Leonard Pitts Jr. remembers “Soul Train” and its late host Don Cornelius in his column, “Love, Peace…And Soul:”
This was for us.
And that was a new thing, so we gathered faithfully to the television as that hard-working cartoon engine chugged across the screen, rainbow smoke pouring from its stack, the announcer calling us to order once upon a Saturday. This was “Sooooooul Train,” he said, darn near yodeling the name, “the hippest trip in America, 60 nonstop minutes across the tracks of your mind, with guest stars …”
And oh, the guest stars … Gladys Knight, slinky and gorgeous lip syncing “Friendship Train” as the Pips whirled behind her; the Jackson 5 rocking “Dancing Machine,” Michael gliding as if to make a liar out of Newton; Marvin Gaye, so besotted by some nubile young dancer he forgot to lip sync “Let’s Get It On.” Or maybe the guest was someone little remembered now, someone who flashed and faded — Jean Knight, Enchantment or the Honey Cone — but who owned a moment and marked it indelibly.
“Soul Train” host Don Cornelius died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles, apparently a suicide at the age of 75. If you are black and of a certain age that news likely stunned you back to a time when the only things wider than your Afro were your lapels, your favorite movie was “Shaft” or “Cooley High” and there was a stack of 45s next to the turntable on your dresser. “Soul Train,” which Cornelius created in 1970, was essentially a black “American Bandstand,” but to leave it at that is to miss its truest import.
This was for us, those of us who were young and black and coming of age in the post-civil rights years.