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Don Cornelius Dead: 'Soul Train' Host And Creator Dies After Apparent Suicide

First Posted: 02/ 1/2012 8:25 am Updated: 03/26/2012 3:20 am

Don Cornelius Dead

Don Cornelius, the creator and longtime host of the groundbreaking music show ‘Soul Train,' has died. He was 75.

According to the New York Times, the police responded to reports of gunshots at Cornelius's Sherman Oaks home. They found Cornelius with a gunshot wound to the head that appeared to be self-inflicted, according to the Los Angeles County coroner.

A radio news announcer by trade, Cornelius began moonlighting at WCIU-TV in the 1960s. While there, he toyed with the idea of creating an African-American version of "American Bandstand," Dick Clark's influential music show, with live dancing five days a week. On August 17, 1970, the first episode of Soul Train premiered on the station, and by the following year, it was being syndicated in other markets.

"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 told the Associated Press in 1995.

"Soul Train" would go on to become the longest-running nationally syndicated show in history, airing from 1971 through 2006. Cornelius held down the hosting duties for most of that run, before stepping away in 1993. He remained as the program's executive producer and expanded the brand into an annual awards show.

“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 singlehandedly brought about a melding and unity of brother and sisterhood among young adults worldwide and globally with the unforgettable creation of Soul Train.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who was a protegé of James Brown, echoed those sentiments.

"I have known him since I was 19 years old and James Brown had me speak on 'Soul Train,'" Sharpton said in a statement. "We have maintained a friendship for the last 38 years. 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. Had it not been for Don Cornelius we would not have ever transcended from the Chitlin circuit to become mainstream cultural trendsetters."

Cornelius recently told the Los Angeles Times that there were early plans to create a movie based on the franchise. "We've been in discussions with several people about getting a movie off the ground," he said. "It wouldn't be the 'Soul Train' dance show, it would be more of a biographical look at the project. It's going to be about some of the things that really happened on the show."

In 2008, Cornelius was arrested and charged with spousal battery and dissuading a witness from making a police report, and assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to three years probation.

During his rocky divorce battle with his ex-wife, Viktoria, TMZ reported that Cornelius made a morbid request in the couple’s divorce papers. "I am 72 years old. I have significant health issues," Cornelius said. "I want to finalize this divorce before I die."

Cornelius is survived by his two sons, Anthony and Raymond.

More from Jeff Wilson at the AP:

LOS ANGELES — Don Cornelius, the silken-voiced host of "Soul Train" who helped break down racial barriers and broaden the reach of black culture with funky music, groovy dance steps and cutting-edge style, died early Wednesday of an apparent suicide. He was 75.

Police responding to a report of a shooting found Cornelius at his Mulholland Drive home around 4 a.m. He was pronounced dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound about an hour later at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, according to the coroner's office.

A police cruiser sat parked at the entryway of Cornelius' home on a two-lane stretch of Mulholland Drive in the hills above Los Angeles as detectives searched inside. News cameras camped outside as drivers on their morning commute drove by.

Police Officer Sara Faden said authorities have ruled out foul play. Detectives have not found a suicide note and are talking to relatives about his mental state.

His death prompted many to speak of the positive influence he and his show had on pop culture, music and the black community.

"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,'" said Aretha Franklin, an early performer on the show.

Franklin called Cornelius "an American treasure."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson told KNX-Los Angeles that Cornelius "was a transformer."

"`Soul Train' became the outlet for African-Americans," Jackson said, adding that he talked to Cornelius a few days ago and there were no signs Cornelius was upset.

Others also expressed their grief.

"I am shocked and deeply saddened at the sudden passing of my friend, colleague, and business partner Don Cornelius," 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," he said. "My heart goes out to Don's family and loved ones."

Clarence Avant, former chairman of Motown Records, said, "Don Cornelius' legacy to music, especially black music, will be forever cemented in history. `Soul Train' was the first and only television show to showcase and put a spotlight on black artists at a time when there were few African-Americans on television at all, and that was the great vision of Don."

"Soul Train" began in 1970 in Chicago on WCIU-TV as a local program and aired nationally from 1971 to 2006.

It showcased such legendary artists as Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Barry White and brought the best R&B, soul and later hip-hop acts to TV and had teenagers dance to them. It was one of the first shows to showcase African-Americans prominently, although the dance group was racially mixed. Cornelius was the first host and executive producer.

"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."

Chairman and chief executive of Black Entertainment Television Debra Lee cited Cornelius as a personal role model. She said she used to finish her chores early on Saturday mornings so she could check out the latest music, fashions and dance moves on the show.

"He was such a pioneer in the black music space but also in the black business space," she said. "He created the show in a very hostile environment. He made it a success and he made it a destination for African-Americans and lovers of our culture all over the country and all over the world.

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

Earvin "Magic" Johnson also cited Cornelius' business acumen.

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

And, Johnson added, "Soul Train taught the world how to dance!"

Other entertainers and music fans also shared their thoughts about the show and its creator on Twitter, where both Cornelius and "Soul Train" were top topics Wednesday.

Singer-actor Ginuwine remembered the smooth-voiced producer as "someone who paved the way for black music."

"I still remember my first time on soul train," he wrote, "what an experience."

On his blog, music mogul Russell Simmons called Cornelius "one of the greatest music legends there was."

"Don Cornelius gave artists who had been segregated from most mainstream vehicles of expression a chance to perform in front of a huge national audience," Simmons wrote. "It was a tremendous opportunity that changed their careers and the whole music industry. To win a Soul Train Music Award meant that the most sophisticated tastemakers in the world loved your work."

"Soul Train," with its trademark opening of an animated chugging train, was not, however, an immediate success for Cornelius, an ex-disc jockey with a baritone rumble and cool manner.

Only a handful of stations initially were receptive.

"When we rolled it out, there were only eight takers," he recalled in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. "Which was somewhere between a little disappointing and a whole lot disappointing."

The reasons he heard? "There was just, `We don't want it. We pass,'" he said, with race going unmentioned. "No one was blatant enough to say that."

"Soul Train" had arrived on the scene at a time when the country was still reeling from the civil rights movement, political upheaval and cultural swings. It also arrived when black faces on TV were an event, not a regular occurrence.

"Soul Train" was seen by some at first as the black "American Bandstand," the mainstay TV music show hosted by Dick Clark. While "American Bandstand" featured black artists, it was more of a showcase for white artists and very mainstream black performers.

"Soul Train" followed some of the "Bandstand" format, as it had an audience and young dancers. But that's where the comparisons stopped. Cornelius, the suave, ultra-cool emcee, made "Soul Train" appointment viewing by creating a show that showed another side of black music and culture.

When it started, glistening Afros dominated the set, as young blacks boogied and shimmied to the music of the likes of Earth Wind & Fire and other acts perhaps less likely to get on "American Bandstand."

"May u rest in peace and thank u 4 ur platform," rapper Q-Tip wrote on Twitter. "U will always be remembered."

People tuned into to see the musical acts, but the dancers soon became as much of a main attraction. They introduced Americans to new dances and fashion styles, and made the "Soul Train" dance line – where people stand line up on each side while others sashay down to show their moves – a cultural flashpoint.

"The `Soul Train' line – that will go down in history as a way of dancing at parties all around the world," Lee said.

Though "Soul Train" became the longest-running syndicated show 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.

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.

"I figured as long as the music stayed hot and important and good, that there would always be a reason for `Soul Train,'" Cornelius said.

Neil Portnow, president and chief executive of the Recording Academy, called "Soul Train" a cultural phenomenon and its creator "a true visionary and trailblazer."

"He made an indelible impact on American television, one that will continue to be appreciated for generations to come," Portnow said. "His beautiful, deep voice and measured pace always sounded warm and familiar to the millions who admired and followed his broadcasts."

Cornelius stepped down as "Soul Train" host in 1993. The awards returned to the air in 2009 after two-year hiatus. Last year's awards were held on Nov. 27 in Atlanta, with Earth Wind & Fire receiving the "Legend Award."

In his later years, Cornelius had a troubled marriage. In 2009, he 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.

___

Moody reported from New York. Associated Press writers Robert Jablon, Anthony McCartney, Lynn Elber and Sandy Cohen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Don Cornelius: Soul Train

    UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1973: c. 1973, California, Los Angeles, Soul Train, Don Cornelius. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

  • Don Cornelius: Soul Train

    Singer Aretha Franklin with show host and producer Don Cornelius. Franklin was one of many entertainers who performed on 'Soul Train' in the 1970''s, part of the Soul Train 30th Anniversary 'Divas and Kings 2000 & Beyond.' (Photo by 2001 Tribune Entertainment)

  • Don Cornelius: Soul Train

    Singer Diana Ross with show host and producer Don Cornelius. Ross was one of many entertainers who performed on 'Soul Train' in the 1970''s, part of the Soul Train 30th Anniversary 'Divas and Kings 2000 & Beyond.' (Photo by 2001 Tribune Entertainment)

  • Don Cornelius: Interviewing MLK

    Photo of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., center, is being interviewd by Soul Train show host and producer Don Cornelius, right. (Photo by 2001 Tribune Entertainment)

  • Don Cornelius: 20th Anniversary Soul Train Music Awards Nominations

    BEVERLY HILLS - FEBRUARY 2: Producer Don Cornelius attends the 20th Anniversary Soul Train Music Awards Nominations at the Spago Restaurant on February 2, 2006 in Beverly Hills, California. The 20th Annual Soul Train Music Awards TV Special will be video taped on March 4, 2006 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images).

  • Don Cornelius: 10th Annual Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards

    PASADENA, CA - SEPTEMBER 07: Soul Train Producer Don Cornelius onstage at the 10th Annual Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on September 7, 2005 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

  • Don Cornelius: 20th Annual Soul Train Music Awards

    PASADENA, CA - MARCH 04: Producer Don Cornelius and wife Victoria arrive at the 20th Annual Soul Train Music Awards at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on March 4, 2006 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

  • Don Cornelius: Anti-Defamation League Entertainment Industry Awards

    BEVERLY HILLS, CA - APRIL 5: 'Soul Train' creator/producer Don Cornelius and his wife Victoria arrive at the Anti-Defamation League Entertainment Industry Awards at the Bevery Hills Hotel on April 5, 2006 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

  • Don Cornelius: 2009 BET Awards

    LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 28: TV personality Don Cornelius presents the BET Lifetime Achievement Award onstage during the 2009 BET Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on June 28, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

  • Don Cornelius: 10th Annual Soul Train Lady Of Soul Awards Nomination

    BEVERLY HILLS - AUGUST 9: Producer Don Cornelius attends the 10th Annual Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards Nominations at the Spago Restuarant on August 9, 2005 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images).

  • Don Cornelius: 2005 TV Land Awards

    SANTA MONICA, CA - MARCH 13: Executive Producer Don Cornelius (L) and Musician Smokey Robinson onstage at the 2005 TV Land Awards at Barker Hangar on March 13, 2005 in Santa Monica, California. Don Cornelius was awarded the Pop Culture Award for 'Soul Train'. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)

  • Don Cornelius: 2005 TV Land Awards

    SANTA MONICA, CA - MARCH 13: Producer Don Cornelius arrives at the 2005 TV Land Awards at Barker Hangar on March 13, 2005 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images)

  • Don Cornelius: 2005 TV Land Awards

    SANTA MONICA, CA - MARCH 13: Musicians (L-R) Ashanti, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Mya, Little Richard, and TV personality Don Cornelius attend the 2005 TV Land Awards at Barker Hangar on March 13, 2005 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

  • Don Cornelius: 19th Annual Soul Train Music Awards Nominations

    BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 1: Producer Don Cornelius speaks at the 19th Annual 2005 Soul Train Music Awards nomination announcements during press conference at Spago Restaurant on February 1, 2005 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

  • Don Cornelius: 19th Annual Soul Train Music Awards Nominations

    BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 1: (L-R) Actor/recording artist Nick Cannon and producer Don Cornelius attend the 19th Annual 2005 Soul Train Music Awards nomination announcements during a press conference at Spago Restaurant on February 1, 2005 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

  • Don Cornelius: 6th Annual Family Television Awards

    BEVERLY HILLS, CA - DECEMBER 1: Producer Don Cornelius attends the Sixth Annual Family Television Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on December 1, 2004 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

  • Don Cornelius: 18th Annual Soul Train Music Awards

    BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 19: Producer Don Cornelius attends the 18th Annual Soul Train Music Awards 2004 nominations at Spago's Restaurant on February 19, 2004 in Beverly Hills, California. The 18th Annual Soul Train Music Awards will be broadcast live on March 20, 2004 from the International Cultural Center, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

  • Don Cornelius: 9th Annual Soul Train Awards Nominations

    BEVERLY HILLS - JULY 17: Producer Don Cornelius attends the 9th Annual Soul Train Nominations announcements at the Spago Restaurant on July 17, 2003 in Beverly Hills, California. The Soul Train Awards are at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on August 23, 2003. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

  • Don Cornelius: Gala Benefit

    WESTWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 19: Producer Don Cornelius and his wife attend the Gala Benefit for Debbie Allen's musical Pearl at the Geffen Playhouse on November 19, 2002 in Westwood, California. The proceeds benefit the children of Debbie Allen's Dance Academy. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

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