a rumbling engine that could make reading the alphabet seem interesting and profound.
Friends, artists, and celebrities like George Duke, Barry White’s widow, Glodean White and family, Smokey Robinson, Clarence Avant, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, David Winfield, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., Stevie Wonder, Jody Watley, and Cedric the Entertainer spoke about the lighter side of the smooth, seemingly reserved man. The obituary was read by Don Jackson, owner of Central City Productions, where he talked about how Cornelius single-handedly changed the face of the Nielsen ratings. The eulogy was given by his long-time friend Rev. Jesse Jackson and the service was led by Pastor Donnie McClurkin who had flown in from Nigeria, only to be heading to Whitney Houston’s funeral today.
Music played before the ceremony transporting the audience to the golden years of the show—from Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & Pips, to Shalamar, Diana Ross, and Teddy Pendergrass. Hall of Famer and community activist David Winfield remembered watching the show as a child as he had to hold the antenna for the television, “You know how it was!” he joked. He remembered conversations he and Tony Cornelius had when the television show and awards shows were in danger of being pulled. His son suggested they make some cuts and Don’s response was—“‘You know how many people we employ? How many livelihoods that would affect? We’re gonna do it one way or another.’”
“Don didn’t just employ people, he was shaping careers,” said Eric Casem, a 22-year veteran of the show who worked as the dance coordinator.
“He was concerned about his people and he wanted to put them in the best light as possible. He wanted them to come off in the public eye as being excellent. He cared about black folks and he cared about ownership—that was the take away for me,” said Flo Jenkins who interviewed him several times for Right On! Magazine in the ‘70s.
“To this day, nothing like that exists,” said Jody Watley after the service. “He opened the door for new artists, and that may have been your only television exposure. The show opened so many doors. I remember looking at the cameramen, the women on the staff. He employed people of color. Going on other shows you saw how different it was.”
Stars like Cedric the Entertainer, Magic Johnson, and Smokey Robinson talked about the lighter side of the ultra cool train operator.
“When most people interview you, they are mostly talking about your music. You never knew what Don was gonna ask you—he might say, “Tell our viewers when was the last time you went to Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles,’” he said as the crowd laughed.
Magic Johnson talked about the first time meeting him at the Forum club when he had just begun playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. Dick Griffey introduced them. “First thing he said was, ‘Baby, you sure can play that baskeball!’ Johnson said imitating his voice. “In heaven, Barry White’s probably saying, ‘Baby, welcome.’ And Michael Jackson’s saying, “We gotta get this ‘Soul Train’ line going!” “When I met him you could see the strength of his legacy and his fight against segregation in the industry. You just knew you were dealing with a man right off the top,” said Cedric the Entertainer after the service.” And he loved humor, he seemed stiff, but first time I met him on the golf course, he called me over like, “Hey, let me talk to ya!”
Tony Cornelius, joined by his older brother Raymond Cornelius, read a compelling statement about enduring love given to him by his mother.
But, among the most poignant messages came from a 14-year-old, six-foot stunner--his granddaughter, Christina Cornelius—Tony Cornelius’ only daughter. Poised and self-assured, she gave a moving tribute where she talked about him being “Just my grandpa. My smooth-voiced loving grandpa,” as she broke down in tears and the crowd broke down with her. At the reception she remembered how they would watch “Dancing With the Stars,” and “American Idol” together. “He pretended not to like them, but he loved those shows. He would teach me silly dances like the mashed potato.”