Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Soul Train Creator and Host Don Cornelius Dead at 75

On Wednesday morning February 1st, Don Cornelius, the creator and host of the iconic dance/music show Soul Train, was found dead in his home from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Police found Cornelius' body around 4 a.m. at his home in Sherman, Oaks, California, and he was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. He was 75.

Cornelius created Soul Train as sort of the black answer to American Bandstand, a show that would provide a showcase for black artists and their music. The show had a huge cultural impact in that it gave black artists a medium through which they could reach a much wider audience. Although Soul Train  primarily focused on soul, R&B, funk and hip hop artists, musicians  from other genres often performed on the show. A plethora of music legends have performed on the Soul Train stage, from James Brown to David Bowie. And in addition to the musical artists, the Soul Train dancers became semi-celebrities in their own right and would entertain viewers every Saturday afternoon with their new dance moves on the legendary Soul Train line.

Cornelius, who was also the show's executive producer, was known for his smooth, low-keyed interviewing style and his famous catchphrase, "you can bet your last money, it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey!" as well as his parting words at the end of the show, "and as always, we wish you love, peace and sooooulll!" Soul Train aired in syndication for 35 years (1971-2006) and holds the title for the longest, continuously running syndicated program on TV.

Cornelius was born in Chicago, Illinois on September 27, 1936. He served in the Marines in Korea and sold insurance among other jobs before going into radio broadcasting. He began his career in radio in 1966 as a fill-in disc jockey and news reader at WVON-AM, a Chicago radio station aimed at the black community. He also moonlighted as a sports reporter on a show called "A Black's View of the News" on WCIU-TV, a small local station.

Cornelius recognized the need for a venue for soul music on television. In 1970, he pitched the idea for a black-oriented dance/music show in the vein of American Bandstand to WCIU's management, and they liked the idea. Soul Train premiered on WCIU-TV August 17, 1970, as a live show airing weekday afternoons. Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites and the Emotions were the first musical guest performers on the show. It was an instant hit and caught the attention of Johnson Products Company, which later co-sponsored the program's expansion into national syndication. Soul Train began airing on a weekly basis in October of 1971, and the show also moved to Los Angeles at that time. Cornelius stepped down as host in 1993 but remained its executive producer.

In 1987, Cornelius launched the Soul Train Music Awards, an annual award show that honors musical artists in the fields of R&B, hip-hop and gospel music. The award show is still going strong today. The Soul Train brand expanded even further with two additional annual specials: The Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards (premiered in 1995) which celebrates top achievements by female performers; and the Soul Train Christmas Starfest (premiered in1998) that features holiday music performed by a variety of R&B and gospel artists.

Cornelius left a huge legacy with the influential Soul Train franchise. The show was instrumental in helping countless black artists break through to a wider audience. And for many of us, the show was an important part of our childhood. I remember as a kid (and later as a teen) looking forward to watching Soul Train on Saturday afternoons to catch hot live performances from some of the most talented musical artists of the day, as well as learn the latest dance steps from the Soul Train dancers. Rest in peace Mr. Cornelius. You will be sorely missed.

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