LOS ANGELES – The idea was simple – but groundbreaking: Create a live showcase for black music, modeled on “American Bandstand.”
Don Cornelius pulled $400 from his own pocket to launch the dance show on a local Chicago TV station in 1970. As host and executive producer of “Soul Train,” he was soon at the throttle of a nationally syndicated television institution that was the first dance show to cater to the musical tastes of black teenagers and also helped bring black music, dance, fashion and style to mainstream America.
In the process of presenting the soul, funk and R&B of the day, the Afro-haired, dapper Cornelius became a TV icon, his sonorous baritone welcoming viewers to “the hippest trip in America.”
Cornelius, 75, was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on Wednesday after a family member found him in his home with a gunshot wound to his head, according to law enforcement sources. The wound appeared to be self-inflicted, but the death was being investigated by police and the coroner’s office.
On Wednesday, those who knew Cornelius recalled his impact on American culture.
“Don was a visionary and giant in our business,” producer and composer Quincy Jones said in a statement. “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.”
“Soul Train,” which moved to Los Angeles and entered national syndication in 1971, featured legendary artists including Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 and Barry White.
With its catchy introduction featuring an animated, psychedelic, smoke-spewing locomotive, “Soul Train” became destination TV for teenagers across America in the ’70s.
Beyond the music and the artists featured on “Soul Train,” much of its popularity was attributed to the young dancers on the show. Cornelius’ teen dance party featured the talents of some of the best young dancers in the area.
That there was a need for such a show was obvious to Cornelius, who had launched his career in radio only a few years before the show’s debut.
“It was a period when television was a very white medium, and that didn’t make sense to me,” he told Billboard magazine in 2005, the year he received the Trustees Award from the Recording Academy for lasting contributions to culture as the creator of “Soul Train.”
“I wanted to bring more of our African American entertainment to not only the black (niche) viewers but to the crossover viewers as well,” he said.
Along the way, however, Cornelius became estranged from a changing music scene that clashed with his relatively conservative taste.
In 1993, after more than two decades of changing musical styles and fashions, he stepped down as host. The show ended production in 2006.
Cornelius’ world grew dark in recent years as he faced fallout from a divorce and other pressures. In 2009, he was sentenced to three years’ probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor spousal battery and, in his divorce case that year, he also mentioned having significant health problems.
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.
“As long as the music stayed hot and important and good, that there would always be a reason for ‘Soul Train,’ ” he said.