Jody Watley. In Celebration of Don Cornelius

Jody Watley on Soul Train in 1988 with Don Cornelius.

Don Cornelius represents an incredible and unparalleled legacy in television, music and dance that will live on forever. Don and Soul Train shined a bright and historic light for our culture.  A true visionary, icon, legend and pioneer in every sense; his impact on black pride and aspiration in youth like myself was immeasurable during the peak of Soul Train in the 70’s. Don created, built and opened a door of inspiration, hope and opportunity for street dancers and artists to walk through – especially me as my career has always been intertwined with the show because it’s where I got my start. It’s incredible to know he started the show in Chicago with just $400.00 of his own money. What many don’t know is that my father and Don Cornelius knew each other as they were on the AM airwaves in Chicago at the same time when I was a baby; my father doing Gospel and Don Cornelius as a part-time news announcer.  I didn’t learn the connection until after I was a dancer on the show. In essence Don Cornelius was already in the fabric of my life before our paths would eventually line-up. Like most black kids in the 70’s Soul Train gave my friends and I something to look forward to on Saturday and to talk about at school on Monday.  If you wanted to know what was cool in style, the latest dances or to see new and established artists – you watched Soul Train and lived to see the Soul Train Line. As a dancer on the show, you lived to come down the line. Whether rocking afros or flamboyant fashions; it was with pride as it was framed in a positive light also evidenced in the ads tailored for the show. I thank God for Don.  Millions of us lived for Soul Train helping to make it the longest syndicated music television show in history. Soul Train was a vehicle of exposure for countless artists in music when all other doors remained (and to a degree remain) closed. If you made it on Soul Train, you’d arrived. As I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world as an artist – I’ve seen how far and wide the reach was. The last time I saw him was at The GRAMMY Museum in 2010 for the 40th Anniversary of Soul Train. I reminded him again how much I appreciated him and how thankful I was.

Jody Watley on Soul Train, 1976

I owe so much to Don and Soul Train. It was Don who hand-picked me for Shalamar when forming Soul Train Records and he remained supportive throughout my solo career.

Jody Watley at Soul Train Dance Studio, Los Angeles.

Ever the champion of dance, Don Cornelius opened The Soul Train Dance Studio in the late 70’s in Los Angeles on LaCienaga and selected me to be one of the instructors. From that, I had the honor to give private lessons to ‘The Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin, teaching her ‘The Robot’.

Subsequently, she asked me to be in her concert at the prestigious Dorothy Chandler Pavilion while she sang her classic ‘Natural Woman’. Aretha Frankin wanted me to represent the role ‘entertainer’. Each girl represented a different facet of being a woman; executive, mother, and so on. To say it was an honor to be onstage by personal invitation of the ‘Queen of Soul’ is an understatement.  It was another moment I’ll never forget thanks to Don Cornelius and Soul Train.

Jody Watley with Jeffrey Daniel, Soul Train Scramble Board

Original Shalamar, Soul Train Records Jeffrey Daniel, Jody Watley, Gary Mumford, 1977

My heart is truly broken to learn of Don’s death and passing. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family, friends and those like me who loved and appreciated him for all that he represented and achieved as the first African-American to create, produce, host and OWN his own show. To be honest, as much as I admire Oprah Winfrey, I was disappointed that she never had Don on as a guest for her show, especially when the documentary for VH-1 “The Hippest Trip In America” aired. It would have been great and he deserved it.  Don Cornelius let us know that black is beautiful and sent us off wishing love, peace and soul.
In his departing, I’m wishing him the same.

Don Cornelius and Jody Watley. Soul Train Christmas Party 1978

Don Cornelius with Jody Watley “VH-1 Hippest Trip In America” Documentary Taping 2010

Don Cornelius, Jody Watley at The GRAMMY Museum Soul Train 40th Anniversary Celebration, October 2010


Cheo Hodari Coker, Smokey Robinson, Jody Watley, Cuba Gooding Sr. Don Cornelius, Questlove of The Roots at Paley Television Center For Media, in 2009.

Talking about Don Cornelius with Don Lemon on CNN:


Rest in Peace Don Cornelius.

30 thoughts on “Jody Watley. In Celebration of Don Cornelius

  1. Jody, this is a wonderful tribute. I know you are heartbroken. Those of us who grew up with Soul Train we are just crushed. In reading the comments from the New York Times, you don’t even realize the impact he had on America period. People from all races were writing in that they loved to turn on the TV and watch Soul Train. To learn how to dance, to learn about Soul/R&B music, to see the fashions, to learn about a culture. I NEVER realized how much Soul Train made an impact on people, even after I saw the documentary in 2010. It wasn’t until yesterday in reading those comments, that people from all over the world truly loved this show.

    Last night I was watching Nightline, where they did a nice tribute to Mr. Cornelius. They used a clip from the Soul Train documentary where Nick Cannon said: ” When the aliens come in about 2000 years and they want to see what was going down in black life, they can watch all episodes of Soul Train, THAT’S how we GOT DOWN!”

    Chris Connelly (Reporter, Nightline): “…because as everyone knew the biggest stars on Soul Train weren’t the singers, they were the dancers; their moves, their style, their sexiness, watched intensively by every high schooler in America”…

    “Whether you were a black kid from Chicago or a white kid from Westchester, it felt like a blessing from the high priest, whose impact will be felt in American music and culture, long after his death today”….

    Danyel Smith from Billboard gave the last statement, choking back tears: “I hope he knew at the every end, what he gave us to us all because it’s amazing. His contribution to african american culture, his contribution to American culture, if it’s ever forgotten, we should be ashamed.”

    I cried after that. Because another childhood icon was gone. For all of the memories I had dancing, singing and watching the show with my family members (who themselves are now gone). Of a happier time. The 70’s was a great time to be a kid. Thank you Mr. Cornelius for your vision. Thank you all for your contribution to Soul Train. Thank you for your tribute Jody. Condolences to the Cornelius family. Love, Peace and Soul.

  2. This is the most beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with Don. I’ve watched you since Soul Train and Shalimar (you were one of my favourite groups). I was truly saddened to hear what happened yesterday and just wished he was able to talk to someone. May God take care of him and I wish him peace.

  3. As I was reading the 1000’s of comments being made about the tragic loss of Don Cornelius, Jody Watley of course came to mind (as you are my all time favorite female artist) so I googled “Jody Watley Don Cornelius” to see what you had to say. As always I was very moved and inspired by your eloquent words. Even though I wish it didn’t have to happen I pray that the world will have the pleasure of hearing you speak about Don Cornelius and all the amazing things he did and inspired others to do. Stay blessed!

  4. He will live on in our hearts and music. The Soul Train line will live on for generations through house parties, family get togethers etc.

  5. Beautifully done Jody. The story is just so sad and confusing. I always liked how nice & genuine Don was to every artist he spoke to. When we, as a culture, thrive on mean, nasty, hateful vibes, Don always showed equal love & respect to every person on the show. I’m sure beyond as well. That’s what I liked about him. Thanks for your memories. Be well.-QH

  6. That was a beautiful tribute Jody for both Mr. Cornelius and for Soul Train. Rest in PEACE AND SOUL!

  7. This is so sad! I am watching reruns of Soul Train and remembering my timeline when I was growing up in Los Angeles! I loved Don’s deep voice and what he was doing for us as a culture. Jody you will always be remembered by this ICON! He will greatly be missed. We have had so many losses in the past few years. I am saddened…


  8. Beautiful honor and work, Jody! In celebration of a true soul man!

    Thank you Don! thank you for the memories………………….. =)

  9. When I heard the news about his death I thought about you and I knew that you were close to him. I grew up in the era so I had the chance to grow up and appreciate all that transpired. May he rest in peace

  10. I was completely shock and sadden, such a giant who gave so much , he gave exposure to so many including Jody Watley , he will be sorely missed. back in the day ( 1970’s) Soul Train was the show to watch, the dance moves, the artist such as James Brown, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5, Steve Wonder, The O’Jays and countless others, If you were not on Soul Train he made it his business to get them, He now is in heaven among the many Stars who touch our lives, his spirit is now at peace and no suffering, Thank You Don Cornelius and in parting we wish you LOVE PEACE AND SOUL…RIP

  11. Don Cornelius created something that can not be duplicated, many have tried but there will be nothing quite like Soul Train. I remember loving too watch Soul Train back in the day to see the my favorite artists on his show. I didn’t watch so much after Don Cornelius stopped hosting the show, I don’t why, but it didn’t seem the same without him there. I loved too see him talk with the guest after their performances. I loved the Black History Scrabble Board too, very cool idea to add the black history aspect too the show. I was very shocked and saddened to hear about Don Cornelius, very tragic and unexpected. You never know what people are dealing with and what they are going through at times. It’s was so good that you got to talk too him and spend time with him in your life and it is amazing how influential he was too your life as well. Thank you so much for sharing your fond memories of Mr. Cornelius. I hope in his next life he’ll find more peace and comfort, but until then R.I.P. Mr. Cornelius and like Jody said, thank you for teaching us and helping us to appreciate being black and proud. :).

  12. A pioneer, an icon, and just one cool man! Don Cornelius showed the world that black is TRULY beautiful!!!! He is very much loved and will be very missed!! Peace, love and soouull to Don Cornelius!!!

  13. Dear Jody,

    Thank you for your heartfelt tribute to Don Cornelius. I discovered it while doing a Twitter search on Don just now. As a little boy in the 1970’s, I and my family gathered around the TV every Saturday at 2pm to watch “Soul Train” on KTTV (today’s Fox 11) to dance along with The Soul Train Line and watch the legends and newcomers in soul music. It was my very first exposure to black culture, and I’m happy to say it was a positive one.

    I was too young to know who you were as one of the dancers or later as part of Shalamar, but I learned of it later in the 80’s as your group took off in the mainstream pop world. Back in the 90’s I saw a rerun of “American Bandstand” from 1980 on VH-1 where you and Shalamar performed “Second Time Around”, my all-time favorite Shalamar song, and Dick Clark reminisced that his producers and even the “Bandstand” dancers were surprised he’d let a group from a rival dance show be a guest. His answer was “Of course we’ll put them on.” Even as a child, I always thought the rivalry between “Soul Train” and “Bandstand” was ridiculous because I loved both shows and “Soul Train” taught me that music transcends all races and ethnicities. I will admit though that “Soul Train” always had the better dancers. 🙂

    It is truly a blessing that Don played an important role in your career, and it’s an example of how he gave a helping hand to countless black dancers, singers and bands throughout “Soul Train’s” historic 36-year run. At a time when positive images of African Americans were lacking on television, Don came along at just the right time and gave us a legacy we all can be proud of. If anything positive can come out of this tragedy of Don’s passing, I have read some internet chatter that Magic Johnson and Soul Train Holdings may now be further motivated to do a full-out revival of “Soul Train” on first-run TV, scoping out positive musical talent like it was known for in the 70’s.

    Again, thank you for sharing and I offer my prayers and condolences to Tony Cornelius and the entire family at this difficult time.

    Love, Peace and Soul,
    Rich Rodriguez
    Diamond Bar, CA
    (2 Cor 1:3-5)

  14. What a beautiful, heartfelt, sincere and GENUINE tribute. As someone who was, for many years, an integral part of “Soul Train,” I can only imagine your devastation. As a Chicagoan, black woman, and lover of black culture, I’m really feeling this loss as well. Thank you, Ms. Watley, for sharing your memories and these wonderful photos of the two of you.

  15. Thank you for putting our ancestor Cornelius’ contributions to the black community in proper perspective, sister Jody. I am grateful to see your appreciation from a performer whom Brother Cornelius had a hands on approach. I am a long-time fan of yours. Once again, thank you for sharing your memories.

  16. I was a great dancer at the parties because Soul Train set the example for being hip. I have the Soul Train CD set I got about 15 years ago. The last time I saw Don C on TV he was giving an award to the O’Jays. I got a chance to meet and talk with the brother at the NABOB award dinner. Peace be with you Don Cornelius, may you rest in peace. And thank you looking for a new love Sister Jody.

  17. What would TV Music/Dance show be like without Don Cornelius vision?. I guest you could say it would have taken a long time to make this happen, but wait I believe BET award show, and other black award show might not have happen!! But, I truly believe that he was chosen by God to be a vehicle to get African Americans to think differently on delivering our music to a broad base audience. However, Don Cornelius was a trailer blazer in this business when there was a great deal of challenges probably would have told him to give up and give in, but he persevered into making his dream come true. Also, I believe that God is pleased with his contribution he has made to the music and entertainment industry, and God most likely told him well done my faithful servant!!

    Although, it is heartfelt about Don Cornelius passing at this time, he has left archives or should I say a biography of the beginning of Soul Train up til the reruns shown on Cable’s. Chicago has nothing but love for you, and most African American believe your success is our success!

    Take you Rest Don,

    Love the Wentworth Family

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