CHICAGO — When this proud city welcomed back hometown hero Don Cornelius last year, it wasn’t just Chicago-style – it was “Soul Train” style, complete with Afro wigs, bell bottoms and hip-shaking in the streets.
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The 40th anniversary celebrations for “Soul Train” traced a remarkable journey for a former Chicago police officer who got his start in broadcasting when he pulled over a radio executive in a traffic stop and then had to build up his pioneering show one step at a time.
Cornelius, who became an icon defining black culture in America for decades, died at his California home Wednesday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 75.
While the South Side native and his show left Chicago decades ago for Los Angeles, his legacy has lived on here – in the “Don Cornelius Way” street sign west of downtown, in the teens and performers who boogied onstage during the early days of “Soul Train” and in the audiences who were glued to their televisions every Saturday to see the newest dance moves and styles.
To television viewers – especially those in Chicago – Cornelius was the epitome of cool. An impeccably dressed cat whose voice was as smooth as his demeanor and who rubbed elbows with the biggest stars in music and the most promising up-and-comers.
Which is why Chicago Ald. Walter Burnett says it was so much fun to see Cornelius let his guard down last year when the city gave him an honorary street sign.
“Don was just in rare form,” said Burnett, whose ward the sign is in. “He just wanted to talk and talk and talk. … He broke down because he was with his friends.”
The sign is outside the studios of WCIU-TV, where “Soul Train” got its start in 1970. It began as a local program and aired nationally from 1971 to 2006.
Cornelius came back to town last year for the sign’s unveiling and for a 40th anniversary celebration of the show. An anniversary concert featured acts such as soul singer Jerry “Iceman” Butler, the Impressions and the Chi-Lites.
Butler recalled that Cornelius seemed particularly pleased to be back home in Chicago.
“In his introduction, he talked about how much Chicago meant to him and even though he was transplanted now to California, that this would still be home and the home of `Soul Train,'” said Butler, now a Cook County Commissioner.
At the sign unveiling, Chicago was just as happy to see Cornelius, Burnett said.
“That was a wonderful day, it took people back, man, to the `Soul Train’ days,” he said. “I came in my leather jacket, people came with their Afro wigs on and their bell bottoms, people were dancing in the crowd. It was packed. … It was a beautiful thing.”
Cornelius got his start in broadcasting while working as a Chicago police officer. He pulled over Roy Wood, then news director of black radio station WVON-AM, who “was amazed at this police officer’s voice,” said Melody Spann Cooper, current president of WVON. Wood offered Cornelius a job in the newsroom, and he said yes.
Cooper said that while Cornelius was from Chicago, his influence was national.
“He was the original social network,” she said. “Before we had internet or Facebook, we all gathered around that television every Saturday to see what people were listening to, what we were dancing to.
“Don Cornelius helped shape black culture at a time coming out of the Civil Rights era, when America had not been exposed to the social side of who we were,” she said.
But “Soul Train” didn’t start out big, and Butler recalled getting a call to come over and perform on the show on the day it was to make its inaugural syndicated broadcast.
“I think Gladys Knight and the Pips were originally scheduled to come and do it and they got jammed up and couldn’t come and I was the stand-in, so I went and did it,” he said.
Though he appreciated being called, Butler suggested that it was Cornelius who was the more grateful one.
“Well, you know, this is going to sound arrogant but at the time I did `Soul Train’ I meant more to the show than he meant to me. He was dealing with a South Side perspective and I was dealing with a nationwide perspective.”
But, he said, Cornelius’ career took off as the significance of the show grew and grew.
“Over time, he became the show to be on if you wanted to be anybody in this business,” said Butler.
Butler, who played with the likes of Otis Redding and was once a member of the Impressions, along with Curtis Mayfield, sang for Cornelius at the 40th anniversary show. Along with two original Impressions and the singer who replaced the late Mayfield, Butler performed his 1969 hit “Only The Strong Survive.”
Butler recalled Cornelius walking a little slower, but otherwise seeming to be in good health and in good spirits.