Extended Obituary: 'Soul Train''s Don Cornelius: Dead at 75 (37344)

We’ve all heard the adage of necessity being the father of invention. Not so popular is the phrase pertaining to the ridicule, scrutiny and overall struggle of the inventor. An inventor has to see his or her creation as a clear necessity when others aren’t cognizant of a void. An inventor has to convey the idea to a team that can bring forth the idea to fruition.

And that’s when the work begins.

Such was the plight of a young journalist/entrepreneur turned legend Don Cornelius. As a young man growing up in Chicago during the turbulent 1960s, navigating through the labyrinth of the streets and racist-based social ills were taxing enough. But having it exasperated through the prism of television magnified and somewhat justified the mistreatment of African-Americans.

Cornelius was determined to change that narrative. “I had a burning desire to see Black people presented on television in a positive light,” Cornelius said on the 2010 documentary “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America.” To accomplish that, Cornelius flipped the script on a tried-and-true entity. Cornelius said, “I was inspired by … ‘American Bandstand’ and Dick Clark. I wanted to do a Black Bandstand.” The Black version of “American Bandstand” was dubbed “Soul Train” and it arguably surpassed the program on which it had modeled itself. The man and the movement has now been given the cinematic treatment with BET’s newest scripted drama series, “American Soul”—chronicling the untold rise of “Soul Train”! 

Set in the early 1970s, and filled with music, dance, fashion and glamour, it is the story of the launch of the first nationally syndicated Black music show and what happened when the music stopped. Battles with record labels for top talent and all of the off-camera drama that had young dancers vying for the spotlight, stand in the way of a 30-something Don Cornelius, who is sacrificing all he loves to follow his dream. The journeys of these characters collide in a racially charged Los Angeles with the odds stacked against them. All they have is each other and the magic of “Soul Train.” 

Handling the lead role as Don Cornelius is rising actor Sinqua Walls (“Power,” “The  Breaks”), and it features an array of talent that includes Iantha Richardson, Christopher Jefferson, Katlyn Nichol, Jason Dirden, Grammy-nominated singer and actress Kelly Price, Kelly Rowland as Gladys Knight; singer and actress Michelle Williams as the legendary Diana Ross; consummate entertainer Bobby Brown as the over-the-top Rufus Thomas; fresh off her show-stopping role as Whitney Houston in “The Bobby Brown Story,” Gabrielle Dennis as Tina Turner; “Hit the Floor’s” McKinley Freeman as Ike Turner; and singer and TV personality K. Michelle as Martha Reeves. 

The series debuts with back-to-back episodes Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 9 p.m.

Ironically, one of my favorite moments under the “Soul Train” banner came in 1991 during the “Soul Train Music Awards.” Coming together for the centerpiece selection of Quincy Jones’ seven-time Grammy winning album “Back on the Block,” was the pairing of Al B Sure, El DeBarge, Barry White and James Ingram. The quartet collaborated for the classic “The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Sweet)” and performed it live for what could have been the only time as a unit. As we headed to press that super quartet is now a duo, as James Ingram will meet Barry White at heaven’s gate. Ingram, a two-time Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter, has passed at age 66, succumbing to a battle with brain cancer. If time and space permitted, we could find 100 ways to express how great the loss is.

But some heavyweights expressed their feelings.

Mentor Quincy Jones offered, “There are no words to convey how much my heart aches with the news of the passing of my baby brother, James Ingram. With that soulful, whiskey sounding voice, James was simply magical. He was, and always will be, beyond compare. Rest in peace my baby bro… You’ll be in my heart forever.”

Jody Watley, a friend of Ingram said, “So saddened to hear this. First met James when I was in Shalamar, he played on ‘Friends’ album and co-wrote on another. Such a talent vocally and musically, a family man, witty and wise. My condolences to his family and friends. Rest in heaven James Ingram.”