Last year, on the first day of Black History Month, the news that Don Cornelius, the creator of Soul Train, committed suicide darkened what is normally an annual period of research, learning and sharing for me. The showing of new documentaries, rebroadcast of classic films, release of new books and rerelease of landmark recordings by iconic artists offer an opportunity to review the mistakes and triumphs of the past and a chance to clarify and crystalize events of the present. I usually look forward to celebrating some of the events, people and the culture that formed me and serves as the basic foundation of the life that I’ve led.
Slightly before that, Dick Griffey, a former partner of Cornelius, and the founder of SOLAR Records, home to Shalamar, the Whispers, Lakeside, Midnight Star and the Deele, the band that launched the careers of both Kenny “Babyface” Edmunds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid, also passed away. Because of this, my friend, Professor Ericka Blount Danois, asked if I thought writing a book on Griffey would be viable. In reply, I offered my enthusiastic support for her idea.
Good news travels fast but bad news travels faster and word, that the conductor of the “hippest trip in America” had prematurely cut his journey short, spread like wildfire across the internet. Frequent readers of this blog know that through the various online social media platforms that comprise my virtual Soul City, I make an attempt to keep up with the comings, goings and new developments in the world of Black Music. But in the case of Cornelius’s death, I was too hurt by the news to write about it at that time.
When Cornelius died, Professor Danois shifted her focus to Cornelius and Soul Train, one of the most important tv shows in the history of the medium. After she wrote the book, she asked would I contribute an essay for the afterword. I was honored. Additionally there is a forward from the former chairman of the legendary soul music diskery, Stax Records, Al Bell.
Professor Danois has written a meticulously researched, historically accurate and deliciously dishy detailing of some of the events and personalities that made Soul Train one of the earliest examples of both television syndication and black owned media success. It’s all there: The humble beginnings of the show in black and white on a Chicago VHF channel (remember those?). The civil rights era environment that created the need for black on air talent to cover protests, sit ins and riots that provided a young Cornelius a chance to break in as a tv news reporter. Don’s improbable discovery (by a radio exec who was moving too fast) while he was a beat cop writing a ticket. The move of the show to Los Angeles and the booking of all the legends, stars, headliners and one hit wonders. The dancers who became stars; Don Campbell, Damita Jo Freeman, Jeffrey Daniels and Jody Watley.
In my essay, I make an attempt to describe how important it was for a young kid to regularly see images on television that reflected the excellence and beauty of his own experience, and how radical those images were. And how the sound, feel and essence of Soul Train was derived from the very fabric of the audience and community that it served. It was tv for us by us.
The book becomes available today at book stores and on Amazon. I am proud to have been asked to contribute and to have been given the opportunity to finally pay tribute to Don Cornelius and his contribution to this thing of ours. And I’m happy to have been reminded of a time “When Saturday Was Everything”.
For The Wirk