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SXSW: Don Cornelius, 'Soul Train' celebrated

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Tony Cornelius, son of "Soul Train" creator Don Cornelius, watches classic clips
from the TV music show with NPR interviewer Dan Charnas on Saturday afternoon
at South by Southwest.
(Thomas Conner/Sun-Times)

AUSTIN, Texas -- "Soul Train" creator and host Don Cornelius was left out of the Grammys' "in memorium" slide show last month, barely two weeks after the Chicago television pioneer was found dead of an apparent suicide, but he was celebrated Saturday at the annual South by Southwest music conference in the Texas capital.

At an event called "'Soul Train' Tribute to Don Cornelius," NPR's Dan Charnas conducted an amiable onstage chat with Don's son Tony Cornelius about the TV music show's history and legacy.

"If he'd come back here and see the love from those who miss him so much, I wonder, would he decide to stay?" Tony Cornelius asked during the session. "He had so much love to live for. It hurts me that he's not here."

doncmug.JPG"Soul Train" was one of TV's longest-running syndicated shows, airing for 36 years. Launched at Chicago's WCIU in 1970, the music performance and dance program went national the following year and was crucial in showcasing black soul and R&B artists to a wider audience, including Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson.

"Dad talked about that quite often," Cornelius said. "He found a need, and he served it. There was a need to allow not only the music of black Americans but kids an opportunity to express themselves."

Charnas showed numerous video clips -- "Soul Train" performances, dancers, pivotal moments, Afro Sheen commercials (the sponsorship of Chicago-based Johnson Products was important to the show's early survival) -- and Cornelius commented.

"When I watch these clips, what comes to mind that people don't understand is these performances were about relationships. It wasn't, 'I want to do "Soul Train,"' it was friendships that developed over time," Cornelius said.

Many of those relationships began early in Chicago, where Don Cornelius negotiated complete ownership of "Soul Train" at WCIU because "no one believed" in the show, Tony Cornelius said.

Tony Cornelius was around age 12 when "Soul Train" premiered. He worked as a runner, cable mover, lighting operator and more throughout the years, eventually becoming an executive producer. From the start, he recalled, "Soul Train" was a family affair.

"My most vivid memory is my mother writing out cards of all the kids who wanted to dance on the show from high schools around the area," he said.

"The groundswell in Chicago was so exciting that [Don] decided Los Angeles would be the place to take it. That's where the stars were, where the acts were."

He took one thing with him, though: the Scramble Board.

Members of the audience were often selected for the Scramble Board, where they would reorder a jumbled set of letters to spell the name of a prominent black American. Don Cornelius later admitted that the gimmick was always fixed.

"It's funny, but it's true," Tony Cornelius said. "It's something he felt extremely strong about. We were speaking to the world, not just the dancers, and informing anyone who didn't know Stevie Wonder's name or Thurgood Marshall's name how to spell it and who they were."

Cornelius said years later he suggested to his father that they update the Scramble Board to something digital or more contemporary. Don refused, saying he wanted to maintain that set piece -- the one piece of the Chicago set that traveled to L.A.

In honor of his father, Cornelius said the family has created the Don Cornelius Foundation to raise awareness, prevention and support for those contemplating suicide and aid for its survivors.

... and there's more SXSW 2012 coverage here!

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do you know where to get a copy of THE CHIMES OR THE STAR-TELS performance on THE CHICAGO SOUL TRAIN SHOW 1970 CHANNEL 26

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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