When I was a kid, my father pastored a church in Gary, Indiana in the mid-late 60's. In Gary, we got all the Chicago television stations and I remember watching a local show that was hosted by the baritone-voiced man with an ever-growing Afro. I liked his voice. I liked his clothes. I loved the music that he introduced. More than that, I liked him.
That television show was called Soul Train. And I was hooked from the time I was eight years old.
Now don't get me wrong, I was a Beatles fan first and foremost. But something was different here. The Beatles made me think and imagine but The Four Tops made me feel. I couldn't dance then or now but, Good Lord!, I wanted to and I tried to. Occasionally, I still try.
There was also talk in 1967 about this group of five brothers who were performing at local venues and even schools, if I remember correctly. Everybody was talking about them but it would be a couple of years before I got to see them. I am talking about The Jackson 5, of course.
In the 60's there was another show called American Bandstand. It was hosted by Dick Clark and they did have some great performers on that show: The Jackson 5, The Four Tops, The O'Jays, etc. It was aired on Saturday afternoons but it was so... don't make me say it.
Soul Train, however, had a different energy to it; a whole different vibe. It was exciting stuff. This was where I got to see the bands and vocals groups that I really wanted to see. As I sit here and wonder what the difference was, I am amused at my own conclusion that the bands like Gerry and the Pacemakers or the Beach Boys or Paul Revere and the Raiders were all trying to get girls. Guys like The Temptations and the Four Tops and singers like Marvin Gaye were singing like they had already gotten the girl.
We moved from Gary back to Florida and there was so much about living in Gary that I missed. One thing, for sure, was I missed watching Soul Train and I missed those kids in "the proj."
Fortunately for me, Soul Train went nation-wide in 1971 and I found it almost immediately. I was thrilled! There he was Don Cornelius again. Looking good.
If you have read much of my other blog stuff, you will now that I was born into the home of a Pentecostal pastor. In those days, they were pretty hard on rock music and dancing was just forbidden! So you can imagine that watching Soul Train was not on the accepted list of entertainment choices. But it aired on Saturday afternoon TV while my dad was writing his sermon for the next day and mom was practicing the organ or piano. So, I would watch my little sister and together we would watch Soul Train. I need to ask her if she remembers that.
Don Cornelius was so cool. I loved the afore-mentioned Afro. When I was 20, I got a perm in my hair because I wanted that Don Cornelius Afro. I'm not kidding. I wore glasses that looked like Don Cornelius would wear. He was so cool. I was so... not.
But it wasn't just clothes and looks. It wasn't even that great voice. This was a man of dignity and understanding. He understood the music, certainly, but he understood what was behind the music. And if he didn't, he would find out during the show. I remember him asking Marvin Gaye was was the inspiration for the song Sexual Healing. Even DC was stunned when Marvin answered that the song was inspired by God.
It was that understanding and that search for understanding that influenced me so much. Since then, I have always wanted to know what was behind the composing or performing of this or that song. Cornelius didn't just enjoy the song, he understood the song and it seemed to give the song a depth for him and I wanted what he had in that regard.
It was that dignity that came not from what he knew or how he dressed but what was inside of him. It was a dignity of person. It was that dignity that translated into cool for me. The same can be said of Miles Davis. But for Cornelius, and not for Davis, that dignity never turned into disdain. At least, I never saw it.
Below is a YouTube recording (from Japan) of the only time Don Cornelius danced on Soul Train. It is perfect because he is dancing with the adorable Mary Wilson.
Patti LaBelle called Don Cornelius, "simply a genius, and the contributions he made to music and our culture are second to none. I will always treasure the fond memories I have of working with Don over the years and being part of the history that he created through Soul Train."
In his later years, Cornelius ran into trouble through some tragic mistakes of his own. His actions were less than dignified but I will not stand in judgment over the heart and soul of another. However he ended and in whatever condition he ended, he had a hand in creating something inside of me and I will be forever grateful.
Just now as I'm sitting here writing, The Four Tops have come on the radio singing the words "It's the same old song but with a different meaning since you've been gone." I don't think I'll write anymore.
Fare the well, Don Cornelius. Say hello to Marvin.