Love, Peace & Soul: A Tribute To Don Cornelius

Remembering what the great man's renegade spirit and artistic endeavour did for soul music and black culture the world over.
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Remembering what the great man's renegade spirit and artistic endeavour did for soul music and black culture the world over.

Don Cornelius 1936 -2012

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On 1st February 2012, Don Cornelius died aged 75 at his Mulholland Drive home in Los Angeles, apparently of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. The last years of Corenlius’ life were not his finest as ill health and a period of probation for spousal battery were much too prominent for a man whom had been such a major positive influence on American society across 4 decades.

Outside of in particular black American culture, Cornelius’ name may not be too familiar, but his legacy certainly is, and on an international level; particularly since the fruits of so much of his labour began to appear prolifically on Youtube in the last few years.

Cornelius is the man who invented, produced and presented (up until 1993) Soul Train - the longest running syndicated show in American TV history - and as such made Cornelius as influential and important black American entertainment entrepreneur as Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey. Because his show was born and raised in the disco seventies - and because he himself sported a bobbing afro,wide lapels, even wider flares and gravity-defying platform heels - it has become source material for revival, homage, caricature and appalling fancy dress ensembles across generations. As Philadelphia Records legend Kenny Gamble put it on news of his death ‘ (he provided) an outlet for black artists. (Soul Train was) a tremendous export’.

Cornelius is the man who invented, produced and presented (up until 1993) Soul Train - the longest running syndicated show in American TV history - and as such made Cornelius as influential and important black American entertainment entrepreneur as Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey

Don Cornelius first created his ‘hippest trip in America’ in 1970 for the local market in his native Chicago where he had already built a following as a radio DJ, but in no  more than a year, he had moved himself and the show to LA where it began its record-breaking stint, ending when he sold the rights to the show in 1976.

During its marathon run, everybody who was anybody, and plenty that weren’t in soul music (except inexplicably,amazingly Earth Wind & Fire!) graced the Soul Train set. Even David Bowie an Elton John performed on the show, and they have previousy cited how important to them it was that Soul Train acknowledged the music they were performing at the time. However the real stars of the show are frequently acknowledged as the people invited to come along and dance to the music. The Soul Train ‘line’ has become the stuff of legend and in its time produced its own heroes such as MC Hammer, Rosie Perez, Carmen Electra and Jeffrey Daniels an Jody Watley, who would be recruited to become part of Shalamar, the group that helped launch Cornelius’ co-owned record label SOLAR. In the first half of the eighties in particular, SOLAR acts such as Dynasty, Midnight Starr, Lakeside and The Deele (featuring the young LA & Babyface) dominated US R&B radio and were a major influence on the pop music of the decade. During that same time it also had an impact on cult TV in the UK, when Channel 4 launched 6:20 Soul Train (with Jeffrey Daniels as co-host) and had the young Jonathan Ross hitting the clubs to find our best dancers to feature on the show.

Today on TV, the Soul Train name is kept alive by BET who frequently show the Soul Train Awards, which in the last 2 years has staged magnificent tributes to Anita Baker and The Isley Brothers as well as never being shy of pulling on an afro and fondly parodying the classic years, and the man who’s style, vision and bucketloads of cool were such a major and positive influence on generations.

RIP Don Conelius and as the man himself put it, ‘love, peace and soul’

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