*Don Cornelius was the engineer and conductor of Soul Train. He made us proud to be Black, showcased our talents an took us on an entertaining ride that lasted 35 years. But, Don Cornelius was a complicated man.
Soul Train was a phenomenon. Even today, more than forty years since the first show roared down the tracks, we can watch it and smile. I remember the first time I saw “Soul Train.” I was the new girl and the only (dare I say) Negro, in my class when I lived briefly in Dade County, Florida. I had never lived in the South and it was a culture shock. One of the white students asked me how all the dancers on “Soul Train” went up and down at the same time. I tuned into the show that weekend and low and behold, Aretha Franklin was belting out “Rock Steady” and the Afros were going up and down in unison on the beat. I was a blown away.
I had never seen so many beautiful young Black people on TV. Every week I tuned in to “The hippest trip on TV.” The talent was stellar; Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, James Brown, The Jackson Five. Stevie Wonder and so many others. The real stars were the Soul Train dancers; Damita Jo Freeman, Pat Davis, Jeffrey Daniel, Jody Watley, Shabba-Do, Jermaine Stewart and of course the “Soul Train line.” The “Scramble Board” was always easy, but fun. Even the commercials were not to be missed. Remember the Johnson Products’ ads for Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen Cosmetics? My favorite was the Afro Sheen “Blow Out” kit — tick, tick, tick…Boom! A product that took the model from a teeny weenie tight natural to a big Angela Davis ‘fro in thirty seconds. “Wanu wazui…use Afro Sheen. Beautiful people, use Afro Sheen.”
The series was a fashion show, hair show and dance show in one. It was a cultural experience I shared with my white classmates. They wanted to know how to get those hairstyles and how to do those dance moves, and so did I!
As fate would have it, I moved back to Los Angeles and was asked on a date by one of “Regulars” on Soul Train. All I can tell you about him now is that he was light-skinned and had a big fluffy Afro. If you can imagine that someone took me to a taping of a show where we would dance for hours and be paid with a box of Kentucky Fried chicken, and I was impressed!
This was long before digital cameras and cell phones so I don’t have a clue what I wore that day. I know it was fly though. We arrived on the set of the show and I was very excited. I got to see Don Cornelius and the Soul Train dancers up close. One of the stage managers came up and asked if I could dance. My date jumped in and said, “Yes.” I was told that he was “Front riser” material. So we were led to one of the platforms off the main stage where one of the elevated cameras would be filming us. I was terrified, because you see, I can’t dance. I can fake it in a white high school but on national television with the best dancers ever? I mean, remember the Soul Train line? These kids did flips and splits. I had to work to stay on beat. Anyway, my date told me that all I had to do is turn when the camera was on us. He would guide me. We had to bring a change of clothes because they taped two shows in one day. And, in between we got that box of chicken and a biscuit.
I made it through the day and into the archives of Soul Train history. Fortunately, when I saw the shows I was on, I didn’t cringe. Hey, I was on TV!
Years later, I was working as an on-camera fashion and beauty reporter for “AM LOS ANGELES.” One night I was at Le Dome, a ritzy Sunset Strip restaurant, and low and behold Don Cornelius walks over to me and tells me that he watches me on television. Wow! I didn’t get a chance to fully enjoy the moment because he demanded to know, “How did you get on there?” This was fifteen years after Soul Train broke barriers, he had never seen another Black girl on a morning show doing fashion and beauty for a general market audience. It took Don Cornelius, in his gruff way, to let me know that I was a role model and he was impressed.
I saw Don Cornelius many times over the years since our first meeting. I had dinner at his home, and sat in the audience of the first of several Soul Train Awards tapings. Each time I had a conversation with him I came away thinking he was a little mysterious. Although he had achieved fame, fortune and financial success, he always seemed like the local DJ from Chicago. I finally figured out that he never really grew into a comfortable place with Don Cornelius, the icon. He was like the Wizard of Oz, very tough and could be rude (Telling the audience to shut up) but underneath he was probably afraid someone would pull back the curtain and see that he was a mortal. You see, Don Cornelius knew he was lucky. And, maybe the day Johnson Products Company founder, George E. Johnson, agreed to sponsor his local dance show was his lucky day. But, he went on to work very hard and build a brand and legacy that we came to love.
As we celebrate what is now known as African American History month, I salute Don Cornelius for all that he gave us and the rich history in every episode of Soul Train, the show he created. Don you were all that and I thank you. We will always remember, I’m Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!” R.I.P. my brother.
Angela de Joseph is a filmmaker, journalist and health advocate. She is the executive director of The Global Wellness Project, a non-profit media agency committed to eliminating health disparities in minorities.