February 3rd, 2012
11:14 AM ET

Opinion: How Don Cornelius, 'Soul Train' shaped who I am

Editor's note:  Martin Kember is a singer, songwriter, and producer who began his career as a disc jockey and "Soul Train" dancer. He was a part of the vocal group AZ-1 that performed on Soul Train in 1993.

By Martin Kember, Special to CNN

The first time I danced in front of Don Cornelius for "Soul Train," I stood out.

I wore a ruffled shirt, purple lace headband slung over one eye, and tight button down pants. It was 1985, and I was the white kid with the nerve to dress like Prince as I stepped on the dance floor of the “hippest trip in America.”

Being a dancer did not pay much: just two pieces of chicken and a biscuit at break time. Though my friends and I joked about it, the truth was that being and feeling like I was a part of the show and watching Don work was the real pay off.

My career in music was fueled by those days.

Growing up, I had a love affair with black music, idolizing Earth, Wind & Fire, The Isley Brothers and Donna Summer.

I was a 10-year-old white kid with a funny English accent, living in a predominantly white area of Ann Arbor, Michigan. My passion for music separated me from my peers, and I soon realized I was a little different.

"Soul Train" was a weekly highlight. On Saturday mornings, I could see my favorite artists perform. I committed to memory all the sponsors and commercials, including that the “Classy Curl” ad with model Ola Ray.

I stayed in my “shell,” listening closely and emulating the singers.

By the early eighties, my family had moved to a suburb of Los Angeles.

My proud passion for black music further alienated me at school, as my classmates preferred heavy-metal. Late in high school, I became a disc jockey.

Once, on a gig, I recognized a group of regular dancers on the "Soul Train" floor. I could not resist leaving the DJ booth to join them in a dance. One of the dancers suggested: “Man, you gotta come down to the 'Train' with us."

For most Saturdays the next few years, I was there.

The first taping was surreal, a party with people trying to be seen, guys picking up on the ladies and ladies picking up men - until Don entered the set.

I tried not to stare though I was totally star-struck. I felt myself and others stand up a little straighter. The chatter subsided and we began to perform.

It dawned on me that Don was looking at us to perform and portray that magical aura of "Soul Train" that I had felt so many times as a fan.

Everyone was vying for his attention.

Why Don Cornelius mattered

He had a seriousness about him, though he would not hesitate to share a joke. I was relieved when he commented on my clothes: “I like your outfit." I smiled, feeling a little less shy and even a little taller.

“Soul Train” helped me come out of my shell.

I soon moved beyond dee-jaying, and began writing, singing and recording my own music.

By 1989, I had formed a singing group, “AZ-1.” Later, we were able was able to fulfill my ultimate dream and perform on the show I grew up watching.

Like it had done for so many, Soul Train helped launch my career.

Don Cornelius and "Soul Train" had an immeasurable impact and influence on my life: I found myself, my voice and my confidence through the power of peace, love and soul.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Martin Kember.

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Filed under: Pop culture • Race • Who we are
soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Morgan

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    September 15, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
  2. La Giga

    This blog was... how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I've found something which helped me. Cheers!

    April 4, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Martin Kember

    Here is the Interview with DON and AZ-1 .. http://www.facebook.com/martinkember1

    February 7, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  4. nia

    Ohh i did not know all of this info about soul train also the new one with cedrick the entertainero =)

    February 7, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
  5. keef

    Don Cornelius/Soul Train cartoon:

    February 6, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Edward

    Hey Joe you must be the dancer they told never to come back!

    February 5, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Joe

    If Soul train or any other TV show made you what you are... you're not much.

    February 5, 2012 at 4:41 am | Report abuse |
  8. Your Mean

    Hey stop making fun of the man. I have a Cadilac and its got 20's and I treat my women right. They even have a dental plan and a health membership to keep em slim and make profit. So give a man a break..... 🙂

    February 4, 2012 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |
  9. WhatzUpHoe

    Soul Train helped me be the man I am in life. It taught me to love the solid gold dancers and get me a hat and pimped out jacket and a fine Caddy with big wheels and put my b i t ches to work. It told me to make him work hard and if slap em around if they aint make me money or skimming.
    Soul Train Made Me the Pimp I am today ...... ;-0

    February 4, 2012 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
    • World Peace

      You must be a republican "WhatzUpHoe". You are all a like. I feel sorry for you.

      February 4, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Report abuse |
  10. JuneCleaversBeaver

    Are you sure the band's name wasn't AZT?

    February 4, 2012 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
  11. mrdeshon

    I appreciate your article. You at least had the golden opportunity to work with one of the greatest contributors of American popular culture in our nations history. Don Cornelius was the first of his kind. He showed the world that the very thing the bigots satired about African Americans were the same things that celebrated us. Indeed we could dance sing & speak like no other people on the globe. He showed the world how all those things combined made us the most aurally captivating people ever. The world watched Soul Train not just Black people. I want to say thank you Don Cornelius for making the planet see us as more than skin tone.

    February 4, 2012 at 5:53 am | Report abuse |
  12. Steven E.

    I, as a young teenage boy in the early 70's, use to stay at home on Saturday mornings to watch Soul Train.

    February 3, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |

    this is a great experience thanx for sharing

    February 3, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Caz B

    Martin, thanks for sharing your story about Soul Train and the influence on your life. You are such a talented musician, singer, and songwriter and I love what you create. I have been a fan of yours for many years; please keep creating such beautiful and meaningful music.

    February 3, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  15. mignon

    A very nice article! So many of you he influenced.

    February 3, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  16. LISA C

    I love this article!!!!!!!!

    February 3, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |