Don Cornelius remembered: Patrice Rushen looks back on 'Soul Train'
Veteran keyboardist, singer and songwriter Patrice Rushen, now serving as artist in residence at USC’s Thornton School of Music, was still a student at Locke High School in South Los Angeles in the early 1970s when she first came into contact with Don Cornelius and “Soul Train.” She landed more than a dozen hits on the R&B charts in the 1970s and '80s including “Feels So Real” and “Forget Me Nots” and subsequently became an in-demand studio and touring musician. Here she remembers Cornelius, who died Wednesday.
“When he decided to move ‘Soul Train’ out here [to Los Angeles from Chicago], I was in high school. In the summertime you’d go to the park and hang out with friends. They had a lot of organized activities for us. One day I remember Don came to the park and talked about his show, ‘Soul Train,’ and he said, ‘Anybody who wants to go, we’ll have buses and take you to the TV studio. All you’ve got to do is come on the show and dance.’ I was in some of the early ‘Soul Train’ episodes as one of the dancers.
“Years later, after my career started forming AND I had some commercial success with some of my tunes, I was on the show as a guest, and it was like I’d come full circle.
“Seeing people like Al Green, the Temptations, James Brown and others on the show -- that’s my association: the chicken dinner and a Coke [provided by Cornelius] and enjoying having the experience of being on a TV show. Then being in a situation where ‘Soul Train’ had a big part in breaking my career as far as having exposure on television in a really meaningful way to an audience that turned out to be my core audience.
“He remembered me -- he said ‘Didn’t you use to dance on this show?’ It was very moving for me. You saw the power of television and then I really noticed for the first time in my life an African American who had the kind of vision he had.
“If you were on ‘Soul Train,’ it could make the difference between a few thousand people hearing you on the radio to millions seeing you at one time. It became a trend-setter. Having that as a platform for so many artists, myself included, gave us access to millions of people at a time, and elevated you to a certain status.
“Dick Clark is a very deep individual and personally likes a lot of different things, but his show [‘American Bandstand’] focused on a particular aspect of popular music and most black artists had to achieve a certain crossover pop success to be on that show.
“Whereas with ‘Soul Train,’ the platform was also open to people who were on the way up. He didn’t mind sometimes introducing new artists, or giving a major bump to an artist he believed in who was at that middle place; somebody who was making some significant noise but needed a real boost.
“At first, when I was just one of the kids riding the bus over to watch a television show happen, being an observing participant with a bunch of kids from South-Central L.A., that was the big thing.
“Then, just seeing somebody as I became more knowledgeable about the music industry and savvy, watching someone with vision and making that vision happen. Now there are still so many obstacles to getting a show on the air -- his believing in it and making it work speaks for itself.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Patrice Rushen. Credit: Tim Alexander