Most of the speakers at Don Cornelius's Memorial Celebration Thursday in the Hall of Liberty at Forest Lawn in Hollywood shared their favorite memories of watching "Soul Train," Cornelius's syndicated weekly dance television show that ran for more than 30 years.
BET CEO Debra Lee remembered when Michael Jackson performed "Remember The Time" while sitting in a gold throne because he had twisted his ankle, but did not want to cancel on Cornelius.
Gospel singer and pastor Donnie McClurkin, who officiated the service, was not allowed to listen to secular music as a child in his strict religious household, but he and his six siblings would sneak and watch "Soul Train" on Saturdays while their mother went grocery shopping.
Smokey Robinson loved Cornelius's unpredictable interview style. "You never knew what Don was gonna ask you," Robinson said. "He might say, "'Smokey, I see you drove up here in a Cadillac,' or 'What's the last time you went to Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles?'"
Councilman Bernard Parks said when he completed FBI training in 1976 he was reprimanded for refusing for six months to cut his afro that he fashioned after Cornelius's.
Other speakers applauded Cornelius's efforts to make a difference.
Veteran music executive Clarence Avant said Cornelius had an immeasurable impact on the music business. "Without 'Soul Train,' a lot of artists would have never been on television," he said.
Ervin "Magic" Johnson said he appreciated Cornelius giving back to the African American community. "The thing I'm most proud of is that he gave many men and women behind the camera an opportunity to work," he said. "Do you know how many black men and women he employed?"
Stevie Wonder performs at Don Cornelius Memorial Celebration. Earl Gibson III/Getty ImagesDon Jackson, who first met Cornelius in the 1960s when they worked together at Chicago's radio station WVON, described Cornelius as a visionary. Jackson remembered when Cornelius told him that he wanted to leave the station to create "Soul Train."
Jackson told Cornelius that a television show like "Soul Train" would never work, but had to admit he was wrong more than 10 years later when he approached Cornelius about striking a syndication deal with Tribute Entertainment, where Jackson worked in sales.
"He reminded me of what I told him years ago," Jackson said with a laugh.
Activist and publisher Danny J. Bakewell Sr. said Cornelius supporters have a responsibility to preserve his legacy. Bakewell received a standing ovation when he expressed outrage at the Grammy Awards for not appropriately honoring Cornelius during the show on Sunday.
Bakewell said he planned to make a formal complaint to the Grammy organizers to demand that they properly honor Cornelius's contributions to music on their next program.
"Can you image Dick Clark [being treated that way]," Bakewell asked. "LL Cool J had the decency to recognize Don Cornelius."
Christina Cornelius, Cornelius's 14-year-old granddaughter, offered one of the service's most touching moments. She agreed that Cornelius was a legend, but she remembered him most as her humorous and affectionate "grandpa" with whom she watched "Dancing With The Stars," teased her father, and learned how to do the 1960s dance mashed potato.
George Duke and Stevie Wonder performed at the celebration of Cornelius's life that featured many celebrity attendants: Chaka Khan, Terry Lewis, Cedric The Entertainer, Rev. Jessie Jackson, Sheryl Lee Ralph, former "Soul Train" dancers as well as members of The Whispers and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Cornelius died on February 1.