Black History Month 2012: Don Cornelius

2 Feb

Celebrating Don Cornelius

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.

2 Responses to “Black History Month 2012: Don Cornelius”

  1. Steph February 2, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    This is Voice of the Trailer, and honey, I am WRECKED about Don Cornelius. You have to understand that for a little white girl growing up in Nowheresville, middle America, watching Soul Train on a Friday afternoon after school was an act of defiance! Yes, yes it was. I was expressly forbidden to watch “Jungle Bunnies” dancing in such a “dirty” manner in 1976…the bicentennial year. It was an early lesson in the race, image, sexuality and power…and damn fine music. Now you’ll pardon me as I focus my grief one last time down the Soul Train dance line and unscramble the letters on my refrigerator to spell, “Peace, Love & Soul!” (I will send the Afro-Sheen, Ultra-Sheen and Ultra-Sheen cosmetics that I win to your place. xo) PS: For the record, I’m still not over the death of contemporary Heavy-D, the overweight lovah.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt February 2, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

      Voice of the Trailer (VOT), it sounds like we had the same childhood. Very sad loss, our Don.

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