Fans Mourn 'Soul Train' Host, Don Cornelius Was 75

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Don Cornelius dismissed the description that Soul Train was the "black" American Bandstand. He said the show was for everybody, and he showcased white acts as well as black — as long as they were funky. The show was an important cultural barometer and a touch-point for young African Americans who saw few reflections of their lives on TV or in the movies in the 1970s and eighties.


Music fans are remembering Don Cornelius, host of "Soul Train." He died in Los Angeles yesterday, an apparent suicide at age 75.

Cornelius was famous for his impeccable clothes, his afro and his baritone voice. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports Cornelius was multicultural long before most Americans knew that word.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Don Cornelius did not like it when you called "Soul Train" the black version of "American Bandstand." He was right to object. For one thing, "Soul Train" was way hipper. And for another, it was far more inclusive than many other shows aimed at teens. He made "Soul Train" for black kids but everybody, as the O'Jays liked to sing, was invited to get on board.


O'JAYS: (Singing) People all over the world, join hands, come on, start a love train, ride the train, love train, come on...

BATES: Until "Soul Train," there hadn't been a dance show aimed at a black market. When I interviewed him in 2010, Cornelius said he saw a niche.


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, general market this, white that.

BATES: So he created a show that would allow black teens to see themselves. Drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, of The Roots, explains what that meant to him growing up.

AHMIR "QUESTLOVE" THOMPSON: The show was very important because historically, it's one of the first shows that sold us Afro-centricity.

BATES: Even the ads on "Soul Train" were tailored to black consumers - like this one, with a Swahili chorus for the hair styling product Afro Sheen.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ...use Afro Sheen. Beautiful people, use Afro Sheen.

BATES: Cornelius had exactly the right show at exactly the right time. Young Americans were finding commonality across race, grooving to some of the same music, wearing some of the same clothes.

Don Cornelius became an unwitting ambassador from the world of black soul. But he was an ambassador, not a despot. The main prerequisite for appearing as a guest or as a dancer on "Soul Train" was this: You had to have soul. Period.


BATES: So in addition to The Temptations and Aretha Franklin, the Jackson 5 and Curtis Mayfield, "Soul Train" featured white guests, like the Ohio band Wild Cherry.


WILD CHERRY: (Singing) Yeah, they were dancing and singing and moving to the grooving.And just when it hit me, somebody turned around and shouted, play that funky music, white boy...

BATES: And a group of rockin' Scots with the cheek to call themselves the Average White Band.


AVERAGE WHITE BAND: Cut the cake, give me a little piece, let me lick up the cream. Cut the cake, I want a little piece, baby you know what I mean.

BATES: When disco threatened to make funk and R&B irrelevant, Cornelius regrouped quickly with Donna Summer.


DONNA SUMMER: I love to love ya, baby. I love to love ya, baby...

BATES: Followed by Barry White, the Bee Gees and others. And the beat went on. "Soul Train" was on air for almost four decades and continues in syndication. So Don Cornelius and his hip, elegant image will remain with us. Think about him the next time you're at a wedding, and they do the "Soul Train" line.


BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.


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