Don Cornelius 1936-2012: Rest in Love, Peace, and Soul!

Tiny - Posted on 08 February 2012

Tony Robles

“You can bet your last money it’s all gonna be a stone gas honey” --Don Cornelius


The sooooooooooooouuuullllllll Train! I awaited the high pitched wail of those words every Saturday morning as did my grandma, a 67 year old Irish woman who was married to my grandfather, an African descended man from New Orleans who had dancing in blood from his years as a Vaudeville hoofer.

My grandma would stand in front of the TV and take in the “Hippest trip in America”, Soul Train, as presented by its host and creator Don Cornelius. I loved Soul Train, as well as my father, a Filipino man who grew up in San Francisco’s Western Addition—The Fillmore—also known as the Harlem of the West Coast.

Dad would watch groups on Soul Train such as the Spinners, the Whispers, the Temptations and Ojays. Dad was a frustrated singer. He dressed like the singers on Soul Train. He would get up and follow the moves of the performers, gliding and gyrating across the hardwood floor of our flat on California Street. This simultaneous gliding and stepping by my father would cause me to divide my attention between him and the TV (Which, I think contributed greatly to my lifelong case of attention deficit disorder). 

It was during Soul Train that my father sang back up on “Love Train, “Can’t help but love you”, “If you don’t know me by now” and “Side Show”—some of the biggest songs of all time. On Saturdays that my father would glide across the stage in his mind, taking in the sounds of black voices, black spirits, black movement, black soul that was in his blood—his Fillmore blood that was black and brown and brown and black. It was a respite from his janitorial job and his janitorial foreman and the floors that needed waxing. On Monday he was in his car, listening to a black radio station, on his way to work where the voices were black and the dreams were too.

I loved the way Don Cornelius introduced the performers on his show. “Put your hands together for the mighty…Temptations…Spinners…Ojays…Tower of Power…Aretha Franklin…and let’s not forget the Godfather of Soul…James Brown!" Don had that rich baritone that commanded reverence from even the most esteemed performers. Soul Train was Don’s house and the stars paid homage. There were other music shows on the air at the time. American Bandstand and Hee Haw come to mind. Compared to Don Cornelius, Dick Clark came off as a door to door Gideon Bible Salesman. And Roy Clark and Buck Owen’s “Pickin’ and a grinnin’” was no comparison to the soul train dance line and the scramble board.

And Don was clean, always decked out in the best threads. My dad put a lot of money down on lay-away to get threads like Don. In fact, one of my favorite Soul Train performances was the Isley Brothers singing their hit, “Layaway”.

As for my grandma, she was in love with Al Green. I can still see her watching him, swooning over “I’m so in love with you”. Grandma would shake her hips right along with the Soul Train dancers. Grandma was no slouch. She knew dancing. She admired greatly the Soul Train Dancers. She’d tell me that those dancers were highly accomplished. “They didn’t get those dancers off the street” she’d say, explaining the difficulty and skill it took to make it look so effortless. And my grandma would shake her hips and was every bit as worthy of moving them as the soul train dancers themselves. She loved Al Green, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett—a real soul woman she was. For me, one of the most memorable moments on soul train was a duet by Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson, tearing it up on "Ooooh, baby baby". The two sat at a piano and sang to each other. Aretha had such a commanding presence, but sitting next to Smokey, you could feel her melt. We all melted.

After a while the music began to change, as it always does. It took grandma a while to adapt to the techno sound. I remember she once remarked that Roger and Zapp sounded like "dishpans in a sink". But she still shook her hips those Saturday mornings no matter what, even while washing her own dishes. Thank you Don Corneilus for making those Saturday mornings come alive. 

We wish you love, peace…and soul


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