February 1st…the day ushering in the month of love, peace, and---well, soul!
It’s also the first day of Black History Month in the United States. In America, this is kind of like a “holy month”, celebratory in almost every way. We cram this shortest month of the year with all kinds of events that bespeak honor, paying homage to African Americans who have made a great impact not only on the country—but also on the world! During this brief 29-day timeline, the air is filled with positive expectancy and a sense of pride in sharing with the world that we, African Americans, really do matter: “Hey, world, look us over; see all the good we’ve done. Accept us as the talented, courageous people who’ve survived and made remarkable contributions, performing awesome feats – in spite of…” That seems our shout-out to a world where we’ve been too often disrespected and overlooked.
February 1st… the start of a month of joyous celebrations! How ironic, then, to be awakened with the early morning news that one of our most inveterate pioneers is gone.
“Don Cornelius is dead!” read my very first text message of the morning.
What?!... What happened? was my shocked response.
“Suicide!” was the word that ran swiftly across the screen of my cellphone.
Wait a minute! Are you sure?!
“I’m sure…turn on your TV…”
And so, as quickly as I could, I turned on my television. There it was, the story that rocked the music world and the entire nation: perhaps even little-known parts of the world. A revered trailblazer was gone.
Death is inevitable. People we know, and those we don’t know, do it everyday. But unless they’ve been stricken with a lingering illness, most times we don’t see it coming. When someone commits suicide, rarely does anyone on the outside see it coming—even those who consider themselves “close” in relationship with the individual. And, so it is with television dance show host/music icon, Don Cornelius. Doubtfully, few, if any, could have predicted his life ending as it did. This, the coolest man on television—tall, dark, handsome—with a unique swagger, an aloof confidence and style nobody could successfully copy. He seemed like an iron man—impenetrable, needing only his huge afro as his halo; a guy who would allow no one, and no thing in life to crush, take from him, or break him down. But, obviously, something did. Something only he knew about deeply.
Like all those who leave this earth—in whatever manner they depart—all that will ever remain with others are memories. And everyone’s memories will be a bit different. Most everyone will remember, though, that Cornelius made an indelible and positive contribution to music history and to the lives of artists who will remain eternally grateful for the pathway and platform he opened, which heightened their careers. He also made sure to allow a number of Black businessmen an avenue to jumpstart, to thrive, and to display their goods, especially as sponsors on his television show; namely Johnson hair care products.
Aside from his powerhouse influence in the music industry, I, like many of my peers in the journalistic profession, did not really know Don Cornelius very well on a personal level. Admittedly, his personality was not considered congenial, warm and fuzzy; nor did he seem to care to share himself with many outside his circle of longtime friends.
As Don Cornelius told me many years ago, he was not inclined to engage in long conversations with just anybody, nor did he feel it necessary to take just any person into his confidence with casual chit-chat. Straight-talker for sure. Like it or not, that was just who he was. Clarifying this in one of our interviews, he said: “As a young person when I would be on a bus stop or something and someone started to talk to me, I would think they were crazy for starting a conversation with someone they didn’t know. It’s just not my thing to just talk to anybody. So, I’ve always been this way.” He further explained that just because he didn’t smile and grin a lot didn’t mean he was “stuck up or cold or mad… I’ve been accused of trying to be cool, but, I am not trying to be cool at all—I am cool!” Based on what he told me, it was obvious that people did not always understand him or what his purposes were.
Don Cornelius’ career in the entertainment arena began in Chicago as a disc jockey. But Don wanted more. Many years ago in the late 1970s, while I was editor at Right On! Magazine, he told me, “If I had even mentioned that I wanted to have a national dance show on television years ago, people would have fallen out laughing!” Clearly, Don had the last laugh, as his Soul Train show went from a local show in Chicago to a national audience when he moved to California in 1970-1971.
Soul Train became an instant hit, transfixing entire families in front of their television sets each Saturday morning as they watched and tried to emulate the fashion styles and moves of legendary 70s dancers like Damita Jo Freeman, Lil Jo Chism, Don (Locker) Campbell, and Scoobie Doo. And then, there were others like Shaba Doo, Pat Davis, Sharon Hill, and Tyrone Proctor. These are just some of the main original young dancers that literally put Soul Train on the television map and impressed Don Cornelius so much that he told me, “I think that the dancers on our show will be the ones to influence the whole style of dancing. Just as there is jazz dancing, interpretive dancing, ballet, that whole thing, I believe that people will begin to steal and incorporate the dance styles of the kids on Soul Train .”
That was a prophetic statement if there ever was one. Over the course of 38 years or more, just look at television, movies, commercials, videos, and even concert shows, and you see the tremendous influence of these dancers who were allowed to showcase their phenomenal, urban-styled dancing. (Ironically, most did not reap any substantial financial rewards, and very few of the public knows who they are, where they are, and what they contributed to a multi-billion dollar industry.) And, indeed, as Mr. Cornelius predicted, others of every culture across the world have stolen their dance styles and attached their names where they do not belong. Don Cornelius was insightful and a visionary in more ways than many realize.
Over the course of our conversations, Don Cornelius did not let a smile break the solemnity of his face. An extremely private man, serious he was, and gave no excuses for being so. He shared his concern for Black people, and his pride in the young dancers on his show as well as youth in general. He wanted the masses to view Black people in a different way, a respectful way, and he spoke honestly of his high expectancy of the younger generation: “If those tough guys in the gangs would use their toughness in another way, then it would be beneficial. It doesn’t take guts to beat up on your own people. You’re only tough when you can use that strength in ways that can be beneficial to yourself and your people.” He extolled the youth with this rarely heard comment: “Kids are really going to make the necessary changes in the country. They’re responsible in a sense for what I am, because they take the initiative to get up and go after what is rightfully theirs…”
What many may still not fully understand, however, is the strong, far-reaching impact Don Cornelius made upon the dance world and people in general through the platform he allowed those awesome dancers on Soul Train . Dancers whose talent and creative moves were so funky, so eye-catching that they unwittingly became the reason we still form the Soul Train lines at weddings and other family gatherings. Then, too, in a very unexpected way, their creative genius originating in urban streets became the foundation and impetus for the now multibillion-dollar Hip Hop revolution. Yes, Mr. Cornelius’ initial vision was for a national TV dance show. No one—not even Don could have foreseen its eventual effect.
Though he was not grandiloquent, I do believe something of the heart of Don Cornelius was displayed through those interviews he did with me years ago. He obviously was not easily impressed and did not seek the approval of others on how he chose to pursue his career or how to live his life. In like fashion, he sought no one’s approval on when or how he should die. He lived life on his own terms and could care less if you disapproved. Clearly, he believed he was his own man; thus, his death at his own hands would seem in accordance with how he lived. He, essentially, did it his way…
With the dawn of February 1, 2012, and the pride of Black History Month, like millions, my heart was suddenly attacked with puzzlement and sadness, not just at his death, but the way he chose to leave here. In surprising rebound, however, those feelings and questions were overshadowed by some good memories of our conversations, and the sustaining reality of what mattered most—and that is, the positive impact he made in the lives of others during his lifetime. Consequently, my choice to look at the brighter side filled me with a sense of pride—a sense of love, peace, and soul! After all, that’s what Don Cornelius wished for us all. My hope is that he experienced that for himself as well.
About the Writer
Flo S. Jenkins is the award-winning writer/editor who established Right On! Magazine as the first #1 international entertainment publication for young African Americans in the 1970s, launching, supporting and propelling the careers of countless music artists and performers of the day, including Al Green, The Jackson Five, The Sylvers and more. Her extensive entertainment/music experience includes Arista Records, KTLA-TV, and as writer/editor/contributor for a myriad of publications and television projects. She continues as a writer/editorial consultant, college writing instructor and published playwright based in Southern California. Her first book is in process.