Don Cornelius, creator and host of ‘Soul Train,’ dead at 75

February 1, 2012

Don Cornelius, creator and host of “Soul Train,” a milestone in television programming that introduced generations of viewers to new music and dance trends emerging from black America, died Feb. 1 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Los Angeles, according to police. He was 75.

Police responded to a report of a shooting at Mr. Cornelius’s house at about 4 a.m., and he was pronounced dead at a hospital. Police ruled out foul play in the death and said a search of the house did not turn up a suicide note. Detectives were conducting interviews to learn more about Mr. Cornelius’s mental state.

“Soul Train,” which aired for more than 35 years, was the longest first-run syndicated television series in broadcast history. In addition to its cultural importance, with regular appearances by such musical giants as Michael Jackson, James Brown and Aretha Franklin, the show represented a major advance in entertainment for African Americans.

Recognizing that the major TV networks had virtually no programs geared toward black audiences in 1970, Mr. Cornelius designed “Soul Train” as what he called “a black ‘American Bandstand.’ ”

As the show’s host, he promised — in a burnished baritone voice — to take viewers on “the hippest trip in America.” He drew dozens of star headliners to “Soul Train,” but Mr. Cornelius’s greater achievement might have been as a behind-the-scenes producer and businessman who helped persuade mainstream companies to spend advertising dollars on largely black audiences.

“Most of what we get credit for is people saying, ‘I learned how to dance from watching “Soul Train” back in the day,’ ” Mr. Cornelius told Vibe magazine in 2006. “But what I take credit for is that there were no black television commercials to speak of before ‘Soul Train.’ There were few black faces in those ads before ‘Soul Train.’ And what I am most proud of is that we made television history.”

Mr. Cornelius later launched a record company and a series of awards shows and was recognized, along with Quincy Jones and Berry Gordy, as one of the most influential African Americans in the music business. Younger entertainment entrepreneurs including Debra Lee, chairman and chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, and performer-producer Russell Simmons credited him as a major influence on their careers.

“Soul Train” first aired in Mr. Cornelius’s hometown of Chicago in 1970, then moved to Los Angeles a year later, when it was syndicated nationally.

Viewers were initially attracted by the hit songs of top performers, but the infectious dancing of teenagers at the show’s studio kept drawing them back. Young people of all races looked to “Soul Train” each week as a monitor of cultural currency.

“It was extremely influential,” Ron Simon, curator for radio and television at the Paley Center for Media in New York, said in an interview. “It opened up a window on African American culture, not only its music but fashion and dance, in homes all across America.”

By the 1990s, with musical tastes changing from rhythm-and-blues to the blunter approach of spoken-word hip-hop, Mr. Cornelius found himself falling behind the times. In one tune, rapper Ice Cube said in 1990, “ ‘Soul Train’ done lost they soul.”

Mr. Cornelius retired as the show’s regular host in 1993, but “Soul Train” remained in production another 13 years. “The audience was changing, and I wasn’t,” he said.

Donald Cortez Cornelius was born in Chicago on Sept. 27, 1936. He served in the Marine Corps in the 1950s, then sold insurance before going to broadcasting school in 1966.

“People always talked about my voice,” he once told Billboard magazine, “so I took a broadcasting course as a lark.”

He began working at a black-oriented radio station in Chicago, then moved to a small television station. In 1969, he came up with the name “Soul Train” when he staged a series of dance shows at four Chicago high schools in a single day.

A year later, his TV station allowed him to make a “Soul Train” pilot if he would pay all the expenses himself. Mr. Cornelius brought in teenage dancers to perform to the music of Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites and the Emotions, and his new show immediately became a hit with black audiences.

“Overnight, everyone in Chicago knew who I was,” Mr. Cornelius told The Washington Post in 1995. “The show was the talk of the town.”

He modeled “Soul Train” after Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” and in many markets the two shows competed head to head on Saturday mornings. Clark launched a short-lived rival show, “Soul Unlimited,” in the 1970s and tried to lure away some of Mr. Cornelius’s spirited dancers. “Bandstand” ceased production in 1989.

In the days before MTV, “Soul Train” became a favored destination for such renowned artists as Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, Al Green, Ike and Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Elton John, David Bowie and Earth Wind & Fire, who lip-synched their hits before the audience. Occasionally, however, there were memorable live performances from Barry White, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and others.

Mr. Cornelius interviewed the performers and introduced their songs, often using one of his signature lines: “You can bet your last money, it’s gonna be a stone gas, honey!”

The young dancers of the “Soul Train Line” provided much of the show’s enthusiasm, and several of them became stars in their own right, including Grammy Award-winning singer Jody Watley, hip-hop performer MC Hammer and actresses Rosie Perez and Carmen Electra.

Mr. Cornelius had a record company in the 1970s, and in 1987 he inaugurated the Soul Train Music Awards.

After “Soul Train” left the air in 2006, Mr. Cornelius became increasingly reclusive. In 2009, after his wife, model Viktoria Chapman-Cornelius, had filed two restraining orders against him, he pleaded guilty to spousal abuse. At the time of their divorce in 2009, Mr. Cornelius said he had “significant health issues.”

An earlier marriage, to Delores Harrison, also ended in divorce. They had two sons. A complete list of survivors could not be obtained.

Long after Mr. Cornelius had retired as host of “Soul Train,” the show remained a cultural touchstone. Many viewers still recall the sign-off line that ended each week’s episode: “I’m Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and . . . soul.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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