Don Cornelius, 75, was found dead in an apparent suicide at his Sherman Oaks home on Wednesday morning. There is speculation he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, but police are investigating. Still, Cornelius will always be remembered as a hero to many, especially urban kids growing up in the ’70s.
“And you can bet your money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey!” Before Cornelius was the host of one of the first, longest-running, weekly, black-oriented, music-variety shows on television with “Soul Train,” Cornelius was selling life insurance in his hometown of Chicago. Soon after, Cornelius left his $250-a-week job for a $50-a-week gig at a popular radio station. Many folks in his inner circle thought that when he took a pay cut, he had lost a few brain cells, but Cornelius was determined to try his hand at broadcasting in 1966.
His disc jockey stints eventually led Cornelius to a job as a sports anchorman on an ethnic-programming Chicago television station. It was during this time that Cornelius hatched the idea for a Black-oriented dance show and pitched it to the station heads. The dance show idea was well-received. Still, while station owners allowed Cornelius to produce it, they stipulated that Cornelius would have to bankroll it. Cornelius soon came up with the name “Soul Train,” because of a local promotion that he spearheaded in 1969.
The show first aired in October 1971 and was instantly a mega hit, with its riveting musical performances and dancers that were the fashion plates of the times. Soul Train made both young and old want to jump out of bed on Saturday mornings.
A man on a mission, Cornelius tried to get sponsors for his pilot but could not generate any interest because the show included an all-Black cast. After pounding the pavement to try and sell his idea, retailer Sears, Roebuck & Co. decided to get on board with Cornelius’ venture.
Even though the retailer’s contribution was nominal, Cornelius made it work. He persuaded the head honchos at WCIU-TV to allow him to air the show five days a week for one hour at a time. “Soul Train” premiered on the station on August 17, 1970. Soon after, buzz began to spread about the show.
Cornelius was the show’s host, producer, and salesman and did not draw one cent from it until local advertisers began to recognize the program’s value and started signing on.
As the show grew in popularity, Cornelius began thinking about national syndication. He approached the Johnson Products Co., the country’s leading Black-owned company, and they made the decision to advertise on the show along with Sears. So in 1971, Cornelius moved his operations from Chi-Town to Hollywood. At the time, Dick Clark hosted “American Bandstand” and had no other competitors until Cornelius came on the scene with his lean mean Soul Train machine.
Cornelius is credited for providing opportunities and exposure to Black performers. “Soul Train” showcased creme de la creme acts, such as The Jackson 5, Billy Preston, Curtis Mayfield, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Temptations, the Whispers, the Moments, and the list is endless. Urban kids wanted to emulate featured dancers’ fashions, hairstyles, and shoes. And the dance steps, oh those dance steps! The robot, the whichaway, the bump? If you didn’t know how to dance, you could learn how to bust a move just by watching a “Soul Train” dancer.
The dapper Don stopped hosting the wildly popular show in 1993, and it ceased production in 2006. “Soul Train,” which director Spike Lee once referred to as the “urban music time capsule,” was never cancelled, but instead, it was actually purchased from Cornelius by a production company called “MadVision” back in 2008.
Over the recent years, “Soul Train” spawned a series of franchises that includes the Soul Train Music Awards, the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, and the Soul Train Christmas Starfest. Cornelius was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in 1995 and was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006.
In 2009, Cornelius, who had a troubled marriage, 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.
Don Cornelius, you will certainly be missed, “and as always in parting, we wish you “love, peace and soooul!”
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