Soul Train Host Don Cornelius Dies at 75

by Belle Waring on February 2, 2012

Don Cornelius, who had a voice so mellow and soulful you’d come away from an interview with him and Isaac Hayes thinking “that Cornelius guy sounded pretty chilled out,” killed himself yesterday at 75. (Is that sad? I guess it depends why he did it. A long life, well-lived, and then you end it on your own terms—that doesn’t seem like a failure or a tragedy necessarily, though I would extend my condolences to his family.) In any case, he was the originator and host of one of the coolest TV shows of all time: Soul Train. When I was a kid, and wore an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time, there were pretty much no good shows on TV. But as a teen I could watch Moonlighting! Yeah, um. OK, there was Voltron, and The “A” Team etc., don’t hassle me. Anyway, Soul Train had incredible music, incredible dancing, and truly, the pinnacle-of-outrageawsome clothes. That foot-wide bow tie? For real? I found the whole thing mesmerizing but hadn’t thought much about it in a long time until I read the obituaries and saw that iconic Soul Train chugging along the hills. This following video shows you some great dancing and reinforces the point Amanda Marcotte made recently, that Saturday Night Fever was based on made-up nonsense and mostly people danced to disco like they danced to house music or rap or whatever: idiosyncratic moves and general rocking the beat. Now, maybe we would put this particular song in the Rare Groove box instead of the Disco box, but that’s just evidence of the extent to which they blended together, and, in the form of samples, formed the smooth undercurrent of (especially) west-coast hip-hop. All those slinky keyboards and horns? You heard it on the Soul Train before you heard it in The Chronic.

The Soul Train Youtube channel is generally amazing, and I am so buying a boxset now. The sound quality on this one isn’t as good, but a)it’s Marvin Gaye singing Distant Lover b) the look on the woman’s face at 2.02 when he comes down to sing into the crowd is truly beautiful. I know what you’re saying. “Belle Waring, I am a busy person and even though I am skiving off work I do not have 5 minutes to spare listening to one of the greatest singers of all time singing a beautiful sad song.” Well OK, Ms./Mr. Thing, you can listen to it open in another tab while you read a blog post write your journal article. Or you could watch Marvin Gaye in a knitted hat, charming the pants off of every person so inclined as to have their pants charmed off by a dude, and frankly, probably no small number who didn’t think they were in the “a dude can charm my pants off” crowd. Wishing you peace, love, and soul.

{ 41 comments }

1

Belle Waring 02.02.12 at 5:43 am

John and I are going to have to have a talk, because I watched this performance and I think I am pregnant with Marvin Gaye’s baby right now.

2

Belle Waring 02.02.12 at 6:02 am

Seriously, watch it. As long as you, maybe, tape a condom to the screen or something, I don’t know. Also, I always figured the Japanese musician Cornelius took his name from Don but apparently it’s after a character in Planet of the Apes. I would say he should retcon to this cooler option, but he has a son named Milo after the son of Cornelius in the movie, so I guess he’s stuck now. John and I actually considered Milo as a baby name, but then we moved to Singapore where it is a ubiquitous chocolate-milk/ovaltine substance given to children and sick people in lieu of coffee, and additionally did not have any boys. Yet.

3

Greg 02.02.12 at 6:18 am

belle@1 – the supposed immaculate conception link is non-operational. Cheers.

4

SN 02.02.12 at 6:22 am

There are always these things you think you’ll do when you grow up and somehow I thought I would eventually grow up to be able to dance like people did on Soul Train.

I’m of the ‘it’s always sad when people die’ school of thought. It’s sad when they kill themselves because it’s better to be dead when alive. Of course, it’s much, much sadder when they kill themselves and they were wrong about that. Somethings inevitability does not eliminate its sadness. I guess I must be getting old because 75 seems too soon to go.

5

Belle Waring 02.02.12 at 7:10 am

Thanks!

6

deinacrida_v2 02.02.12 at 8:28 am

Amidst all the hustle and bustle of CT there appears – sometimes – a “holding-my-breath-in-stillness” place, and this post did that. And yes, the “look” at 2.02 is really something to behold, isn’t it? And whatever happened: Go Well Mr Cornelius and Mr Gaye…and…us too. Thank you.

7

Phil 02.02.12 at 9:45 am

Journal article? Who has the leisure to sneak time off from writing journal articles in February? I don’t, that’s who… er, doesn’t… and I’m not even a full-time lecturer. I’m sneaking time off from preparing for next week’s classes, I’ll have you know, and I’m doing it in my own time. The implicit addressee of this post is revoltingly privileged and I hate him/her.

(Hmm. That was meant to come out more lighthearted and self-parodic than it seems to have done. But no time to correct it now, because, next week’s classes…)

I think I’ve only ever seen three minutes of Soul Train, and they were these. Probably not very typical, but very cool (see dictionary definition of “throwing shapes” at 0:20-0:30).

8

Walt 02.02.12 at 12:58 pm

Amanda Marcotte is completely wrong about disco dancing being a hoax. It is in fact a traditional form that dates back to Victorian England, as explained in this dramatic reenactment.

9

bert 02.02.12 at 2:38 pm

Lovely Marvin edit here.
May give you twins.

10

Phil 02.02.12 at 3:20 pm

You – and even Amanda – missed the real story, which is that the disco myth wasn’t made up out of whole cloth: it was ripped off from Northern Soul. Admittedly, it was ripped off from a mythical version of Northern Soul, but it was only one remove from something that actually happened. Just not in New Jersey.

11

Natilo Paennim 02.02.12 at 5:05 pm

Watching that first video made me wonder about how many people there are whose one claim to fame is that they appeared on an episode of Soul Train or American Bandstand or The Lawrence Welk Show, and they’ve never shut up about it since. (Although presumably most of the Lawrence Welk people have been dead for some time now.)

12

Tedra Osell 02.02.12 at 8:21 pm

Reading this post makes me want to have *your* baby, Belle.

13

Tedra Osell 02.02.12 at 8:24 pm

Also, in re the knitted cap, clearly he had to wear it because (1) without it the total sexiness of that performance would have caused some kind of explosion in the building; (2) being that sexy while wearing that hat is the work of a master, and he was showing of.

14

rb 02.02.12 at 9:57 pm

Does anyone else remember a (still/much) cheesier Canadian knock-off of Soul Train? Or is that just something I wish I remembered?

15

Tom Hurka 02.02.12 at 10:02 pm

I heard Amos Garrett (played the fabulous guitar in “Midnight at the Oasis”) say in a concert in a bar in the 1970s that the disco beat was just what used to be called the Texas Shuffle, as in Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up.” (Everyone remembers that, right?) His complaint about disco was that what had previously been just one among many rhythms you could play was now the only rhythm. Which would make disco suck no matter how people danced to it.

16

Matt 02.03.12 at 12:37 am

That’s certainly the coolest I’ve ever seen a bunch of guys wearing sweater vests, that’s for sure.

17

NickS 02.03.12 at 1:32 am

The microphone is just for show, right? He does have plenty of stage presence.

I think the first Soul Train performance that I’ve watched on youtube was Teena Marie when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about her.

18

Antti Nannimus 02.03.12 at 2:20 am

Hi,

I would never presume to judge any other person’s choice about how to end their own life, but up until now in my own, I’ve been gratefully guided by the brilliant Dorothy Parker, who said,

“Razors pain you
Rivers are damp
Acids stain you
Drugs cause cramp
Guns aren’t lawful
Nooses give
Gas smells awful
You might as well live.”

This poem of hers is one of the very few I have had committed to memory for many decades, and never regretted the brain cells dedicated to it!

Have a nice day,
Antti

19

CJColucci 02.03.12 at 4:03 am

I have to ask — an onion on your belt? I’m about your age, and I don’t remember that.

20

Belle Waring 02.03.12 at 5:25 am

CJColucci: it’s favorite quote from Grampa Simpson. He is well-known to have mentioned that as a young person, he “wore an onion on his belt, which was the style at the time.” Unless you’re just funnin’ me. No, wait the preceding is true even if you were funnin’ me.

21

Belle Waring 02.03.12 at 5:37 am

Natilo: anyone cool enough to have been chosen to boogie down the painted railroad tracks of the Soul Train dance floor has earned the right to never shut up about it for the rest of all time. Tedra: I agree about the hat, John and I have discussed this before, it’s also a kind of peacock-tail mating strategy, he feels, like: “look how sexy I am in this fucking hat. I am making it work. Now think how sexy I must be without the hat. Let’s have sex.” I think the same goes for the sweater vests.

Aside: there were some skinny brothers back in the 70s. Was everyone doing coke, or what? I mean, they were at my house, but sorry mom! Although there’s the one chunky guy rocking it in slow-motion at the beginning that is almost the best part of the video. He just lets loose with that shit.

22

Belle Waring 02.03.12 at 5:48 am

Just noticing: Phil, was there really organized dancing of the fully-choreographed-to-a-chosen-song type in the Northern Soul scene? Because that’s the truly imaginary part. (Freestyle dance battles? OK.) Well, that and the…ah…whitewashing of the disco movement. John Travolta delivers a surprisingly strong performance in what is a actually a surprisingly good movie, in its way, but where are the black people? And the queer people? I’m pretty sure a realistic Saturday Night Fever would look more like the first video. I haven’t seen it in a long time, and I’m pretty sure he has some black competitors, but the “disco is all about white, working-class guys from Jersey” thing was made up out of whole cloth. Or just transplanted across the Atlantic, perhaps, as you suggest.

23

Julian 02.03.12 at 6:19 am

I love disco. I used to both pop and break to it, and I still do it a bit when I’m walking the dog.

Why do people hate it so much? Do they hate … to dance?

24

Phil 02.03.12 at 8:31 am

organized dancing of the fully-choreographed-to-a-chosen-song type in the Northern Soul scene

No, but were we meant to think that was really happening in the film? (Haven’t seen it in a while.) I shouldn’t think the real-life equivalents of the Jets and the Sharks did much formation dancing either. I guess the real question is whether that’s one of the things that Nik Cohn said actually happened in New York.

that and the…ah…whitewashing of the disco movement.

That does stand out – Northern Soul was genuinely very white and very straight. (Not in a hostile way, just by demographic and cultural default.)

25

Anon 02.03.12 at 11:20 am

“Does anyone else remember a (still/much) cheesier Canadian knock-off of Soul Train? Or is that just something I wish I remembered?”

CityTV. Retro. Boogie. Dance. Party. It’s a thing of beauty. Especially the special punk episode, where a couple of punks are, in an RBDP tradition usually applied to its standard soul and disco fans, interviewed about their outfits. (“My mum sewed this patch on my leather jacket, and I got these safety pins at Canadian Tire.”)

26

Bill Benzon 02.03.12 at 11:39 am

…I’m pretty sure he has some black competitors…

Nor have I seen the movie in awhile, but I do remember that he & his partner lost the big competition to a Hispanic couple. Well, he was given the win, but he turned it down because he knew the Hispanic couple was better.

27

bert 02.03.12 at 12:22 pm

bq. The microphone is just for show, right?

This video is from later in the same show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=v=yhBAJHzIkQk. The second half of it is Marvin doing ‘Let’s Get It On’. The first half is an interview, where Marvin lets slip that he’s lipsynching, to Don Cornelius’ obvious irritation. You can tell that he’s a troubled man. There’s two questions from the crowd – do you have a hobby apart from music, and why so long away from performing. The honest answer to both would be “heroin”. But even when he was a mess he was a god. Here’s an NPR segment about Marvin doing the anthem at the NBA Allstar game.

I don’t know how you ladies see it, but would his troubledness be part of the equation? He’s part strapping black man and part wounded gerbil.
Isaac Hayes isn’t interesting at all.
Tormented, vulnerable Marvin is fascinating.

28

Alex 02.03.12 at 1:30 pm

29

bert 02.03.12 at 2:11 pm

De gustibus. I’d not heard your link before Alex and I kind of like it.
But I can’t forgive Hayes for taking a dump all over Walk On By. The Dionne Warwick original is pretty much unimprovable, and if you’d like a cover version, go for the Stranglers.
I think mainly though the problem with Isaac Hayes is his voice is weak. I don’t have the same problem with Barry White for instance.

30

bert 02.03.12 at 3:02 pm

Plus he was a scientologist and, which goes with the territory, he was a tool about it.

WarwickStranglerssnore

31

Tom Hurka 02.03.12 at 4:10 pm

@29

That was Isaac Hayes’s problem at Stax: they thought he didn’t have a soul voice and so initially wouldn’t let him make records. (He just wrote and produced for Sam & Dave, which was pretty fabulous in itself.) Then they had the crazy idea that they would release 29 LPs or something on the same day, were a couple of LPs short, and let Isaac go off and record one at another studio. It was Hot-Buttered Soul, and if the execs had known what he was doing they would have hated it, because it was so un-Stax like. But it became a big hit. It’s crazy, though: no stupid idea to release 29 LPs on one day, no Isaac Hayes career.

32

Trevor 02.03.12 at 4:52 pm

Don Cornelius @ 2:25

33

Bostoniangirl 02.03.12 at 10:58 pm

anyone cool enough to have been chosen to boogie down the painted railroad tracks of the Soul Train dance floor has earned the right to never shut up about it for the rest of all time.

There’s a really sad episode of some intervention show about a woman who was on Soul Train, got into the entertainment biz and tried coke. When they did the intervention, she was spending about half of her time going out to get crack and the rest watching the clip of her appearance on Soul Train.

34

lurker 02.04.12 at 4:01 am

Wow, that is some stoney disco! Would those dancers have looked as dramatically long-limbed in their own time, or how conscious of their long-limbed-ness would contemporaneous viewers have been?

35

bert 02.04.12 at 12:07 pm

Tom@31:
No coincidence that the track he’ll be remembered for – Shaft – is one where he hardly even attempts to sing.

At #27 I screwed up the link to the interview.
This should work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhBAJHzIkQk

36

maidhc 02.05.12 at 10:01 am

23 Why do people hate it so much? Do they hate … to dance?

Some people disliked the music because it was repetitive, every song is at exactly the same tempo, and there’s no opportunity for the individuality of the musicians to be expressed. And at the time, a whole lot of really bad music was rushed out to cash in on the craze. It’s different now because you only hear the best 1% of the music from that era.

Musicians disliked disco because it caused them to become unemployed. Bar owners quickly figured out it was much cheaper to hire a DJ than pay a live band.

Culturally a lot of people disliked disco culture because your worth as a human being was judged solely by how much money you spent on clothes. You wouldn’t get a chance to dance unless you had the bread for the outfits.

Disco came out of Saturday Night Fever, which was based on a New York magazine article by Nik Cohn which was basically just made up, as Amanda Marcotte says (10, 22, 24). But somehow it launched a huge craze.

While I wasn’t a regular viewer of Soul Train, I remember it as having a much broader variety of music than you would hear in a disco venue. I don’t really think of Marvin Gaye as being a disco artist, for example.

15. I look on Amos Garrett as a god on earth, but I don’t quite get what he was saying here. “Tighten Up” had a basic soul beat similar to what you would hear from a lot of the Stax artists. There was a complex interplay between bass drum and snare, with the bass player doing an active and independent line. Then there’s another rhythmically independent guitar part on top. I never heard it called the Texas Shuffle, but you can hear it on records by people like Wilson Pickett.

Disco had a monotonous thudding bass drum right on the beat, and the bass player could never stray from the root of the chord. That’s why it sounded so dead and lifeless to people who’d grown up listening to songs like “Tighten Up”.

I don’t tell people what they should or shouldn’t listen to, but I have my own preferences and they don’t include disco. (They do include Marvin Gaye.)

37

Jeffrey Davis 02.06.12 at 5:57 pm

People didn’t dance the way Travolta danced? Next we’ll be alerted that people didn’t dance to jazz and swing the way that Fred and Ginger danced.

38

Barry Freed 02.06.12 at 7:01 pm

IIRC, Soul Train came on in the NY region in the 70s after the Saturday morning cartoons ran, I think on channel 5 (then WNEW, anyone know where I can check this stuff? I tried looking it up but to no avail.) and blew this white kid in the suburbs away with its sheer awesome strangeness, it was absolutely mesmerizing (and the girls were captivating).

Thanks for that Stranglers cover, bert.

39

Peter K. 02.06.12 at 10:51 pm

Barry,

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in the 70s and have fond memories of my mom having Soul Train on while she made breakfast Saturday morning. My parents weren’t that hip or groovy so it was kind of funny to have this alien culture beamed into the kitchen and I soon appreciated that my parents didn’t share the bigotry I encountered in white suburbia.

40

Tim Wilkinson 02.07.12 at 10:12 am

MaidHC @35 I have my own preferences and they don’t include disco. (They do include Marvin Gaye.) – I bet the second of those trumps the first, though:

Got to Give it Up

(OK maybe not stereotypical/central-case disco, but still)

Tom Hurka @31:
they thought he didn’t have a soul voice and so initially wouldn’t let him make records.if the execs had known what he was doing they would have hated it, because it was so un-Stax like

Those were two very different Stax Records involved in these two statements, and I’m not sure that the second is really true. The Stewart/Axton era was the golden age – notable, as well as for its peerless recordings, for its very early example of racial integration – and can be said to have ended when the incomparable, ineffable Otis Redding died. The big push to release new albums was under Al Bell (after a pretty nasty transition) in response the second blow to the label which was losing their back catalogue (well, the third – they lost a distribution deal with Atlantic, can;t remember how closely those two things were linked). I’ve never really liked Hayes’ own recordings apart from Shaft, but the second phase certainly had some phenomenal funk (Stax of Funk 1 & 2 has a lot of oddments, patchy though) and the Staple Singers in particular. Stuff like Jean Knight, Mr Big Stuff too, and Booker T & the MG’s did a bit more stuff after that (though the superhuman Al Jackson went on to do a lot of drumming for Al Green)…

Other teeming thoughts: Rare Groove not a genre, but coined in the mid 80s(?) with the ‘Groove’ bit covering a range of funk, funky soul & RnB, jazz-funk — the whitewashing of drugs: Northern Soul scene (also based on rarity of grooves) was speed-heavy, the disco scene was mostly coke I guess – also the soul all-niter/raver scene in the 80s, as soul re-emerged from the disco phase (try this – with decent bass, obviously – Massive Attack sampled it: Mellow) had a lot in common with Northern Soul — Disco was a pretty specific thing as adumb’d by MaidHC – at its worst kind of the polka of the R&B family – er, that’s enough teeming thoughts….

41

lemmy caution 02.07.12 at 11:22 pm

““disco is all about white, working-class guys from Jersey” thing was made up out of whole cloth. “

Not really:

While Cohn’s story was a fake, the truth was that disco was spreading like wildfire in the white ethnic communities of New York’s outer boroughs.

Comments on this entry are closed.