He died Wednesday, Feb. 1, apparently by his own hand, at the age of 75.
According to police reports, emergency responders were called to the Cornelius residence in Sherman Oaks, Calif., shortly before 4 a.m. Wednesday. There, they found the former television impresario lifeless on the floor, a gunshot wound to his head. He was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 4:56 a.m. Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner, Ed Winters said, “It was reported as a suicide, a self-inflicted wound. I have investigators at the hospital.”
Was there a man with a smoother voice than Don Cornelius? At a time in American history when so-called "Midwestern attitudes" were beginning to change regarding African-Americans, Cornelius presented a side of the culture that spoke of fun, of newly-expressed freedom, of a devil-may-care "Black is Beautiful" attitude that some found threatening while others saw a repudiation of their own stereotypical "white and tight" culture.
As a young man in the early 70s, I was drawn to Soul Train like a pale moth to a black light bulb that made the colors surrounding my life seem almost surreal and bright. Growing up in Iowa and North Dakota, my first real exposure to people of color was in Navy boot camp in 1973, followed by my experience as a hospital corpsman with a Marine Corps unit that lasted until 1977. While I lived in the barracks, every Saturday morning -- without question -- the TV in the lounge was set for Soul Train. There was no argument.
And you could bet your last money it was all gonna be a stone gas, honey!
As one of the few white people who crowded onto the "Naugahyde" couches or stood plastered against the wall, I never felt out of place. Nor did I really notice the people with whom I was sharing the experience. I watched and listened and felt the freedom wash over me.
There wasn't a "threatening" bone in Don Cornelius' body. Somehow you knew he wouldn't care about your color. He just cared about the music. He cared about the audience. He cared about the young people. He cared about The Soul of Philadelphia, or "TSOP" and the other groups he introduced to an audience that either embraced or rejected this display of effrontery, the impudent presumption of "black folks" that they had every right to be as happy, as joyful, as free as anyone else.
As I got older, got married, moved out of the barracks and lived on my own, I fell away from Soul Train. But even now, when I hear the music of that era, I'm reminded of a time in my life where the only thing I had to worry about was making sure my bed was made properly, that my uniform was sharp and pressed, and that I showed up on time for duty.
You could say I grew up. So did the music, I suppose. Soul Train was safe. There was no profanity, no misogynistic talk, no talk about killing people. I understand the poetic quality of hip hop and rap, but it's not for me. None of the stuff that passes for pop music today does much of anything for me, in fact, be it country, pop, urban or otherwise.
Back then, the songs were about peace, about getting on board the love train. About how "war" had only one friend, and that was the undertaker. Women were "foxy ladies." No "bitches." No "ho's." The sex was sexy, smooth, Barry White groaning, Issac Hayes moaning, Luther Vandross grunting, and love. Can't get enough of your love, babe. Barry White could turn the sound, "Uhn!" into a song lyric and you knew what he was singing about.
The other day, when President Obama sang the first few words of the Rev. Al Green's soul classic "Let's Stay Together," Stephen Colbert joked, "My God! I think I just ovulated!"
Don Cornelius was the conductor of this freedom train. From 1971 until 1993, he brought love, peace, and soul to a country that still needs -- maybe now more than ever -- a heaping dose of all three.
We don't yet know what caused him to take his own life. In a way, I hope we never do. One would hate to think of such a man, smooth, classy, coolest of the cool, having that level of despair in the final days of his life.