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Remembering Don Cornelius: 'Soul Train' was beloved in Baltimore; 92Q holds 'soul train line' in tribute

At the height of its popularity, "Soul Train" felt like a religion in Baltimore.

The Saturday daytime show hosted by the late Don Cornelius was not to be missed — like church or the early seasons of "Saturday Night Live," according to Tim Watts, a longtime Baltimore disc jockey.

"It was like 'SNL' with John Belushi, where everyone had to go home to watch TV Saturday nights," Watts said. "On Saturday mornings, people in Baltimore would clean the house and put 'Soul Train' on. It was the soundtrack of our youth."

In Baltimore, Cornelius, who died Wednesday at 75, was grieved on social media and the radio by many others, some who knew him personally, most who just knew him from television. The radio station 92Q was inundated with calls from listeners paying their respects, as the DJs played classic soul and R&B songs and shared their own memories about growing up with "Soul Train."

"What I remember most about Don Cornelius and 'Soul Train' is the platform he gave African Americans to promote their music," said Vernon Kelson, music director at the station.

"Soul Train" aired nationally from 1971 to 2006 — on multiple stations in Baltimore, before finally moving to WJZ-TV — and spanned generations.

People who appeared on the show, whether in the crowd or on stage, became mini-stars in their own right, according to Baltimore hip-hop artist Saleem Heggins.

"My aunt's little brother was on 'Soul Train' — he was one of the 'Soul Train' dancers," Heggins said. "He kind of looked like Michael Jackson, with the Jheri curl. He was truly a neighborhood superstar. That was a big deal. … He was like a ghetto superstar, because he was on 'Soul Train.'"

The weekly dance show and three annual award shows started on WJZ in 1998, when Jay Newman took over as general manager. On WJZ, the show generally aired in "late fringe," the time period after the 11 p.m. news on weekends.

Newman said he wanted the show for WJZ after seeing how well it had performed for the station he ran in Detroit. He was also a Cornelius fan, he said.

"Let me tell you, as a television person, I was a big fan of his and the show," Newman said. "He was a visionary. Because of the music it focused on, his program strongly appealed to African-American audiences. But as it moved from the 1970s into the '80s and even into the '90s, it started to get a broader-based following. And he, as a personality, transcended the music at times. Almost, in a sense, what Dick Clark brought to 'Bandstand' music, he brought to 'Soul Train' type music."

Watts, now a disc jockey for Magic 95.9, knew Cornelius, visiting his home and sharing meals with him several times in the '80s. Watts said he'd remember Cornelius as a man "who couldn't lie."

"I told him one time that I was interested in TV, and the first thing he said was, 'You need to get rid of that big gap in your teeth,'" Watts said. The candor "was off-putting at first, but then you'd learn to appreciate it. I respected that."

A major part of "Soul Train's" formula for success was sticking to the hits, Watts said, forgoing the risk of "breaking" new artists. Cornelius likely could have made plenty of extra money by debuting new groups on the show, but it would have been to the detriment of the program.

"You didn't have to suffer through 'Who are these guys?'" Watts said. "To his credit, that's what made the show."

Rap was one genre Cornelius was reluctant to embrace, at least at first, Watts said. While rap became a force in clubs and via word of mouth, "Soul Train" stuck to R&B and soul singers. This at least partly explains why rap took longer to take hold in smaller markets, including Baltimore, Watts said.

"'Soul Train' would control the music," Watts said. "In many markets, rap was slower in taking off because Don wasn't giving it its love."

Cornelius should be remembered as a leader for black music and culture, Watts said.

"Those days, it was not often you would see black people performing or doing anything on television," he said. "Soul Train" "did all of that in a positive way."

Kelson said the show was a touchstone even for people reared on more recent shows, like BET's "Video Soul" and "106 & Park."

"In order to appreciate the newer music shows, you had to appreciate Don Cornelius," he said.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, 92Q punctuated its day-long remembrance with a fitting tribute: a 'soul train line' at the parking lot outside its offices.

Erik Maza contributed to this article.

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