Don Cornelius dies, leaves ‘Soul Train’ legacy of music and culture

February 2, 2012

Don Cornelius, the creator and host of the iconic show ‘Soul Train’ died on Tuesday from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. As Matt Schudel reported:

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.

Cornelius left a legacy of creating a popular television destination for black culture and music that unapologetically catered to its core audience and made it part of mainstream culture. As Lonnae O’Neal Parker and Chris Richards explained:

Before BET or MTV, before cable television or the Internet, TV’s “Soul Train” taught a generation how to dance and let black America see itself having fun. At the center stood Cornelius in all his preternatural cool.

For one hour once a week, black people were the cultural insiders. It was fine if others tuned in, but all the fashion, all the jokes, all the references were black, even if that meant the rest of America didn’t get it. Even if the rest of America didn’t know Evelyn “Champagne” King, or wear their hair fried, dyed and laid to the side, or realize that there was a dance called the “Errol Flynn.”

“Don Cornelius made a major impact on television and on so many people around the country,” said D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray. “ ‘Soul Train’ really attracted a lot of African Americans when there wasn’t much for African Americans in that regard. . . . It was an opportunity to see people that you otherwise were not be able to see.”

Local music great Chuck Brown remembers Cornelius as “smooth, cool, extremely intelligent.” He met him on a “Soul Train”-sponsored tour in the early ’70s but didn’t get to perform on the program until 1979, when his definitive hit “Bustin’ Loose” topped the charts.

“I wasn’t satisfied with the performance, but he was,” Brown said. “He would make sure everyone was comfortable. . . . [He was] a great TV presence. He was the man.”

Washingtonians reacted to Don Cornelius’ death, and Chris Richards collected a selection of their remembrances:

Raheem DeVaughn, R&B singer: “I’m thankful for the platform he created not just for black music, but for music as a whole. We didn’t have it before him.”

Donnie Simpson, radio and television personality:[Simpson first met Cornelius when he was 19 years old and hosting a television dance show show in his native Detroit.] “He told me, ‘I’d like for you to take over “Soul Train” someday...’ I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ Who could replace that kind of cool?... The lesson I learned from him was to carry yourself with class... On air and off the air, Don was very, very classy.”

Mya, R&B singer (via email): “Condolences to the family, friends + associates of Don Cornelius. So grateful for his decades of innovative contribution to music.  Soul Train brought so many wonderful memories, togetherness & joy for so many households. May the visionary rest in peace.”

More on Don Cornelius:

The Root: Remembering Don Cornelius, creator of ‘Soul Train’; dead at 75

Click Track : 'Soul Train' creator Don Cornelius dead at age 75

The Early Lead : Don Cornelius dies: Magic Johnson discusses owning, dancing on "Soul Train"

Fans react to the death of 'Soul Train' creator Don Cornelius

The TV Column : 'Soul Train' creator Don Cornelius dies

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