An Appreciation: Looking back on 'Soul Train' and Don Cornelius
As a suburban white kid in Raleigh, N.C., I grew up on “American Bandstand,” but when I wanted to feel cool, I’d watch “Soul Train.” Not only was the opening, which involved an animated train coming ‘round the tracks simultaneously iconic and goofy (we all imitated the “Soooooouuulllll Train” announcer, who tried to replicate a train whistle), the dancing was amazing and the musical guests were often sublime.
So it was with great sadness that I woke up today to hear of "Soul Train" founder/host Don Cornelius’s passing, which early reports are indicating was a suicide. It always seems especially poignant when someone who brought so much happiness to others’ lives can’t find the same in his own.
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What I remember most about “Soul Train” is the dance line, where dancers stood in a two lines facing each other and a pair (or a brazen solo dancer) would strut their stuff down the middle. I could often replicate the moves on “American Bandstand,” but these dancers had steps that I could only gaze upon in awe.
Another big difference was that when performers appeared on “American Bandstand,” the dancers were seated in bleachers, surrounding host Dick Clark, who inevitably had his pencil microphone in one hand and a copy of the album cover to hold up in the other. For “Soul Train,” the dancers often stayed on the dance floor when the artists sang, usually from a platform above them. Cornelius understood that the music moved our souls and our feet and that it was not disrespectful to join in the performance rather than quietly sit and observe.
I will admit until I watched the below clip, I had no idea that artists like Elton John and David Bowie appeared on “Soul Train,” but it makes me love the show even more. In many ways, “Soul Train” brought the black experience into white homes in a fun, palatable way, especially in the South where I grew up in the shadow of a sign that read “This is Ku Klux Klan country” (but that’s a different story). I wanted to hang with these "Soul Train" dancers, but I knew I would never be hip enough. In my school, which had gone through forced integration and busing, "Soul Train" was something we could share.
My clearest memory of “Soul Train” is, of course, Cornelius himself. I don’t ever remember seeing him in anything other than a three-piece suit and he was usually standing in front of a makeshift train, serving as our Soul Conductor. He always seemed a little stiff and unhip, but that may have been coming through a child’s eyes. The baritone voice, however, was always strong, authoritative and steady.
I quit watching “Soul Train” long before Cornelius quit hosting in 1993. I never met him, but was often at industry events with him and I’d hear awed whispers that he was in the room.
Cornelius told the Los Angeles Times in 2010 that a movie about “Soul Train” was in discussions. Hopefully, that will still progress and teach a whole new generation about the show and Cornelius’s important cultural contributions.
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