If you're a Black person in my generation or older, you can bet your last money that you know who the man in that picture is. He's Don Cornelius, the former host of Soul Train, the show he created and guided to groundbreaking success in the early 70's. Soul Train, the longest running show in syndication, is still on today, but Don Cornelius is not. The familiar cartoon train is still there, but Don Cornelius is not. You still hear his unmistakable smooth voice at the beginning of the show, but since 1993, he's been missing in action. Even on the Soul Train awards and Lady of Soul Awards, we hear Don Cornelius but we don't see him. So I'm asking today: Where is Don Cornelius? Since I like starting trouble, I have a couple of conspiracy theories.
After Cornelius gave up hosting duties, Soul Train got numerous guest hosts, including Shemar Moore. Moore is no Don Cornelius. He tries so hard to be hip and cool that at times it was rather embarrassing. I know my sister is going to cut me for saying that, so don't tell her about this article. In addition to having a lesser series of hosts, Soul Train is also having bootleg problems. According to the Soul Train website, Black people (and y'all know who y'all are) have been selling bootleg Soul Train DVD's on the street, probably in front of the Beacon Theater in NYC. I can see it now...
Bootlegger: Yo! Look a bruva out! I got Soul Train DVD's and copies of Meet The Browns!
Lady with Weave(TM): Meet the Browns? That ain't even out yet!
Bootlegger: This is why I'm hot! I got stuff Tyler Perry didn't even write yet already on bootleg! You know you want it. Buy that Soul Train DVD!
Lady with Weave(TM): Aw'ight. (Pulling $5 out of her bra.)
Disembodied Voice: THE SOOOOOUUUUUUL TRAIN!!!
Bootlegger: What the hell was that?
Lady with Weave(TM): (Looks into camera and screams) Holy Shee-it!
(Cut to a TV screen)
Brenda Blackmon: Tonight on My Ghetto Nine News, a street vendor was run over today by dancing cartoon train...
Before Soul Train, dance shows on TV were like The Corny Collins Show. Black performers could come on and sing, but the dancers shaking their groove things in the audience were always White. One of the funniest clips I've ever seen is one of James Brown singing "Say It Loud" on some show (it may have been American Bandstand). The Godfather of Soul called "Say It Loud" and the dancing audience responded "I'm Black and I'm Proud!" The entire audience was White.
Don Cornelius changed that. He created a show and put dancing minorities on it. He even showcased them on the famous "Soul Train Line" where people would dance down the center of a group of people standing off to opposite sides. Cornelius was like a Black Ed Sullivan, putting talent on and then talking to them afterward. Like Ed, he seemed to have mobility problems. But no matter, Don Cornelius was smooth. With his weird microphone, his glasses and his 'Fro, he would step on the stage (which back in the day was shaped like a train) and talk to the people who just lip-synched their hit on the show. Soul Train was always lip-synched, and it still is today. Keyshia Cole was on recently, and the record skipped. They ran the episode anyway! That wouldn't have happened if Don Cornelius was hosting.
Soul Train started out in only six cities, but Cornelius marketed the show, making deals and getting it to more markets where Black kids like me, starved for dance moves we could do in public, could enjoy it. We would get in front of the TV and dance along with the dancers the camera passed as records played in the background or live people sang...while their records played in the background. It was like a huge House Party, brought to us by Afro Sheen, Ultra Sheen and Ultra Sheen cosmetics. And at the end of every episode, Cornelius would tell us we could "betcha last money" that the show would be on again. He'd end the episode by saying "Peace!" and the audience (and us at home) would yell "and SOUUUUL!"
Rosie Perez started out as a dancer on Soul Train. I remember her being on there, but I remember even more fondly the hot Asian chick that used to do the same move every episode. That move was so famous she showed up in a Prince video doing it years later. The dancers were always in style, dressed in the latest gear and hair, from Afro Puffs to jHeri curls. People danced alone or in couples, and the show would have weird, funky iris-ins and iris-outs as it switched from dancer to dancer. The camera would be at angles, sideways and occasionally under some woman's skirt. It was a trippy show, but this was the 70's.
The dancers did more than just dance too. One lucky couple would get to do a contest called the Soul Train Scramble Board. It was a magnetic board with scrambled up Fisher Price letters on it. The letters were to be unscrambled to spell the name of a celebrity, singer or group. This contest was clearly designed for people with a public school education; the puzzles were ridiculously easy. The answer would be something like "Bill Cosby," "Joe Tex," or "ODB." After they solved the puzzle they would dance in front of the board. Just once, I hoped for something like "Parliment Funkadelic" or "Disco Tex and the Sex-o-lettes." I could see the people trying to unscramble those letters for about 2 minutes before smoke started coming out of the guy's dreds and the woman's extensions.
As aforementioned, Soul Train is still on, in more markets than ever, and is still produced by Don Cornelius. But where is he? My brain fills with conspiracies. Is he a disembodied head floating around in a vat of Afro Sheen, doing voiceovers for his creations? Can he no longer appear in public because he got vitilego and turned whiter than Michael Jackson? Is he in jail? Does he know that Mr. Jones killed Billy Paul and can't tell anybody?
I've been giving out homework assignments most days here at Big Media Vandalism. Finally, I'ma give y'all something I can use:
Your Homework Assignment:
Find out what happened to Don Cornelius.