Don Cornelius

Don Cornelius


Like John Shaft, Don Cornelius was “a complicated man.”

The Soul Train founder died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Los Angeles home in February 2012. He was 75. His death prompted an outpouring of grief from Americans who got their weekly dose of televised soul music from the longest running firstrun syndicated show in history.

Jesse Jackson, who likes to fantasize that a broad swathe of the white population is bigoted, claimed in a eulogy at Don’s funeral that white kids furtively watched Soul Train in their basements out of their parents’ earshot. That was probably more a reality for black kids in households where secular music was verboten.

Raised in New Zealand, where we barely had television, I knew about the show only through the 1975 video clip showing an emaciated David Bowie miming  “Fame”  for the groovy Soul Train dancers.
Despite the show’s bent, white artists such as Bowie, Elton John and the Beastie Boys were welcome guests.

After moving to Los Angeles in 1992, I covered the annual Soul Train Music Awards. The best part of that gig was the announcement of the nominees during a media event at the Soul Train soundstage on the Paramount Pictures lot. Not being much of a modern R&B afficionado, I didn’t care who got the nods. I did care about the food, and noshed on mac and cheese, and various cobblers — peach, apple, blackberry. Spectacular. I first met Don at one of these events, interviewing him about the state of play in the soul music biz. It was easy to transcribe the tape because he always spoke verrrrrrry slowwwwwwwwly.

The awards show itself lost its luster as the big stars stopped showing up in its later years. The event went on hiatus after the 21st annual installment in 2007, when Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, John Legend and Gnarls Barkley did not collect their prizes (the underlying TV show went off the air the year before). I felt bad for Don, and angry that the industry seemed to be disrespecting him.

He was  always on hand, of course, with his Russian wife in tow. But he rarely seemed comfortable. He wasn’t into glad-handing his guests or engaging in witty banter. That endeared him to me. And for some reason Don seemed to like me, or at least tolerated me. He rarely gave interviews, but he spoke with me several times both in person and on the phone. He once left a voicemail thanking me for writing an accurate story. No one of his stature has ever done that before. Another time, I called him “Mr. Cornelius.” He corrected me. “Please call me Don.”

So when I read of Don’s death while sitting in an airport departure lounge, I felt I had lost a good acquaintance. Maybe that description is a stretch. I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a confidante or anything. A month later the New York Times attempted to get to the bottom of the story. Its tribute described Don as “a loner who never thought he got the credit or support that was his due.” I agree with the “loner” bit, but the rest is a projection not really supported by a handful of interviews with mourning friends. While it is true that mainstream advertisers and the broadcast networks shied away from Soul Train, these groups are not adventurous at the best of times. “Was it racism?,” asks veteran music executive Clarence Avant. “Well, you could call it something else, but what was it?” How about corporate fear or incompetence?

Don Cornelius I conducted one of Don’s last substantial interviews in August 2010 following the belated release of a Soul Train DVD boxed set (the DVD train had long left the station, one might say). By that stage he had sold the franchise to a group of investors for an undisclosed sum and was slipping into retirement. Many of his showbiz friends had died, people like Barry White, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson. Watching them perform on old Soul Train episodes was emotionally wrenching, he told me.

Maybe it was the depression talking, but he told me that he did not care about his standing in the industry or his legacy. I tried to prop up his spirits by claiming that he was in the same category as impresarios like Dick Clark, David Geffen and Berry Gordy, and that his television syndication prowess paved the way for Oprah Winfrey. He was having none of that. I just hope I didn’t plant these ideas in his mind.

Both at the time of the interview, and even more so now as I play back the conversation, it’s clear that his health was an issue — just as the New York Times suggested. While he always spoke in a deep, slow voice (that voicemail he left for me went on forever), the interview was punctuated by lengthy gaps as he struggled to find the right word or recover his train of thought. It must have frustrated him. He was a dapper man with high standards of excellence. That’s partly why he sold Soul Train. He knew that better people could do a better job running it. I had a couple of questions prepared about his recent messy divorce (in 2008, he was arrested on suspicion of spousal abuse and got 36 months’ probation in a plea deal), but thought it unfair to raise the issue while he was in such fragile shape.

Here are some pertinent quotes from our last interview.

During the Barry White segment, you thanked him and his wife Glodean for having you over to their house for dinner.

Barry White, you said? Definitely. We got to be personal friends.

Outside of the Soul Train sphere, did you become regular friends with the guests?

Most of the artists that had done the show more than a few times considered me a personal friend and I considered most of them personal friends, going back to Curtis Mayfield and the Chi-Lites and people I kinda grew up in the business with in Chicago, to the great stars of Motown, and all of the major stars. People like Aretha Franklin, yeah, I had been to their homes as well.

Does that continue to this day now that you’re semi-retired?

I’m not in the game anymore … A lot of people I was friends with, Dean, just aren’t here anymore. That was a long haul and some of the people just are not here anymore.

Do you hang out with Berry Gordy?

I never did hang out with Berry Gordy. I’ve been to his home, and he’s one of my heroes. And I know he likes me as a person, he likes me as a friend. But we never hung out. Berry Gordy’s at another level. That’s like the real godfather.

I just wonder whether in the past few years (implying his legal problems), your friends supported you or abandoned you?

I haven’t ever done anything to damage my reputation or my status as a person who most people in that business kind of look up to. Everybody still greets me with the utmost respect, and many, many people that I’ve never even met before.

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NOTE: Read the rest in the second volume of my gossipy rock ‘n’ roll bio, due in 2015 (or 2016). For now the first volume, Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles, is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com

Copyright © 2010, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING

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