'Soul Train' host Don Cornelius dead at 75

This March 6, 2006, file photo shows former host of the television show 'Soul Train,' Don Cornelius at his office in Los Angeles. (Damian Dovarganes)

February 2, 2012 5:00:31 AM PST
Authorities say native Chicagoan Don Cornelius, the creator of "Soul Train," died in his California home.

Los Angeles authorities say Cornelius, 75, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. They were called to Cornelius' home on Mulholland Drive in the hills above Los Angeles around 4 a.m. Wednesday. A coroner says Cornelius was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Cornelius was a Chicago cop turned WVON-Radio DJ turned TV producer. Just a few months ago, he was in Chicago to celebrate the 40th anniversary of "Soul Train" in September. The show, which began in 1970, showcased music, style, pride and perseverance. What started as a local show in 1970 took off, becoming a national show from 1971 to 2006. It delivered funk, soul and disco music into living rooms across America, prepping the world for the hip-hop revolution.

"When you've been away from it at least a few years like I have you start to think 'was that really me, the guy with the afro? Did I really do that? Was that me talking to James Brown, Aretha and those people?'" Cornelius said in an interview with ABC7 in September 2011.

The show was 37-years in running and the longest running nationally-syndicated program in TV history. "Soul Train" gave artists early exposure to fans and brought the best R&B, soul and later hip-hop acts to TV with teenagers dancing to the performances. It was one of the first shows to showcase African-Americans prominently, although the dance group was racially mixed. Cornelius was hosted the show until 1993 ending it by saying, "We wish you love, peace and soul."

News of Cornelius' death spread Wednesday from LA to Chicago.

"I am shocked and deeply saddened at the sudden passing of my friend, colleague, and business partner Don Cornelius," said Quincy Jones. "Don was a visionary pioneer and a giant in our business. Before MTV there was `Soul Train,' that will be the great legacy of Don Cornelius. His contributions to television, music and our culture as a whole will never be matched. My heart goes out to Don's family and loved ones."

The Rev. Al Sharpton said he was shocked and grief-stricken.

"I have known him since I was 19-years-old and James Brown had me speak on Soul Train," Sharpton said in a statement from New York. "He brought soul music and dance to the world in a way that it had never been shown and he was a cultural game changer on a global level."

"He showed the beauty. He showed the trends. And he showed black teenagers in a way that they had never been seen before," Melody Spann Cooper, WVON, said.

In the early years, "Soul Train" often featured local recording artists like the Chi-Lites.

"Sometimes he'd run out of people to put on his TV show. So he'd call me again, 'Marshall, bring the Chi-Lites on down here.' So we went down there again," Marshall Thompson, Chi-Lites, said.

Cornelius took a show featuring the Chi-Lites to California, which led to the national syndication.

"He was determined. He found sponsorship with Sears and Ebony magazine. And it opened up the way for him to go to California," Herb Kent, Chicago radio legend and Cornelius' friend, said. His legacy, according to Kent, is that "Soul Train" line.

"When it comes to the music business, he's still alive. He might be passed away, but when it comes to the music business, Don Cornelius will never be forgotten."

In his later years, Cornelius had a troubled marriage. In 2009, he was sentenced to three years' probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor spousal battery. In his divorce case that year, he also mentioned having significant health issues.

"Soul Train" not immediate success

"There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity," Cornelius said of his creation in 2006, then added: "I'm trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks, which they knew was for them."

"Soul Train," with its trademark opening of an animated chugging train, was not, however, an immediate success for Cornelius, an ex-disc jockey with a baritone rumble and cool manner.

Only a handful of stations initially were receptive.

"When we rolled it out, there were only eight takers," he recalled in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. "Which was somewhere between a little disappointing and a whole lot disappointing."

The reasons he heard? "There was just, `We don't want it. We pass,"' he said, with race going unmentioned. "No one was blatant enough to say that."

"Soul Train" had arrived on the scene at a time when the country was still reeling from the civil rights movement, political upheaval and cultural swings. It also arrived when black faces on TV were an event, not a regular occurrence.

"Soul Train" was seen by some at first as the black "American Bandstand," the mainstay TV music show hosted by Dick Clark. While "American Bandstand" featured black artists, it was more of a showcase for white artists and very mainstream black performers.

"Soul Train" followed some of the "Bandstand" format, as it had an audience and young dancers, and Cornelius was its host.

But that's where the comparisons stopped. Cornelius, the suave, ultra-cool emcee, made "Soul Train" appointment viewing by creating a show that showed another side of black music and culture.

When it started, glistening Afros dominated the set, as young blacks boogied and shimmied to the music of the likes of Earth Wind & Fire and other acts perhaps less likely to get on "American Bandstand."

People tuned into to see the musical acts, but the dancers soon became as much of a main attraction. They introduced Americans to new dances and fashion styles, and made the "Soul Train" dance line -- where people stand line up on each side while others sashay down to show their moves -- a cultural flashpoint.

Though "Soul Train" became the longest-running syndicated show in TV history, its power began to wane in the 1980s and `90s as the American pop culture began folding in black culture instead of keeping it segregated. By that time, there were more options for black artists to appear on mainstream shows, and on shows like "American Bandstand," blacks could be seen dancing along with whites.

But even when Michael Jackson became the King of Pop, there was still a need to highlight the achievements of African-Americans, whose achievements were still marginalized at mainstream events. So Cornelius created the "Soul Train Awards," which would become a key honor for musicians. The series also spawned the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards and the Soul Train Christmas Starfes

Cornelius, who was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in 1995 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, said in 2006 he remained grateful to the musicians who made "Soul Train" the destination for the best and latest in black music.

"I figured as long as the music stayed hot and important and good, that there would always be a reason for `Soul Train,"' Cornelius said.

Cornelius stepped down as "Soul Train" host in 1993. The awards returned to the air in 2009 after two-year hiatus. Last year's awards were held on Nov. 27 in Atlanta, with Earth Wind & Fire receiving the "Legend Award."

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)