Don Cortez Cornelius, the always immaculately dressed impresario of television’s long-running dance show, “Soul Train,” didn’t just happen to mirror and influence African American culture. He both lived and led it as he followed through on a dance-party concept he had birthed years before.
He was born in Chicago on Sept. 27, 1936, and grew up in the South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville. A Chicago police officer in the mid-1960s, he once pulled over radio pesonality Ed Cobb, who was so impressed with Cornelius’ voice that he invited him to the station. Cornelius made a demo tape and was hired as an announcer on WVON.
As a DJ, he filled in for other on-air personalities. Switching to television, Cornelius became a sports anchor and the host of “A Black’s View of the News” on WCIU-TV in 1968. Even before, Cornelius began “hosting soul dance parties around the city and eventually approached station management about a show based on the same idea,” according to Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune. “They accepted.”
“Soul Train” first appeared as a budget production with a dance floor about the size of an average living room, according to Kot, but “the show struck a chord with an audience that had been largely ignored by other teen-oriented dance shows, most famously Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand.’ For young, African American kids, ‘Soul Train’ was must-see after-school viewing because it presented mostly R&B artists that other shows neglected. And, perhaps, most importantly, it showcased the hippest dance moves.”
Cornelius contacted artists he had met over the years–Curtis Mayfield, The O’Jays, B.B. King, Jerry Butler, and others–and recruited dancers he had met at parties and invited them to make their best moves for the show’s black-and-white cameras. Color cameras were not in the budget. Cornelius introduced many other African American musicians to a larger audience as a result of their appearances on “Soul Train.” The program was both influential among African Americans and popular with a wider audience. As writer, producer, and host of the show, Cornelius was instrumental in offering massive exposure to such Black musicians like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Michael Jackson, as well as creating opportunities for talented dancers.
The show caught on immediately, and by the second year it had moved to Los Angeles and soon headed into national syndication.
Quoting Answers.com, “Soul Train’ s popularity brought Cornelius into direct conflict with Dick Clark and American Bandstand. In 1973 civil rights activist Jesse Jackson–whose Chicago-based Operation PUSH was regularly boosted on Soul Train–told Rolling Stone, ‘Soul Train’s success … has partially been at the expense of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand . . . . Soul Train has consistently outrated and overshadowed Bandstand.”
According to Jackson, the powerful Clark was taking steps to get his audience back. First he recruited Soul Train dancers for Bandstand. Then he began producing Soul Unlimited, a program that essentially copied Soul Train. Backed by the powerful ABC-TV network, Soul Unlimited posed a serious threat to Soul Train, which had no network affiliation. According to a Rolling Stone correspondent, Cornelius called Clark’s action an “overt attempt to seize control of the Black-oriented TV.”
Soul Unlimited was hosted by voice actor Edward L. “Buster” Jones.
Still, Cornelius once told Advertising Age, “Almost all of what I learned about mounting and hosting a dance show I learned from Dick Clark.”
“We had a show that kids gravitated to,” Cornelius said. Spike Lee described the program as an “urban music time capsule.”
“In December of 1982 Cornelius was hospitalized to undergo life-threatening brain surgery,” according to Answers.com. “The operation, which lasted 21 hours, was performed to prevent the risk of possible leakage or hemorrhaging of blood vessels in his brain. After an absence of six months, Cornelius began taping new episodes of Soul Train in March of 1983.”
Cornelius hosted the show from 1970 until 1993. “Soul Train” lasted until 2006–35 years. Cornelius survived six years longer, but his life ended tragically Wednesday in what officials describe as an apparently a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Cornelius was 75. Officers reportedly found Cornelius after responding to a report of a shooting at his home in the 12600-block of Mulholland Drive in Sherman Oaks around 4 a.m.
He was pronounced dead at 4:56 a.m. at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center, said Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter.
In 1987, Cornelius started the Soul Train Music Awards. Dionne Warwick and Luther Vandross served as hosts of the first ceremony, which honored Stevie Wonder with the Heritage Award for outstanding career achievements. Whitney Houston, LL Cool J, and Run DMC were among the night’s performers. Over the years, other music stars appeared on the show, including the late Michael Jackson.
Cornelius’ most recent public appearance was at the 2009 BET Awards when he presented The O’Jays with the 2009 BET Lifetime Achievement Award.
Besides his smooth and deep voice, Cornelius is best known for the catchphrase that he used to close the show and that most people will remember him by: “… and you can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey! I’m Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!”
Cornelius’ first marriage was to Delores Harrison in 1956, with whom he had two sons. In 2001, he married Victoria Chapman, also known as Viktoria Avila, but the marriage was troubled. In 2008 Cornelius, then 72, was arrested on a felony domestic violence charge and sentenced to three years probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor spousal battery. Victoria later filed a restraining order against her estranged husband and the couple divorced in 2009.
There were expressions of condolences from acquaintances and celebrities from all over the nation:
“Today, Los Angeles mourns the loss of Don Cornelius, an innovative television host and producer, but more importantly, a national icon in the African American community,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “As the host and producer of the world-renowned show, Soul Train, he broke barriers for many African American artists, providing the first platform for them to showcase their remarkable talents to a mainstream audience.
“In my years of service, I had the great pleasure of developing a friendship with him. Although he has left us, his presence will forever be remembered in the phrase he so cleverly coined, ‘…wishing you love, peace, and soul.’ He was indeed cherished by the community and his peers for his many accomplishments, and for that, his legacy will continue.
“My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time.”
“I am shocked and deeply saddened at the sudden passing of my friend, colleague, and business partner Don Cornelius,” record producer Quincy Jones said. “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 to Don’s family and loved ones.”
“I am shocked and stunned to hear this news,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson told radio station KNX 1070. “I talked with Don a few days ago . . . . So many artists got their access to television through Don. He was a transformer . . . .
“Don was an innovator and the creator of a show that is and always will be an important part of our culture,” said Howard Hewett, former lead singer of Shalamar, a group put together of singers and Soul Train dancers. “He was a part of my foundation here in Los Angeles even before Shalamar. He was a friend, and I will miss him.”
Dionne Warwick wrote: “What a shock to hear of my dear friend’s passing . . . . I am out of the country at this time and to hear this is a heartfelt hurt! Of course, like so many of my peers, Don played an enormous part in my career by giving me exposure when there was none for African American recording artists on television. Don and I created the Soul Train Music Awards in my home and, needless to say, our vision was to not only give the recognition of all that continually were overlooked by other award shows but to also to let the nation know the importance of African Americans within the music industry’s contributions to the world of recorded music. My deepest condolences go out to his family and to the multitude of his friends in this time of sorrow and grief. The world has lost an icon of the broadcasting world, and I personally have lost a dear friend.”
A statement from Smokey Robinson said Cornelius “brought exposure to Black talent and a positive image to young Black teenagers that had never been done before.”
“It’s just so sad, stunning and downright shocking and a huge and momentous loss to the African American community and the world at large,” Aretha Franklin said. “Don Cornelius single-handedly brought about a melding and unity of brother and sisterhood among young adults worldwide and globally with the unforgettable creation of Soul Train.”
“Don Cornelius was a pioneer and a trailblazer,” Magic Johnson wrote on his Twitter page. “He was the first African American to create, produce, host and more importantly, own his own show. Soul Train taught the world how to dance! I thank him for trusting me with his ‘Soul Train’ brand, and I will carry on his legacy through it. Don’s contribution to us all is immeasurable. My condolences to his son and my good friend Tony Cornelius and the entire Cornelius family.”
“The most fond memory about Soul Train was dancing with Andrea Price in 1978. She was fine,” emailed Ricky Jackson, a 1978 Soul Train dancer. “The worst memory was getting on the bus with two outfits. We taped two shows in one day and we ate KFC for lunch after the first taping.”
Flowers will be placed on Cornelius’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7080 Hollywood Blvd., near the corner of La Brea Avenue at 1 p.m. Memorial services have not been announced.