In the late spring of 1993, Don Cornelius left a message on my answering machine.
"Hello, this is Don Cornelius." he said.
Of course, once you heard that voice you immediately knew who it was.
"Listen, I wanted to talk… to … you... about doing some… work ... for me."
When he wasn't in front of the cameras, Don had a way of measuring out his words when he spoke, which when combined with his deep baritone, led you to hang onto his words, producing the effect of amplifying his presence even when you weren't in the same room. Can you blame me for playing that message at least 5 times for my dad and friends?
It wasn't just the the voice that was momentous. It was the occasion. Don was revamping Soul Train to reflect the growing popularity of hip-hop and had called to ask me to update the show's classic logo, and come up with a new train for the show's opener. I was doing professional freelance work for people like John Singleton (from whom Don got my number) but still living at home with my father and still in college. And there I was — deep in the middle of studying for finals so that I could graduate — and I'm requested to revamp a cultural institution.
How could I say no?
And so began years in a long professional relationship characterized by not being able to tell Mr. Cornelius, "no."
Don had big ideas and big vision. He was constantly devising new awards shows, an animated series, planning a cable channel, whatever. But everything he approached was always with the intent of doing it the best. I have to admit that aesthetically speaking we wouldn't see eye-to-eye on what actually was "the best," but it was one of those things where I would tell myself, "He's Don Cornelius, and I'm not." I'm sure others who enjoyed the opportunity to work with him felt similarly. You sucked it up and you did what he told you. Not because you were a "Yes Man." It was because Don projected an aura of respect, and regardless of whether you agreed with him or not, he hand picked you. He chose to work with you because he believed in you. Someone like him entrusting his legacy with you is a mighty thing.
Further phone calls and phone messages would always start off with an emphatic "Brother Brent! It's Don Cornelius calling…" (as if I didn't recognize who it was, but again, I think he did that for effect).
And so our professional relationship became a mentorship, and listening to Don talk was like listening to my dad. I mean, literally, in the sense that Don would start spitting some Black man wisdom at me for a straight 15 minutes without stopping to ask me if I had any questions. Or even if I was still listening. One of those kinds of talks. A casual conversation would segue into a lecture, and often it was the kind of lecture where you already knew what the moral of the story was, but you listened anyways because there would always be some kind of gem in there. It was great. There wasn't a time when I'd listen to the man in his office or over the phone and not tell myself, "This is incredible." And yes, it was full of expletives and candor and all that good stuff that you would expect from a Black man from Chicago who lived through the '60s and '70s.
But mostly what I got out of Don was his sense of purpose and responsibility. He lived through the Civil Rights Era and It was important for him to have Black women working in his office. It was important for him to try to develop an animated series featuring Black kids. It was important for him to put someone like me on and connect me with people like the Hughes Brothers, or whomever. I'm not mentioning that to drop names. I'm saying he believed in the importance of connecting and building what didn't exist. Because he was Don Cornelius and if not him, who?
As large as Don Cornelius the man was, his production company was really a small family business (in a tower on Sunset Blvd. - but still ). Don kept his business close and tight-knit. Being admitted to that circle meant you were part of the family. So I was apprehensive the day I went to his office to tell him I was moving to New York. He seemed a little disappointed, but like any good father figure he was supportive and he actually stayed in touch. Don would call the ego trip office to see how I was doing. (According to Gabe, he would let out a big "sigh" if I wasn't around. LOL.) He even thought the name "ego trip" was great for a brand. He took interest in what we were doing and gave advice when we got our television deals. Around 5 years ago or so, Mr. Cornelius even surprised me and Chairman Mao by coming to the office once with his (now ex-) wife, during a visit to New York, just to say whats up. He took a photo with the Biz puppet. The LEGEND took a photo with the Biz puppet.
That might've been the last time I saw him face to face. We spoke on the phone a few times maybe. In the years since, I would occasionally travel back to Los Angeles for business or whatever. Inevitably, I would be too preoccupied to go to that office in the tower on Sunset Blvd, right at the border of Beverly Hills, to drop by and visit.
"Next time," I'd tell myself.
I took for granted that I'd be able to catch up with him "next" time, that he would always be around. Because like my friends, like my parents, like my cousins, like you, like damn near everybody , Don Cornelius and Soul Train was always a part of my life.
He is truly missed.