Legendary Creator of 'Soul Train' TV Show Dies

Don Cornelius' velvety voice brought African-American dance and music to a wider audience, and he showcased musical acts that would later become stars. Host Michel Martin talks with NPR correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates about Cornelius' life and work.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now, we want to take a moment to remember the life and legacy of Don Cornelius, the creator of "Soul Train." He was found dead today in his California home of a gunshot wound. He was 75 years old. Don Cornelius will be remembered as the silky-voiced host who brought African-American dance and music to a wider audience.

The syndicated program helped launch the careers or showcase the talents of countless household names, including Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan and James Brown.

Here to tell us more about this is NPR correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates, who profiled the 40 year history of "Soul Train" back in 2010. Karen, thanks so much for joining us.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: My pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, a lot of us learned our moves from watching "Soul Train" back in the day. I don't need to - I don't need to date myself, but I'm counting myself as one of those. But was the show important for the American culture, overall, beyond African-Americans?

BATES: You know, it was because this was on nationally and, basically, what it did was show black kids sort of just being themselves without really thinking about having to be a model minority or anything else, having fun. And it made other people want to have fun, too.

The difference between "Soul Train," I think, and a couple of the other dance shows that existed at that point was that, while Don Cornelius was targeting this at black audiences and black kids, he welcomed everybody aboard. He said, you know, we're doing it. We think it's the bomb. If you think it's the bomb, come on over here.

MARTIN: Like KC and the Sunshine Band, for example, fronted by a performer who is not African-American.

BATES: Sure. The Average White Band showed up and people jammed to them and this guy named Gino Vannelli, who says, I never would have had a career if Don Cornelius hadn't said, I don't care if he's a white boy. He is a soulful white boy. He is coming on the show.

MARTIN: And that's in front of the camera. Behind the scenes, I think, important to note that Don Cornelius owned the show at a time when very few people of color, black people, owned media entities. I just want to play a short clip from a documentary that was done or maybe this was an interview that - he talked about why this was important to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

DON CORNELIUS: After a short time in radio, the first thing I began to really notice is that there was no black television and television was just white this, white that, you know, market this, white that. No TV that targeted our culture.

BATES: He told me that when I interviewed him on the celebration of the 40th anniversary, a documentary that was done, and he felt very strongly because people said, oh, nobody's going to buy this. There's not going to be any advertisers. So he lined up the advertisers and, after the first couple of shows, people were like, wow. They buy things.

MARTIN: What's his legacy, Karen?

BATES: I think a couple of things. Right now, the popularity of scores of dance shows and even talent shows like the "X Factor" and "American Idol" sort of have their genesis in "Soul Train." I think it was the natural precursor to the music videos that we see now where lots of dancing, lots of moves go on.

MARTIN: And even little kids' shows.

BATES: Even little kids' shows.

MARTIN: To kids - for younger kids that feature dance.

BATES: Yeah. The other thing is that it was a great font of inspiration for style and lots of designers now - couturiers even talk about the fact. The style often doesn't come from the couture house down. It filters from the street up. And for better or for worse, thank you, Mr. Cornelius, for those hot pants.

MARTIN: No comment. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios remembering the legendary Don Cornelius, host of "Soul Train." He was found dead in his home today and he was 75. Thank you, Karen.

BATES: My pleasure.

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