Yesterday marked the beginning of Black History Month, a day I personally celebrate by quietly intoning the name of one of our many ancestors who have paved the way for us as a people. Ever since I was old enough to read and understand the gravity of this month, I have always seen it as a day of celebration. But this year, the first day of Black History Month wasn’t a day of customary celebration for me, but rather a day of morning.
My sorrow began with a phone call from a good friend of mine from Atlanta that I often talk music and politics with, who called to inform me that Don Cornelius, the founder and longtime host of the revered syndicated music show Soul Train, had elected to join the ancestors. My first reaction was: I couldn’t believe it; even after I have read numerous news accounts, I still find it hard to accept that the man I call the Don of Black American music is no longer with us.
Inspired by American Bandstand, Cornelius noted the dearth of hipness the show suffered from and set out to create a hipper show that would appeal to African-American teens. After convincing the brass at television station WCHI-TV to allow him to have a show, the former radio personality gathered some local teen dancers and recording artists for the first episode of Soul Train that premiered on August 17, 1970. The show was an immediate hit with Chicago teens and paved the way for Soul Train to eventually become the longest-running syndicated show on TV (1970-2005).
For many Americans, Don Cornelius was the dapper TV host with a velvety smooth baritone voice who came into their living rooms every Saturday via Soul Train. But for African-American youth — especially those of us who were living in small rural towns that were disconnected from the mainstream of Black American pop culture — Don Cornelius was our cultural lifeline, providing us with all the latest fashions, music, movies and dances that were, as we used to say in the '70s, “hip and happening.” As a teen, I can vividly remember being glued to the TV set soaking in every dance step, every outfit and note of music that was being played. I literally hung onto every word of every interview that Don Cornelius ever conducted. I knew all of the members of the Soul Train Gang by name. I was especially proud of the fact that the dance troupe contained Mississippians and fellow Jackson State alums (Hollis Pippins and Bridget Archer). With the tragic loss of Don Cornelius, Black America lost a great visionary pioneer in African-American broadcasting and music, a gigantic cultural icon whose legacy should not go unsung.
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