Don Cornelius (1936-2012), host of Soul Train whose business acumen and deadpan showmanship showcased a wide range of black artists and generated national interest in R&B, soul and disco, died of an apparent suicide on February 1. He was 75.
While most obituaries last week focused on Soul Train and chuckled over Cornelius' colorful outfits, virtually all tributes overlooked the obvious business angle: How a black entrepreneur in the '70s was able to build a profitable weekly TV show and retain control of the franchise without being snookered by the white Los Angeles entertainment establishment. Starting a successful TV show is one thing; holding onto it is quite another.
Cornelius started Soul Train in August 1970 as a live, five-day-a week TV show on on WCIU, a small UHF station in Chicago. The show's format was modeled after Dick Clark's American Bandstand but Cornelius approached the venture with his TV newsman background. The deadpan-newscaster approach treated acts with the seriousness they deserved, even if most performances were clearly dubbed. What mattered most is the acts heard on the radio and record could be seen, humanizing the artists and the music.
Cornelius' genius was putting Soul Train into Saturday morning syndication. He did this by winning the sponsorship of Johnson Products, the maker of Afro Sheen, Ultra Sheen and other beauty aids for the black consumer. The timing couldn't have been better, as more black families bought TVs or traded up to color sets.
Soul Train went from 7 markets to 37 during its first year, and it moved from Chicago to L.A. in 1971, where Cornelius found the expertise to produce a network caliber show. He also likely found smart business and legal advice, since he was able to retain control of the show until he sold it to MadVision Entertainment in 2008.
Clare Fischer. A memorial service for the late arranger- composer-pianist Clare Fischer will be held today (Saturday) at 11 A.M. (PST) at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills in the Hall of Liberty. Visitation/viewing will begin at 10 A.M. Click here for full details and family wishes for donations.
Bob Brookmeyer. A memorial service for the late valve trombonist and composer- arranger Bob Brookmeyer will be held in New York at St. Peter's Lutheran Church (E. 54th St. between 3rd and Lexington Avenues) on April 11, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. A reception will follow immediately afterward at the church. Bob's music will be played by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (for which he wrote for over forty years) and a couple of small groups. There will also be a number of distinguished speakers. For inquiries, contact Bill Kirchner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. JazzWax reader Michael Bloom (of Michael Bloom Media Relations) sent along a YouTube link to a stupendous performance by this pioneering vocal trio (circa 1959, based on Dave Lambert's clean-shaven face)...
CD discoveries of the week. Blues guitarist Floyd McDaniel died at age 80 in 1995. He spent much of his career in Chicago. He entered the music business playing at the 1939 New York World's Fair. He quickly wound up performing at the Apollo Theater, where he was discovered by a Cotton Club talent scout. In 1941 he joined the Five Blazes, which remained together until the mid-1950s. He bought a bar in Chicago, played odd jobs, and in 1986 performed at the Chicago Blues Festival. In 1994 he recorded his only studio album—Let Your Hair Down (Delmark). Delmark also released West Side Baby: Live in Europe, which was recorded at Germany's Breminale Festival that same year. Rich, electric-guitar blues with vocals by McDaniel, an artist with enormous soul and jazz chops. Think Tiny Grimes meets Wes Montgomery.
Another great blues album is Hoodoo Man Blues (Delmark), featuring Junior Wells' Chicago Blues Band with Buddy Guy. Recorded in 1965, this album was remastered with alternate takes and released last year. Wells was a blues harmonica player and singer who had a shrewd way of combining the two in a smooth call and response approach. Wells was a major influence on the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and other white British and American artists seeking blues authenticity. Joining Wells here was Buddy Guy (guitar), Jack Myers (bass) and Billy Warren (drums). A moving blues album that provides a solid taste of hard rock's roots.
I'm not a massive fan of rap—a bit dull and oppressive in heavy doses. But the largely improvised, rhythmic social-commentary form centering on urban boasts and beefs has its merits. Believe it or not, there is a history to this music and an exciting evolution, starting with The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight (1979) and shifting with Grandmaster Flash's The Message (1982) and Eric B. & Rakim's Move the Crowd (1987). Now, a new worthwhile collection has emerged: Giant Single: Profile Records Rap Anthology that documents one indie label's powerful output from 1981 to 1996. It's fascinating to hear the music's changes through a single New York record company. Beats and samples became more sophisticated over time, and lyrics grew more taut and challenging. There isn't a bad track on this two-CD set. Highlights include Dana Dane's Cinderella Dana Dane (1987), Nine's Watcha Want (1994) and Smooth Da Hustler's Broken Language (1995). If you keep an open mind, this set will leave you marveling at the form, no matter when you decide to pull it off.
Texas gospel-soul singer Ruthie Foster's Let it Burn was recorded in New Orleans, which gives you a sense of the sticky-rice quality and eclecticism of this album. Foster puts enormous heart into her folk, gospel, rock and soul singing, delivering lyrics with a church-like punch. But she also eases up in just the right places, allowing the Hammond organ, drums and bass to pop through. Here, she swings many different styles—from the '70 soul sound of This Time to the blues of Aim for the Heart. But dig what she does with If I Had a Hammer, grinding the folk anthem down to a chain-gang tempo. Throughout the disc, Foster keeps the anxiety Tina Turner high and the groove greasy—all with a grand-slam voice that hits you straight on.
Starting in 1960, pianist Frank Strazzeri recorded with Terry Gibbs, Peggy Lee, Curtis Amy, Carmell Jones, Oliver Nelson, Art Pepper, Kai Winding and the list goes on. On his new album The Sands of Time, Strazzeri has teamed with trombonist Steve Johnson (and the album's producer) along with George Harper (saxophone), Jeff Littleton (bass) and Kenny Elliott (drums) for a compelling celebration of Strazzeri's compositions. Strazzeri has enormous taste as a player and a romantic hard-bop touch as a jazz songwriter. Dig Relaxin', The Sands of Time and Why the Dreams. Johnson's trombone adds a mellow punch to Strazzeri's storytelling style, and Johnson and Harper clearly have enormous love for the pianist and his originals.
Oddball album covers of the week. For a time, cigarettes had a starring role on album covers in the U.S. and France. When combined with fetching models, smokes signified a rebellious tartiness that caught the eye of nerdy guys in record stores. Of course, we now know that cigarette smoke stinks and ruins your health. I don't know who Connie Russell was or whether this album has merit. I do know that it positions poor Connie as cheap and available. As for the Rex Stewart album on the French Barclay label, it's hard to figure out what's going on there. Is the trumpet on a break? Or is our model falling asleep against the horn? Or maybe the shot is from above, the cigarette is in an ashtray and our model is laying on the floor, using half her face to support the tray. At least we know the music is good.