Remembering 'Soul Train' Creator Don Cornelius

Don Cornelius, the host and creator of Soul Train, died Wednesday at the age of 75 of an apparent suicide. Adolfo Quinones, also known as Shabba Doo, was one of the program's original dancers. He remembers Cornelius as the emancipator of street dance.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

We were going to talk with Christopher Weingarten from Spin magazine today about tweeting record reviews. We still hope to do that at another time. But this morning, police in Los Angeles found the body of Don Cornelius. First reports point to suicide. Cornelius changed television and America in 1970 as the creator, host and producer of "Soul Train." He left that program in 1993 with his signature sign off.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")

DON CORNELIUS, HOST:

And you can bet your last money, it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey. I'm Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul.

CONAN: What did you learn from Don Cornelius and "Soul Train?" Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Adolfo "Shabba Doo" Quinones was one of the original "Soul Train" dancers. We spoke with him a couple of years ago about the show's influence on music, dance and culture. And, Adolfo Quinones, welcome back to the program. I'm sorry it has to be under such sad circumstances.

ADOLFO QUINONES: Yes. I'm happy to be back. However, I come back with mixed emotions. Obviously, the passing of Don Cornelius has a personal effect on me and I'm sure millions and millions of other people. He was a great influencer, and I've been calling him the street dancer's emancipator and the soul provider...

CONAN: Hmm. Street dancer's...

QUINONES: ...that allows for all of us to be something.

CONAN: Street dancer's emancipator. What do you mean by that?

QUINONES: He gave us the right to be free. He put us on the world stage and said, hey, show the people who you are. Be free. Let it go. Let loose. And in that way, our dancing that was at one time just being, you know, performed in social environments, in people's living rooms across the United State during holidays mostly, and some, you know, small dance clubs, we actually had a television forum. So in that way he emancipated us. He gave us the freedom to be free dancers and to express ourselves in ways that we hadn't enjoyed before.

CONAN: The moves that you did on the show as Shabba Doo, were those the same moves you did in your bedroom, in your house and on the street?

QUINONES: Essentially, yes. There was a number of signature moves that went on to become professional gold standards for the street dance and hip-hop culture like locking, for instance. That was basically birthed on "Soul Train" but was impregnated, if you will, in the street clubs in and around Los Angeles area. But yes, for the most part, the dances that we were doing, we were doing in each other's, you know, homes and house parties.

CONAN: What was Don Cornelius' influence on you?

QUINONES: His influence on me was looking at him, being the spiffy dresser that he was, I mean, the guy was the epitome of cool, you know? I used to look at him and think, God, you know, I want to be like him. I want to be like that. I want to wear clothes like that. He was just so cool, and he had swagger then before people knew it was swagger, you know, and so it had an influence on me as an artist, later on as a professional dancer.

If you've ever taken note of my career, you would see that I wore a lot of suits and things, and I tend to dress up. So there was a handful of people that I aspire to be when I grew up and that was - one was Cab Calloway. James Brown, we always want to be James Brown. And then Don Cornelius. You know, being a young black kid, you know, you want to be like that. You want to be like the man.

CONAN: You described him as a quiet man when you were on the show a couple of years ago.

QUINONES: Yeah.

CONAN: Did he take an active part in saying, do this, don't do that?

QUINONES: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Don Cornelius is - was very hands-on with respect to the show. But, you know, he was smart enough to allow us to be who were, you know, and he just created an environment. But every now and again, he'd say, hey, you, you know, kid. Come over here. Do that thing you were doing, that crazy thing. Or he was standing back of the "Soul Train" backdrop there that looked like the back of the train, and he'd say, you know, during the breaks or whatever, he'd say, (unintelligible). You still acting crazy? Or...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

QUINONES: ...he would shout to different people. So he knew us, and he would talk to us. And every now and again, the early - especially in the early days, he would come down the "Soul Train" line. So that was a big treat, you know?

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Matt in Portland, Oregon: As a kid growing up in suburban Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, I remember sitting in front of the TV with my bowl of SpaghettiOs hose to watch "Soul Train." I recall being mesmerized by the show and all of the cool dancers. The opening animation and the theme song hooked me instantly. The deep voice of Mr. Cornelius just dripped in hot buttered soul. I don't think I would have been introduced to funk, soul, R&B, gospel or early hip-hop without it. I'm now passing on my love of that music to my five-year-old. We have are own "Soul Train" dance parties in the living room. The kid has got some funky moves. RIP, Don Cornelius. That's it from...

QUINONES: Wow.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Shawn, Shawn with us from Oakland. Shawn, are you there?

SHAWN: Oh, yes, I am. Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good. You're on the air.

SHAWN: Hi. Thank you. What I love from Don Cornelius was that there was an entirely new type of way to be black. There was a black world that was both part-African, part-American, but wholly unique in that it was a different world than the blight and the crime shown about black folks in the 1970s. And so growing up and seeing that, it empowered me in such a way that no book could, no music could. But just watching us be that way, positive and respectful and talented, was such a huge boost for a kid growing up in the 1970s.

CONAN: And, Shabba Doo, that had to be your story, too. You grew up in Cabrini-Green, one of the most notorious projects in Chicago.

QUINONES: Oh, yes. You know, I wanted to say, you know, one doesn't grow up Cabrini-Green. One survives Cabrini-Green. But growing up - I grew up after I left.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Shawn, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

SHAWN: Thank you.

CONAN: Shabba Doo, you - talk to us about what he was like as a - you got the chance, as you grew up on the program, to see what he was like as a producer, not just the creator and host of the show, which, I guess, we all got to see on TV. But as producer, can you talk to us about that a little bit?

QUINONES: Don Cornelius, you know, later on in my career after leaving the show, being part of The Lockers and having my run with that crew, I then went solo. I had an opportunity to come back to the show now as a full-grown man and kind of collaborate with Don on my appearance on the show as a guest star. And my impression was he was the consummate professional. And, you know, people really didn't know that he was really funny, as well. He had a kind of a dry humor, but he was a funny guy. He liked to tell jokes, you know?

CONAN: Can you give us an example?

QUINONES: Well, you know, like, you know, just - if you watched the interview he gave The Lockers, post our performance on the show, it kind of gives you an example. He would come to each one of us, and he knew us, and he would make little jokes, like he would say, you know, hey, Shabba Doo. How are you doing? How are you and your crazy sister are doing? Stuff like that. But he was kind of inside joke, you know. Or he'd say, hey, watch out. They always do that move. Watch that kick, you know, or I think he's going to take you down or something - all these kinds of references to the wild sort of dancing we were doing.

CONAN: People forget your sister was also a performer on the show, one of the Butterfly Girls.

QUINONES: Yes, yes, yes. Fawn, Fawn Quinones was one of - and she went on after the show to marry one of the original Lockers, Fluky Luke, and they have a son together.

CONAN: Here's an email from Kevin in Jacksonville: To this day, I cannot look at those little plastic magnetic letters that you place on your refrigerator without thinking about the "Soul Train" Scramble Board. Besides Don Cornelius' classic love, peace and soul at the end of the show, the scramble board was my favorite part. It always made you wonder why they did it, because the puzzle was always so easy, but it's a classic. RIP, Don. Love, peace and soul. The scramble board, was that something that you paid any attention to?

QUINONES: Oh, yes, of course. That was the highlight of the show. There was a couple of highlights, but a main highlight was the "Soul Train" Scramble Board. Me and my sister actually did that.

CONAN: You did that?

QUINONES: Won that one.

CONAN: Well, tell us what - for those who don't remember, tell us what it was.

QUINONES: You know, I can't remember what the name of the artist was. I think it was Tina Turner, I think, but I do remember what we won. I - my sister won a red eight-track player, and I won a yellow one.

CONAN: Wow, an eight-track tape player.

QUINONES: We got a little - yeah. And then I got a little Afro blowout kit that came with it. That was the Afro Sheen, you know, Ultra Sheen cosmetic kit.

CONAN: What did you have to do to win? Just guess the - guess what those scrambled letters spelled?

QUINONES: Yeah, yeah, yeah, like, they would scramble these magnetic colorful letters, like, on this circular board. And then you would have to, you know, give you a minute or so, and you'd have to figure out what the name of the artist was.

CONAN: And...

QUINONES: You know, what's kind of funny is that - well, some of the dancers in the show, you know, they would be standing off-camera. And they would try to throw in, hey, no, she was (unintelligible), you know, things like that.

CONAN: So you didn't know the answers ahead of time? Because we always thought you did.

QUINONES: No.

CONAN: We're talking with...

QUINONES: I didn't know the answers ahead of time.

CONAN: We're talking with Shabba Doo, also known as Adolfo Quinones, the head of On Q Media. Now, about the late Don Cornelius, if you haven't heard, he - found dead in his home in Los Angeles today, this morning, apparently as the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's go next to Ray, and Ray's with us from Eagle River in Wisconsin.

RAY: Yes. I would like to say that Don and "Soul Train" - I was brought up on the north side of Milwaukee. I'm a white person, and I'll tell you, it helped bridge the gap between the black and white community immensely. It was a good time, and Milwaukee was one of the best cities to live in, in between Motown coming through and Don Cornelius and everything. And the inner city had employment. We all got along. We used to talk about "Soul Train" all the time. I'm telling you, it was a magnificent part for the black culture, breakthrough in the media that show people another side of positiveness of them and how we can get all get along through dance and being creative. It was wonderful.

CONAN: And, Shabba Doo, that's an important point to make. Back when that program went national, 1971, there was a lot of racial tension in this country, and this program had its part in breaking that down a little bit.

QUINONES: Yes, it did. Yes, it did. "Soul Train" did what most - what the United Nations, in some respect, failed to do: bring people together and communities in different countries together in a way that no other institution or government has ever been able to successfully do over a long period of time. We've been able to do it in short spurs, but not a long - over a long period of time. "Soul Train" was a catalyst for respect and love for each other through music and dance. It was that type of big, kind of, thinking show.

CONAN: Ray, thanks very much for the call. Here's an email from Eric in Birmingham, Alabama: I learned as a kid in the 1970s that not every program that starts with a cartoon is a cartoon.

And interesting, this one from Trey in St. Louis: I remember watching Saturday morning cartoons. When "Soul Train" came on TV, I knew TV time was over. My mom would dash to the TV and run us out of the house to play. Twenty-five years later, I now go online to see all the culture I missed out on. And, Shabba Doo, as a grownup, you mentioned returning to the show as a guest star. But did you keep in touch with Don Cornelius?

QUINONES: You know, I mentioned that in my Universal Truth: Honoring and Preserving Street-Dance Culture page on Facebook. No, I didn't as much as I should have, and I regret that. The last time I saw Don was some years back after a Whispers concert. It was - we were just hanging out backstage and talking and stuff. But, you know, I just - you know, you get caught up in making a living. You get caught up in doing your work and - that you forget what's most important in this world are people...

CONAN: Let's see if we go...

QUINONES: ...and what they mean to you, you know? You get caught up.

CONAN: Corey's(ph) on the on the line joining us from St. Louis.

COREY: Hey, guys. How are you doing? Love the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

COREY: A few things I've always loved about "Soul Train" as a kid, as a '70s baby, as I call myself, we had "American Bandstand," "Dance Fever," the lip-sync(ph) show. But as a black kid, this was a show that really, you know, showed our music, our artists, people we hear and identify with on a daily basis on the mainstream, on the main TV, you know, stage. And it's amazing that 22 years that this show remained on the air in the midst of cable, MTV, VH1 and everything else, I love the fact that Mr. Cornelius, rest in peace, that he kept the same concept throughout the entire 22 years that that show was on.

CONAN: And, Corey, I don't mean to cut you off. The phone line is betraying us. We really have a hard time hearing what you had to say, but I think we get the spirit of it. Thanks very much for the phone call.

We'd like to end with this email from Alicia: I remember growing up as a little girl listening to the sounds of my parents' records. Along came "Soul Train," and the first time I saw Aretha Franklin, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, I was hooked. So progressive, so magical to see all the different kinds of people gathered to dance. My wish was to one day be on the show, to have fun and dance with all the interesting people from various backgrounds and ethic groups. Mr. Cornelius invited me to his house to see so many incredible acts. He invited everybody, no matter how old, what color and how much money you had, he always had the best parties. And, Shabba Doo, I think we can all agree with that.

QUINONES: Yes, wholeheartedly.

CONAN: Shabba Doo, thanks very much for your time today. We're sorry for your loss.

QUINONES: Yeah. Thank you. And everybody, get on the "Soul Train." Keep dancing. Keep doing what you love to do. And remember to always reach out to the people that mean most, because they're not going to always be here.

CONAN: Adolfo "Shabba Doo" Quinones joined us from his office in Los Angeles. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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