Don Cornelius (1936-2012) Tribute: Highlights from his life from ‘Soul Train’ and beyond

Don Cornelius Soul Train

South Side Chicago native, Don Cornelius, who developed, hosted, wrote, and produced “Soul Train” a weekly dance show that would revolutionize pop culture has died this morning from an apparent self inflicted gunshot wound to the head.  He was 75 years old.  In this post, I present a cursory historical account of Cornelius’ entertainment career from the launch of “Soul Train” onward and some of the contributing factors to his death.

The very first episode of “Soul Train” aired on August 17, 1970 on WCIU Channel 26 in Chicago thanks to the financial backing of George O’Hare of Sears Robebuck & Co.  The show’s name came from an event Cornelius put together back in 1969.  About a year later, on October 1, 1971, “Soul Train” obtained syndication primarily due to the financial support of George Johnson who owned Johnson products (who can forget the ads for Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen during the shows?).  Cornelius’ vision was to create a show similar to Dick Clark’s popular “American Bandstand” but catered to an African American audience from the dancers to performers to himself at the helm.  Soon, young people of all nationalities religiously tuned in on Saturday mornings to watch what became a platform for the latest in fashion, dance, and soul music representative of the black community.  While show was in its heyday during the 1970s and 80s, “Soul Train” aired until 2006.

Cornelius became somewhat of an activist through his TV production facing several obstacles as he tried to keep the only show of its kind running.

“Getting performers for the show, however, was sometimes a challenge for Cornelius. In 2001, he complained about MTV’s booking practices for its own award shows, which call for acts not to appear on competing programs within 30 days of the event. ‘It’s anti-competitive behavior that needs to be addressed at the Federal Trade Commission level,’ he told the Los Angeles Times. He thought the tactic was especially egregious because of the cable music channel’s early history of not showing videos by African-American artists.” (source: Biography.com)

Over the years, Cornelius leveraged the success of “Soul Train” for additional pursuits.

  • 1975- Soul Train Records was formed
  • 1987- the Soul Train Music Awards became the first awards show of its kind to recognize African Americans in the music industry
  • 1995- the Lady of Soul Awards honored African American women in entertainment
  • 1998- marked the launch of the Soul Train Christmas Starfest

In 2010, VH1 Rock Docs aired a special commemorating the 40th anniversary of “Soul Train.”  The episode was entitled “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America” (see my blog post “VH1 Rock Docs presents ‘Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America’ on Feb 5, 2010“).  In the end, “Soul Train” became the longest running dance show of its kind.

The LA Times reported:

“In a 2010 interview with The Times, he said he was excited about a movie project he was developing about ‘Soul Train.’

‘We’ve been in discussions with several people about getting a movie off the ground. It wouldn’t be the ‘Soul Train’ dance show, it would be more of a biographical look at the project,’ he said. ‘It’s going to be about some of the things that really happened on the show.”

In 1982, doctors found a possible brain hemorrhage and Cornelius underwent surgery.  In November 2008, during an arduous divorce, Cornelius’ wife Victoria pressed charges after a report spousal battery incident.  In March 2008, the court sentenced Cornelius to three years probation based on charges of “spousal battery, assault with a deadly weapon and dissuading a witness from making a police report.” (source: Singersoom)

Regarding his most recent health, AllHipHop.com reported, “In recent years, the 75-year-old was in failing health and according to various sources, he suffered from dementia.”

“Soul Train”‘s stages were graced by dozens of R&B/Soul/Reggae/Pop/Hip Hop/Gospel artists such as The Delfonics, Sheila E., Fatty Koo, Fantasia, El DeBarge, Stevie Wonder, BeBe Winans, Warren G, Luther Vandross, Sting, Take 6, Minnie Riperton, Lionel Richie, and sooooo many more.

I’ll be following this up with another post reflecting my personal memories growing up on “Soul Train” and asking for yours.  For now, in the famous words of Don Cornelius, “I wish you love, peace, and SOUL!!!”

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