By Holly Fuller
Though we’re only halfway through Black History Month, we’ve seen the deaths of three enormously influential African American cultural icons. Blues legend Etta James, Soul Train host Don Cornelius and the far-too-young Whitney Houston have passed, leaving us to reflect on the mark they’ve made in American history.
Etta James began singing for a Baptist church and dabbled in many different music genres including doo-wop, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, gospel, and jazz.
Her roughly sixty-year music career earned her numerous awards and recognitions including being inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1960 she released her debut album At Last!, which featured classics such as the same-name title song “At Last,” as well as “A Sunday Kind of Love,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and “All I Could Do Was Cry.” The album was ranked #116 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
In 2008, Beyoncé Knowles portrayed James in Cadillac Records, which is loosely based on James’ eighteen years with Chess Records.
James’ influence is clearly still alive today. Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling” and Avicii’s “Levels” both sample her 1962 single “Something’s Got a Hold On Me.”
James died on Jan. 20 from leukemia at the age of 73.
Cornelius was the first African American to create, produce, host and own his own television show. After being inspired by the civil rights movement, Cornelius wanted to incorporate soul music into television so he created the hit musical variety show Soul Train in 1970, which was on air for thirty-five years.
Soul Train was especially influential among black youth who looked to the show’s guests for the height of African American music, fashion and dance trends. The show also provided insight on black culture for white Americans who didn’t live in racially diverse neighborhoods. Soul Train became known as “the hippest trip in America” according to its website.
Cornelius was able to expose black musicians and dancers to a wider audience through the show. Talents such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Carmen Electra, Nick Cannon, MC Hammer, Laurieann Gibson and Walter Payton all appeared on Soul Train. At the 2012 Grammy Awards, rapper host LL Cool J said of Cornelius, “Thanks to him, a lot of [people] learned about the meaning of soul.”
It has been said that Cornelius may have been suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and he died on Feb. 1 at the age of 75 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Whitney Houston was an award-winning artist to say the least. The recording artist, actress, producer and model earned a total of 415 career awards in her lifetime, including six Grammys and 30 Billboard Music Awards. She sold over 170 million albums, singles and videos worldwide.
Houston grew up in New Jersey around notable musical figures, including her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston; her cousins, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick; and her godmother, Aretha Franklin. Naturally, Houston developed a love for gospel, rhythm and blues, pop and soul music.
Houston’s debut album, Whitney Houston became the best-selling debut album by a female act. She starred in her first feature film The Bodyguard in 1992 when the film’s lead single, Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” became the best-selling single by a female artist in music history.
The New York Times writer Stephen Holden said of Whitney’s signature golden voice, “Her stylistic trademarks – shivery melismas that ripple up in the middle of a song, twirling embellishments at the ends of phrases that suggest an almost breathless exhilaration – infuse her interpretations with flashes of musical and emotional lightning.”
Several African American musicians, including Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, Brandy, Mary J. Blige and Kelly Rowland, attribute their own talents as being influenced by Houston.
On Feb. 11, Whitney Houston was found dead in her hotel room, submerged in the bathtub, in Beverly Hills, California. She was 48 years old. The news of her shocking death dominated the media worldwide and the Grammy Awards quickly turned into a tribute to Houston’s outstanding musical career.
Even though these monumental figures are gone, their memories will last forever in the hearts of those who loved all they contributed.