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Don Cornelius

Death of Don Cornelius

September 27, 1936 - February 1, 2012
Los Angeles, California | Age 75

'Soul Train' host dead of suicide

Obituary

LYNN ELBER, The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — "Soul Train" host Don Cornelius was the arbiter of cool, a brilliant TV showman who used his purring, baritone voice to seduce mainstream America into embracing black music and artists.

But the "love, peace, and SOUL!" he wished viewers as he closed each show for decades escaped him as his life descended into marital trouble, illness and, finally, a fatal self-inflicted gunshot wound on Wednesday.

Police said they went to his Mulholland Drive home around 4 a.m. after receiving a call from one of his sons, who became concerned after being contacted by his father. Cornelius, 75, was found shot and was pronounced dead an hour later at a nearby hospital.

Authorities ruled out foul play, but have not found a suicide note and are talking to relatives about his mental state.

To music-hungry viewers, he was a smooth, sharp-dressed man who got them dancing to the hottest tracks going. The pop world's biggest stars recalled him as much more: A cultural groundbreaker who advanced African-American music and culture; a black entrepreneur who overcame racism by strength of will; a visionary who understood rap's emergence but criticized its rawness.

Aretha Franklin, an early "Soul Train" performer, called him "an American treasure."

"God bless him for the solid, good and wholesome foundation he provided for young adults worldwide," she said, "and the unity and brotherhood he singlehandedly brought about with his most memorable creation of 'Soul Train.'"

Donald Cortez Cornelius was born Sept. 27, 1936, in Chicago. After high school, he served as a Marine in Korea. Cornelius was working as an insurance salesman when he spent $400 on a broadcasting course and landed a part-time job in 1966 as announcer, newsman and DJ on WVON radio. That's where listeners first heard the distinctively measured and rich Cornelius rumble.

Cornelius began moonlighting at WCIU-TV when Roy Wood, his mentor at WVON, moved there, and won a job producing and hosting "A Black's View of the News." When the station wanted to expand its "ethnic" programming, he pitched a black music show, and "Soul Train" was born.

"You want to do what you're capable of doing. If I saw (Dick Clark's) 'American Bandstand' and I saw dancing and I knew black kids can dance better; and I saw white artists and I knew black artists make better music; and if I saw a white host and I knew a black host could project a hipper line of speech, and I did know all these things," then it was reasonable to try, he said.

"Soul Train," which began in 1970, followed some of the "Bandstand" format with its audience and young dancers. But that's where the comparisons stopped. Cornelius, the suave, ultra-cool emcee, made "Soul Train" appointment viewing.

"There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity," he said in 2006, then added: "I'm trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks, which they knew was for them."

Debra Lee, who is chairman and chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, was one of those youngsters who tuned in to the show. She said she would finish her chores early so she could check out the latest music, fashions and dance moves.

"His reach is just amazing, and personally he was such a charming man," she said, calling Cornelius a role model and "a great interviewer who knew how to connect to artists" and had "the best voice in the world."

With that voice, he helped bring the best R&B, soul and later hip-hop acts to TV. It was one of the first TV shows to showcase African-American artists including Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Barry White.

"You have to dream," Cornelius said in a 1995 interview. "I dreamed everything. I used to introduce Marvin Gaye in my living room. So when the time came that I was going to really introduce guys like Marvin Gaye and Steve Wonder, I had done it before."

"Soul Train" had a whimsical cartoon train and whistle that opened each show. And Cornelius would close each show with his sign-off: "Love, peace, and SOUL!" drawing out the pronunciation of the last word with his deep voice.

The show, with his sharp eye for talent, became the cornerstone of his entertainment empire. He acted as independent producer-host-salesman to bring "Soul Train" into partnership with Tribune Entertainment Co., which became the show's distributor in the 1980s.

The show chugged gradually onto TV screens nationwide: Only a handful of stations initially were receptive. Johnson Products Co., maker of Afro Sheen and other hair-care goods, was its major sponsor and the first black-owned company to sponsor a national weekly TV show. Years later, major advertisers including Coca-Cola and McDonald's joined.

"Soul Train" aired nationally from 1971 to 2006. Asked why it endured, he told The New York Times in 1995: "There is an inner craving among us all, within us all, for television that we can personally connect to." He stepped down as host in 1993, and sold it to MadVision Entertainment in 2008.

"Don Cornelius was a pioneer & a trailblazer," Earvin "Magic" Johnson wrote on Twitter. "He was the first African-American to create, produce, host & more importantly OWN his own show."

Though "Soul Train" became one of the longest-running syndicated shows in TV history, its power began to wane in the 1980s and '90s as American pop culture began folding in black culture instead of keeping it segregated.

By that time, there were more options for black artists to appear on mainstream shows. And on shows like "American Bandstand," blacks could be seen dancing along with whites.

But even when Michael Jackson became the King of Pop, there was still a need to highlight the achievements of African-Americans that were still marginalized at mainstream events. So Cornelius created the "Soul Train Awards," which would become a key honor for musicians. The series also spawned the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards and the Soul Train Christmas Starfest.

Along the way, however, Cornelius became estranged from a changing music scene that clashed with his relatively conservative taste. But while he suggested violently or sexually explicit gangsta rap should be labeled "X-rated," Cornelius said the focus should be on eliminating poverty and violence from low-income black communities.

DJ Scratch, the DJ from the rap act EPMD, tweeted on Wednesday that Cornelius "100% didn't like Hip Hop. But he realized that it was what the youth wanted. So again, I thank you Don."

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.

He has two children, Anthony and Raymond, with his first wife, Delores Harrison.

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.

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Associated Press writers Nekesa Moody, Frazier Moore, Mesfin Fekadu and David Bauder in New York and Robert Jablon, Jeff Wilson, Anthony McCartney and Sandy Cohen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press, The Associated Press

Celebrities react to the death of "Soul Train" creator Don Cornelius Wednesday

— "Part of every person's soul who grew up on Soul Train died with him... On his tombstone should read his immortal words: 'I'm Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!'" — The Rev. Jesse Jackson.

— "Don Cornelius was a pioneer & a trailblazer. He was the first African-American to create, produce, host & more importantly OWN his own show." — Earvin "Magic" Johnson.

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— "God bless him for the solid good and wholesome foundation he provided for young adults worldwide, and the unity and brotherhood he singlehandedly brought about with his most memorable creation of 'Soul Train.'" — Aretha Franklin.

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— "We all have a great debt. His work in the 60s and 70s helped us to see, again, that human beings, we're more alike than we were unalike and the music and the people he showed allowed us to see. Showed us how the music, the gifts of the African American, to this country and to the world were great gifts and belonged to everybody all the time." — Maya Angelou.

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"RIP the peerless Don Cornelius. Awesomely funky Soul Train was my first exposure to MUSIC. Thank you Don" — musician Tom Morello of "Rage Against the Machine" and "Audioslave."

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— "I am shocked and deeply saddened at the sudden passing of my friend, colleague, and business partner Don Cornelius. 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." — Quincy Jones.

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— "The Soul Train legacy will show you how great this man was. And Soul Train became such a great icon, not only did black people want to be on Soul Train, but you had Elton John, you had The Bee Gees, you had ever white artists wanting to be on. Soul Train became the thing to do. Don Cornelius didn't do pop artists the way that a lot of the shows did black artists; he included everybody on his show." — songwriter Kenny Gamble.

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— "I have known him since I was19-years-old and James Brown had me speak on 'Soul Train.' He brought soul music and dance to the world in a way that it had never been shown and he was a cultural game changer on a global level." — The Rev. Al Sharpton.

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"So sad! A great guy & happy memories from Solid Gold & StarSearch: (hash)RIP" — Robin Leach.

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— "Don Cornelius was simply a genius and the contributions he made to music and our culture are second to none. I will always treasure the fond memories I have of working with Don over the years and being part of the history that he created through Soul Train. He will truly be missed and my heart and prayers go out to his family." — Patti LaBelle.

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"R.I.P. Don Cornelius. The man who brought soul to the train and love to so many." — actor David Boreanaz.

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— "Next to Berry Gordy, Don Cornelius was hands down the MOST crucial non-political figure to emerge from the civil rights era post 68. the craziest most radical thing of all is I don't even consider Soul Train his most radical statement. Yes the idea of the young black teenager NOT mired in legal trouble on the 6 o'clock news getting camera time was a new idea to most.so of course the fact the U.S. really got its first vicarious look at our culture was amazing. But the TRUE stroke of genius in my opinion was how Don managed to show US how important we were. Which was NOT an easy task." — ?uestlove of The Roots.

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— "RIP Don Cornelius. LOVE PEACE AND SOOOOUUULLLL 4eva" — Snoop Dogg.

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"Sad to hear about the passing of Don Cornelius of Soul Train fame. Grateful to him that he turned me on to so much great music." — musician Billy Corgan of "Smashing Pumpkins."

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— "Really sorry to hear the news about Don Cornelius. He was quite the maverick in his time. Soul Train had a tremendous impact. Sad." — Slash.

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— "R.I.P Mr. Don Cornelius thank you for leaving behind a legacy of Soul. You gave so many a chance to be seen and heard." — Ledisi.

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— "Sad to hear of passing of Don Cornelius, creator of Soul Train. He was a super nice man. Had many nice talks w/ him at the golf range. RIP" — comedian Jon Lovitz.

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"RIP don cornelius. A legend, a pioneer, a genius. In your immortal words "love peace & soul" make God boogie & Jesus do the Robot." — Marlon Wayans.

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Don Cornelius took 'Soul Train' on pioneering trip

FRAZIER MOORE, The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — In an era when Beyonce and Jay-Z are music royalty, when Barack Obama is the nation's chief executive, and when black stars in the cast of a TV show are commonplace, it may be hard to grasp the magnitude of what Don Cornelius created once he got his "Soul Train" rolling.

Yes, the syndicated series delivered the music of Earth Wind & Fire, the Jacksons, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder into America's households, infusing them with soul in weekly doses. Yes, it gave viewers groovy dances and Afro-envy, helping get them hip to a funky world that many had never experienced, or maybe even suspected.

But it was more than that. Before BET would give African-Americans their own channel, and before black music and faces found their way to MTV videos as well as network dramas and comedies, "Soul Train" became a pioneering outlet for a culture whose access to television was strictly limited.

"Most of what we get credit for is people saying, 'I learned how to dance from watching "Soul Train" back in the day,'" Cornelius told Vibe magazine in 2006. "But what I take credit for is that there were no black television commercials to speak of before 'Soul Train.' There were few black faces in those ads before 'Soul Train.'

"And what I am most proud of," he added, "is that we made television history."

"Soul Train" (which went on for 35 seasons) didn't make history just by influencing the music charts. It served as a pop-culture preview and barometer of fashion, hairstyles and urban patois.

By some measure, "Soul Train" was the equivalent of Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," although belatedly. Arriving on the wave of the Civil Rights Era, it premiered 13 years after "Bandstand" went national, then took a while longer to attract local stations to air it and advertisers to support it.

From there, it became a Saturday afternoon ritual as soul and rap artists (and white artists, too, including Elton John and David Bowie) showed off their latest releases while kids responded on the dance floor.

"When you come up with a good idea, you don't have to do a whole lot," Cornelius told The New York Times in 1996 in describing his show's formula. "The idea does it for you."

On "Soul Train" ("the hippest trip in America," the announcer proclaimed, "across the tracks of your mind") the host, of course, was Cornelius, but to describe him as the black Dick Clark is somewhat misleading. (A bit like calling Pat Boone the white Little Richard, as David Bianculli noted in his "Dictionary of Teleliteracy.")

For Cornelius, the difference was in the execution, as he told The Associated Press in 1995.

"If I saw 'American Bandstand' and I saw dancing and I knew black kids can dance better; and I saw white artists and I knew black artists make better music; and if I saw a white host and I knew a black host could project a hipper line of speech — and I DID know all these things," then it was reasonable to try, he said.

On his show, Cornelius was the epitome of cool, with a baritone rumble that recalled seductive soul maestro Barry White, and an unflappable manner all the way through the hour to his trademark sign-off: "We wish you love, peace, and SOUL."

He laced his show with pro-social messages directed at his black audience.

On a 1974 program, he interviewed James Brown about the tragedy of violence in black communities ("black-on-black crime looks very bad in the sight of The Man," Brown said sorrowfully). Then he brought on a 19-year-old Al Sharpton, already a civil rights activist, who presented Brown with an award for his music.

But Cornelius never let preaching get in the way of "Soul Train's" hipness — or of his own.

Standing by Mary Wilson of the Supremes on another edition, he sported a slim black suit that flared into bellbottoms, a grey shirt with white polka dots, and a huge afro.

"What do you do for kicks?" he asked Wilson, who mentioned bowling as one hobby, but said how much she wanted to dance with Cornelius on "Soul Train."

"You can dance with me," Cornelius replied. "But not on television."

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Music Writer Nekesa Mumbi Moody and Television Writer David Bauder contributed to this report.

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Cornelius' legacy lives on in Chicago

DON BABWIN, The Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) — When this proud city welcomed back hometown hero Don Cornelius last year, it wasn't just Chicago-style — it was "Soul Train" style, complete with Afro wigs, bell bottoms and hip-shaking in the streets.

The 40th anniversary celebrations for "Soul Train" traced a remarkable journey for a former Chicago police officer who got his start in broadcasting when he pulled over a radio executive in a traffic stop and then had to build up his pioneering show one step at a time.

Cornelius, who became an icon defining black culture in America for decades, died at his California home Wednesday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 75.

While the South Side native and his show left Chicago decades ago for Los Angeles, his legacy has lived on here — in the "Don Cornelius Way" street sign west of downtown, in the teens and performers who boogied onstage during the early days of "Soul Train" and in the audiences who were glued to their televisions every Saturday to see the newest dance moves and styles.

To television viewers — especially those in Chicago — Cornelius was the epitome of cool. An impeccably dressed cat whose voice was as smooth as his demeanor and who rubbed elbows with the biggest stars in music and the most promising up-and-comers.

Which is why Chicago Ald. Walter Burnett says it was so much fun to see Cornelius let his guard down last year when the city gave him an honorary street sign.

"Don was just in rare form," said Burnett, whose ward the sign is in. "He just wanted to talk and talk and talk. ... He broke down because he was with his friends."

The sign is outside the studios of WCIU-TV, where "Soul Train" got its start in 1970. It began as a local program and aired nationally from 1971 to 2006.

Cornelius came back to town last year for the sign's unveiling and for a 40th anniversary celebration of the show. An anniversary concert featured acts such as soul singer Jerry "Iceman" Butler, the Impressions and the Chi-Lites.

Butler recalled that Cornelius seemed particularly pleased to be back home in Chicago.

"In his introduction, he talked about how much Chicago meant to him and even though he was transplanted now to California, that this would still be home and the home of 'Soul Train,'" said Butler, now a Cook County Commissioner.

At the sign unveiling, Chicago was just as happy to see Cornelius, Burnett said.

"That was a wonderful day, it took people back, man, to the 'Soul Train' days," he said. "I came in my leather jacket, people came with their Afro wigs on and their bell bottoms, people were dancing in the crowd. It was packed. ... It was a beautiful thing."

Cornelius got his start in broadcasting while working as a Chicago police officer. He pulled over Roy Wood, then news director of black radio station WVON-AM, who "was amazed at this police officer's voice," said Melody Spann Cooper, current president of WVON. Wood offered Cornelius a job in the newsroom, and he said yes.

Cooper said that while Cornelius was from Chicago, his influence was national.

"He was the original social network," she said. "Before we had internet or Facebook, we all gathered around that television every Saturday to see what people were listening to, what we were dancing to.

"Don Cornelius helped shape black culture at a time coming out of the Civil Rights era, when America had not been exposed to the social side of who we were," she said.

But "Soul Train" didn't start out big, and Butler recalled getting a call to come over and perform on the show on the day it was to make its inaugural syndicated broadcast.

"I think Gladys Knight and the Pips were originally scheduled to come and do it and they got jammed up and couldn't come and I was the stand-in, so I went and did it," he said.

Though he appreciated being called, Butler suggested that it was Cornelius who was the more grateful one.

"Well, you know, this is going to sound arrogant but at the time I did 'Soul Train' I meant more to the show than he meant to me. He was dealing with a South Side perspective and I was dealing with a nationwide perspective."

But, he said, Cornelius' career took off as the significance of the show grew and grew.

"Over time, he became the show to be on if you wanted to be anybody in this business," said Butler.

Butler, who played with the likes of Otis Redding and was once a member of the Impressions, along with Curtis Mayfield, sang for Cornelius at the 40th anniversary show. Along with two original Impressions and the singer who replaced the late Mayfield, Butler performed his 1969 hit "Only The Strong Survive."

Butler recalled Cornelius walking a little slower, but otherwise seeming to be in good health and in good spirits.