Soul Train Creator Don Cornelius Dead at 75


Don Cornelius (1936-2010)

©Soul Train

 

Can we please have a moment of silence for Don Cornelius, the conductor of Soul Train, the most influential music program in television history.

The 75-year-old television icon was found dead on Feb. 1 in his Encino, Calif. home from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. The Los Angeles Police Department said there was no sign of foul play, but they are still investigating the case.

"He was a wonderful man," recalls legendary producer Kenny Gamble, who, along with Leon Huff, produced "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)" aka the theme song to Soul Train. "He had a great vision that's part of the American culture forever. People all over this planet know about 'Soul Train,' and they know it came from America. 'Soul Train' provided an opportunity for Gamble & Huff and Motown and Stax and all the black artists who could not get a break. He left a great legacy."

Soul Train was Black America's American Bandstand and Don Cornelius was their Dick Clark. Cornelius was a Chicago native who worked various job in the city before landing a gig as a disc jockey and news reporter at Chicago radio station WVON. On August 1970, while employed at WCIU-TV, Cornelius launched Soul Train as way to target the "ethnic" demographic to the station. Shot with no color cameras on a shoe-string budget, the show caught on with black teens that had been largely ignored by other programs, most notably American Bandstand.

From Oct. 1 1975 until 2006, Soul Train became the longest-running, nationally syndicated program in television history. It was a reflection of African-American culture not just with music but with fashion and dance, as well. For millions of viewers, the Soul Train dancers were like family members who had permission to dance in their living rooms. Some of the famous Soul Train dancers included actress Rosie Perez, rapper MC Hammer and singer Jody Watley who would later perform on the show as a member of the R&B trio Shalamar.

The Roots' drummer Questlove, who considers himself a Soul Train aficionado, said that Mr. Cornelius was more than just a TV host, he was a civil-rights pioneer.

"[I] just wanna use my position to really let people know that next to Berry Gordy, Don Cornelius was hands down the MOST crucial non-political figure to emerge from the civil rights era post [1968]," he writes on Okayplayer.com. The craziest most radical thing of all is I don’t even consider Soul Train his most radical statement. Soul Train had double duty, to not only produce a show, but they also had to provide ALL of the production for the Johnson beauty products commercials that was funding the show. Often using the set and the Soul Train gang (they became Soul Train dancers in 1976) as lead actors. The genius of it all was THIS was the first time that black people were proud to be called AFRICAN."

Cornelius was often criticize for not featuring hip-hop acts on the program. Although rap artists such as Run-DMC, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Public Enemy and Naughty by Nature had the opportunity to grace the stage, critics felt Cornelius ignore rap music.

But Cornelius disagrees. "I've been accused of not being up on hip-hop or not being a fan of hip-hop, which was never true," he told the Chicago Tribune in 2010. "If you had a following and you were charting in the major industry magazines -- Billboard, and before that Cash Box -- we had a commitment that Soul Train was yours. And we lived up to that. We saw ourselves as a mirror of what black radio was doing. That whole criteria was part of what kept us going so long."

Cornelius left the show in 1993 and the train continued to "get on down" until 2006. In 2010, VH1 aired the documentary Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America by filmmaker Kevin Swain.

In the end, Cornelius was the coolest brother on television. From his calming baritone voice to his well-tailored suits, it was a pleasure to watch him interview artists and dancers (at the Soul Train scramble board) on the show. And his famous parting words -- "Love, Peace and Soul" -- will forever live on in our hearts.

Rest in Peace, Don Cornelius.

 

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