RIP Don Cornelius, “Soul Train” Host

The creator of television’s longest-running nationally-syndicated show is a Chicago broadcasting legend, but he had to head for Hollywood for “Soul Train” to become what it was. Plus: James Brown, David Bowie, and Gladys Knight on the Soul Train stage.

Update: Questlove, the Roots’ drummer, has a fascinating essay on why Don Cornelius was “hands down the MOST crucial non political figure to emerge from the civil rights era post 68.” Hint: I really doubt you’ll guess why Questlove thinks that.

Update II: There’s going to be a Soul Train Line on Milwaukee tonight.


Chicago native, WVON vet, former cop, and Soul Train creator Don Cornelius died today from a gunshot wound to the head at his home on Mullholland Drive in Encino; the Los Angeles Times is reporting that detectives think it was self-inflicted. Greg Kot has a good overview of his life; last August, WBEZ’s Richard Steele spoke with Cornelius about his creation, the longest-running nationally-syndicated television show.

Soul Train got its start in Chicago, but it quickly departed for Hollywood after early success on WCIU. Much as the city nurtured Cornelius and his show, it had to move to become what it was, the most powerful television vehicle for black popular music before MTV. One of my favorite stories I’ve ever gotten to assemble for the Web, Jake Austen’s 2008 history of Soul Train for the Reader, explains why—WCIU simply didn’t have the resources to handle Cornelius’s vision, including sufficient floor space to handle the Soul Train Line:

Early episodes followed the basic dance-show formula. Cornelius would introduce recordings of hits and the 10 to 15 couples crammed into the studio would dance to them. The hour-long program also featured musical guests who would lip-synch in front of a low-relief sculpture of an oncoming train. “It looked good on TV,” says Nate Pendleton, who performed on the show in 1971 with his vocal group, the Dontells, “but up close it looked like cardboard propped up by two-by-fours.”

And the pictures Austen dug up to accompany the story show that it looked like cardboard propped up by two-by-fours because that’s practically what it was.

But WCIU’s Soul Train actually survived Cornelius’s move to Los Angeles and the creation of the nationally-syndicated version. He passed it on to Clinton Ghent, who didn’t have Cornelius’s business acumen but was a superior dancer, and it continued for a few more years before Cornelius talked Ghent into joining him in L.A. Among the things that make the piece worthwhile are the cultural differences between the cities; while the national Soul Train grew into a slick extravaganza, the Chicago version stayed true to its cultural roots:

Though the new show was in color, perhaps the most striking difference between it and the local version was the dancing. Though Chicago’s teens were adept at new dances like the Errol Flynn, the Cowboy, and the Spank, their foundation was always the cool, laid-back style now known as stepping. The LA teens favored a more dramatic style, punctuated by broad, staccato movements, and were more sophisticated about playing to the camera. This moving, grooving sea of youth framing stars like the Jackson 5, Gladys Knight, and Joe Tex made for terrific music television.

The “Errol Flynn"? Yes:

The first innovators of this new type of ‘jitting’ were the ‘Errol Flynns’, east side of Detroit’s most notorious gang, who gathered at full capacity with common-folk in basement parties and clubs, skylarking their signature hand signs called the ‘Errol Flynn’. The ‘Errol Flynn’ was simply characterized by twisting the wrists with open-handed, tightly clasped fingers, both arms staircase-bouncing up and down in the air in tempo to popular songs they proclaimed as their anthem.

This newly coined signature hand gesture catapulted ‘jitting’ forward in a different direction—soon, ‘Jitting’ would take precedent to the city’s gangs in a style known as ‘Stacking,’ as gangs like the ‘Black Killers’ and ‘Coney Oneys’ would throw rival gang signs in the air and “shoot them down” with their own gang signs, representing murder, in definitive arm and hand gestures while incorporating the universal basic footwork during their anthem songs.

The Errol Flynn looks like this:

Don’t believe me? Take Judge Mathis’s word for it.

Austen’s piece is well worth your time; among other things, it describes how Cornelius might never have gone into broadcasting—and Soul Train never would have existed—had he not pulled over WVON’s news director on a traffic stop, allowing Roy Wood to hear the then-cop’s now-famous voice.

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