Updated at 11:55 a.m. “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius was found dead in his Los Angeles home early Wednesday morning. He was pronounced dead after the Los Angeles Fire Department transferred him to a nearby hospital, Officer Sara Faden of the Los Angeles Police Department told The Washington Post. Cornelius was 75. The cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound said Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter.
Cornelius launched “Soul Train” in Chicago in 1970 and it quickly became a seminal part of black culture, featuring the hottest music, fashion and dancing. He hosted the show until 1993 and in addition to his mellifluous voice and of-the-moment style, he became known for his signature sign-off: "I'm Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soooooouuuuullllllll."
Washingtonians reacted to his death with sadness and surprise.
Nizam Ali, 41, son of Ben Ali, founder of Ben’s Chilli Bowl, was making change for the breakfast crew when he got a CNN alert that Cornelius was dead. “My immediate reaction was just kind of disbelief, hearing he was gone. Then I just had instant memories,” Ali says. Soul Train had such an “impact on all African Americans really, of our generation. We’d watch and catch up on the latest dance moves. [Cornelius] was probably one of the coolest guys on television. He had that rich deep voice. It was never flamboyant, never egotistical.”
WHUR-FM radio personality Triscina Grey got a call from her husband as she was preparing for her 10 a.m. show, and choked up as she thought about Cornelius and everything he meant to black America and to her personally. “He’s so visible in my mind. It’s just that deep voice, that perfect afro, and he was always so cool and suave and unflappable. ‘Soul Train’ was such a significant part of my development, Grey said. “It was a a Saturday thing, either you did the housecleaning before or after but you know you had to be there in front of that television.
Darryl Brooks, a local concert promoter and manager who landed Salt-N-Pepa a gig on “Soul Train,” first met Cornelius in 1975 when the television host appeared at a Stevie Wonder concert on the National Mall that Brooks had organized. “It was a major endorsement,” Brooks says. "This was a guy that everyone looked up to. He was a major thread in the tapestry of black America.”
Brooks also remembers the impact "Soul Train" had when it first hit the airwaves. “You wanted to sit in front of the television on a Saturday and learn the latest dance moves, see which girl looked good, which guy looked corny,” he says.
“Soul Train” eventually became syndicated in more than 100 markets. In a 1995 interview with The Washington Post, Cornelius called the show “the godmother and godfather of all black entertainment television.”
The show “transmitted African American culture to an unbelievably broad audience,” Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, said recently. “It became this interesting snapshot of several generations of African American culture and style.” Many artifacts from “Soul Train” were donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture this past summer.
“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.”
In his later years, Cornelius had a troubled marriage, the AP reports. 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..
Below, read a 1995 Washington Post profile of Cornelius.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
‘Soul Train’s’ Chief Engineer
By Michael Hall, August 6, 1995
Don Cornelius has always been a salesman. As a young man starting out in Chicago, he sold insurance. He also sold tires. And Pontiacs.
But whatever he was selling, his customers reminded him of the obvious: He had a deep, rich voice that belonged on the air.
Later, when he couldn't sell the idea of his own radio program, he sold the idea of having a television show instead.
The program he launched in Chicago in 1970 was "Soul Train," which this year marks 25 years on television.
Host for much of "Soul Train's" quarter century and producer of other programs from his offices in West Hollywood, Cornelius has carved a singular niche in the entertainment business. This fall he will be inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame. He is a partner with Tribune Entertainment Co., the show's distributor, and with Quincy Jones and Geraldo Rivera in a Tribune-backed TV station ownership venture.
Singer Gladys Knight, singer-composer Brian McKnight and actress-model Tyra Banks will host the two-hour special from Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, honoring top female recording artists in rhythm & blues, rap/hip hop, jazz and gospel music.
Relaxed -- as he always appears to be -- amid the light-gray, charcoal and black decor of his office, Cornelius recalled the creation of the "Soul Train" franchise. He made it sound like a good idea that was bound to succeed. And maybe it was, given its time and place in broadcast history. But it is also the story of an entrepreneur assuming risks others might not have taken.
The first, logical step was to enroll in broadcast school.
"It was a legitimate school," he said. "They told you up front almost nobody was going to get a job in radio. And if you did, if you were good enough, it would mean starting out in some little town, not in your home town."
It was a plus that a few prominent African-American radio personalities had gone to the school, he said.
But it was still a sacrifice for Cornelius. "I had a family at the time," he said. (He has two sons but is not married now.) "It was a real test of will to stay in school."
After completing the program, he didn't have to leave town to get a job. Soon he was a swing man on WVON, subbing for any on-air personality who fell ill. "I found myself wishing they would not get well," he said.
He wanted to be the main man, the station's prima donna. "I probably would have given a couple of fingers to get it," he said.
But before that could happen, he met television. A job as sports anchor on a program offering the black view of the news at WCIU-TV helped him develop a relationship with the station's owners. It was to them that he pitched the idea of a dance show patterned after Dick Clark's enduring "American Bandstand." Soul sounds and black artists would distinguish the Cornelius production.
"I formatted it to be the radio show I always wanted to have," he said. "To this day, it's still paced in the direction of a radio show. It never really slows down or engages in discussion or long interviews.
"I started to interject some of the schtick I liked to use on radio. It came off kind of different for television, given what the eye and ear is used to."
The show took its name from his moonlighting days when he promoted local artists who performed in Chicago high schools, often making as many as four stops a day. After working one school, he and his musicians would pack up the gear and rumble on to the next stop.
It was 1970. And Cornelius, in his early twenties, was an entrepreneur. "Soul Train" was rolling. "Overnight, everyone in Chicago knew who I was," he said. "The show was the talk of the town."
Syndication outside Chicago was another matter. That came a year later.
"Our original target was 15 markets. We got eight. It took two years to get 25. Several years after that, Donny Kirschner's `Rock Concert' launched with 100 markets without a pilot or previous airing."
"Soul Train" is now seen in about 100 markets and is enjoying its best cruising speed, said Cornelius. That level gives the show 95 percent coverage of its African-American target market.
The obstacles he faced in launching "Soul Train" at the national level remain today, he said. He still has to work to gain better timeslots. Basically, that involves selling station managers and advertising-research specialists on the value of giving the show a higher profile in markets with heavy concentrations of African-American viewers.
An analysis of a market's demographics considers the entire area reached by a TV station's signal, not just the core city, he said. By that reckoning, Washington, D.C., becomes a 22-percent African-American market. That, he said, helps account for the late-night timeslots the show has had on District stations.
The show, with its musical guests and sassy dancers, is intended as a Saturday afternoon program for young people, he said. This summer, WRC has aired it at 1 p.m. most Saturdays, but before that, the station carried it at 2 a.m. or even later.
"If a show like `Soul Train,' which is the godmother and godfather of all black entertainment television and which is produced with more quality and at greater expense than it's ever been produced in its 25-year history and remains based on a music genre that is hotter than it's ever been since its birth and hot enough to dominate the charts at every level, and cannot get on at a good time period in Chocolate City, obviously there's a problem."
While Cornelius pursues these matters with apparent intense interest, he admits his energy isn't what it used to be.
"My health history does not allow me to be what I used to be as a manager or as an entrepreneur," he said.
His problem started with headaches in the early '80s. A congenital malformation was discovered in some blood vessels in his brain. On Nov. 12, 1982, he underwent a 21-hour operation. "You choose your brain surgeons for their stamina," he said. "You're never quite the same afterward. Travel is always a real test."
Cornelius fits well into his executive surroundings. They almost serve as camouflage for the Hershey-skinned man in the gray pinstripe suit. His white shirt gave him sharp definition, and the gold watch, bracelet and cuff links defied the basic black color scheme.
"Most of it was here when we moved in," he said, referring to the black lacquer doors and gray textured wall paper. "We just embellished it a bit."
The large television and array of stereo equipment, the chairs and tables, the window blinds and telephone are all either charcoal or black.
He smiled and scanned the room. "It's us," he said.
The archival story has been edited to remove outdated telecast information.