VIBE Vault: Don Cornelius Brought Black Music to Audiences Nationwide
From VIBE’s September 1995 issue.
Juice? You want juice? Bust this: Long before Aresenio or BET, Don Cornelius single-handedly brought black music into living rooms nationwide. And he’s kept it there longer than anyone could have predicted. Soul Train defined a Black Metropolis that resembles both urban block parties and chocolate-suburbia cookouts. More than a Darktown Follies version of American Bandstand, the sweaty dance party that’s celebrating its 25th anniversary this fall remains an alternative nation of soul whose chilly studio is suffused with the aroma of Afro Sheen and the vapors from buckets of finger-lickin’ chicken.
As the original loose-hipped dancers swayed to the rhythm doin’ da bump, the man who created “the hippest trip on television” observed the spectacle from behind his pedestal. Or as my homegal Sheila says, “Don Cornelius always reminded me of someone’s father at the party. Only thang, you never had to worry about him turning on the lights.”
A former disk jockey and sportscaster from Chicago, Cornelius has a voice folks will never forget: That muddy water baritone is a combination of in-da-basement cool and between-the-sheets funky. Whether introducing contestants at the scramble board or chilling onstage with dancing machines the Jackson 5 or inner-visionary Stevie Wonder, Cornelius always looked like the quintessential Ebony/Jet man.
His far-reaching vision of black music, dance and fashion has influenced a generation of film and video directors, visual artists and now ‘70’s funk revivalists. Nowhere else on TV could one view the sweaty papa of love, Barry White, performing with a 40-piece orchestra and see Elton John—the first white artist to make it to the show—piano-swinging through “Bennie and the Jets.”
Today, a quarter-century after Cornelius produced the first episode in Chi-Town for $400, Soul Train is still roaring down the tracks: The dancers are still sweating on the Soul Train line, teenagers are still unscrambling the letters, and though heonly introduces the show now, deep down, we’ll always hear tha Don intoning “Peace Love and sooo-uuul.”
-Michael A. Gonzales