The music world lost another great one this week with the death of Don Cornelius, the originator of the TV show Soul Train. Although he was not a recording artist, as a DJ and later as host of Soul Train, Cornelius was hugely influential in exposing Black recording artists to the masses in the United States.
As noted in many of the tributes to Don Cornelius, Soul Train was a groundbreaking TV show in the 1970s, giving Black America a coveted spot in the TV limelight alongside similar “dance and music” shows like American Bandstand that appealed more to white audiences. But Soul Train was also important for young white kids like me, serving as a musical bridge to a different style of music and culture. Watching those Saturday morning Soul Train programs was both an eye and ear-opening experience for me and other suburban white youth. Great music and great dancing, and oh those outfits! They certainly didn’t dress like that on the more mainstream American Bandstand!
By the time I became a regular Soul Train viewer in 1974, I was already a big fan of soul artists such as Al Green, Spinners, the O’Jays, Barry White, and Billy Preston. But Soul Train also turned me on to the less mainstream, funkier acts in the business such as the Ohio Players, Mandrill, and James Brown. Musically, this was a revelation, exposing me to exciting new music, but the show also opened my mind to the fact that “minorities” were not people to be scared of … or to look down upon. I grew up in a typical white American neighborhood, and during my first five years of elementary school the students were also white. I was living in a comfortable white cocoon, but that certainly was representative of the real world. It wasn’t until I entered junior high school that I was finally exposed to black students. There was a natural curiosity, if not fear, of what “those people” would be like. But I quickly realized that they weren’t much different than me, except of course for the color of their skin. And that music; oh, that amazing music! By the time I entered high school I was much more comfortable around Black people and actually had something in common with many of them because of my music interests.
I remember one guy in particular: Raymond Butler. Raymond was a senior, and a star of the school’s football team. Cool guy on campus, very tall with a huge afro and an even bigger smile. I was a lowly sophomore, a skinny white kid who wore eyeglasses and ugly bellbottoms. Raymond and I seemingly had nothing in common, but we both had a Speech class together, with a great teacher named Miss Romigh, and we ended up sitting next to one another. I’m not sure how the subject came up, but we eventually started talking about music and made a connection. You like the Ohio Players? Yeah, man! Skin Tight! Jive Turkey! Fire! Love Rollercoaster! And on and on it went.
Music connects people. It always has and always will. And because of Don Cornelius and Soul Train I think the world is a more racially harmonic place than it used to be. Cornelius’ famous closing line was: “Love, Peace, and Soul” — still an appropriate and beautiful message.