As Black History Month gets underway this year, TSM will celebrate a variety of pioneers, visionaries, and unique contributors to the fabric of American culture, history, and politics. Today we note the passing of a broadcasting legend, Don Cornelius, who died yesterday at the age of 75.
Originally trained as a journalist, Cornelius was an on-air personality and DJ at the seminal black radio station WVON. Inspired by the civil rights movement, he wanted to find a way to share a broader spectrum of music by African-American artists with viewers and listeners. He worked on the development of a local Chicago show celebrating black music, planting the seeds for a landmark program. In 1971, he moved the show into syndication as Soul Train, one of the most important music shows in television history. Cornelius served as the host of the show for 22 years, introducing a wide array of artists from around the country to his national audience.
Cornelius was a complex individual. He was uninterested in the emerging rap and hip-hop movement (often expressing confusion to the artists when they appeared on his show) but gave some of its pioneers critical early airtime. The show did, of course, feature many disco performers, including the openly gay (though it was not mentioned on air) Sylvester. Interestingly, one of Sylvester’s early musical insiprations was seeing Ashford & Simpson perform Over and Over on Soul Train; he included the song in his live shows.
Don Cornelius’ personal life included a number of complications including a domestic violence charge and his apparent suicide. In terms of raising the profile of African-American music and performers, however, he is an important figure on the scale of Berry Gordy or Quincy Jones. Let us celebrate those accomplishments and remember his legacy today.