For 23 years, Don Cornelius was television’s high priest of black popular music. As the creator and host of Soul Train, the Saturday morning show with its train-whistle theme and its army of inexhaustible dancers, he showcased such stars as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Michael Jackson. Cornelius himself was an unforgettable presence with his formidable Afro, huge glasses, and silky radio announcer’s baritone. At the end of each installment, he blew his viewers a kiss. “As always,” Cornelius said, “we wish you love, peace … and soul!”
On Feb. 1, Cornelius was found with a gunshot wound, apparently self-inflicted, at his Mulholland Drive home in Los Angeles. He was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at 4:56 am.
Donald Cortez Cornelius was born on Sept. 27, 1936, in Chicago. He spent a decade selling insurance. When he turned 30, he found a more suitable job on a local AM radio station. Yet Cornelius had a grander vision. Black music was exploding in popularity, but there was no steady outlet for it on television. So he left radio in 1970 and created Soul Train, a black version of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, on Chicago’s WCIU-TV.
The show quickly spawned a national version filmed in Los Angeles and became a cultural phenomenon. “Dance shows aren’t new, of course,” a New York Times critic wrote reverently in 1973. “But if you’re into comparisons, Soul Train is to the old American Bandstand what champagne is to seltzer water.”
Many of the performances on Soul Train were lip-synched; the television impresario preferred it that way. Thankfully, many of his guests felt differently. “Some people weren’t comfortable lip-synching,” Cornelius admitted to the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “So we had to come up with another alternative.”
As a result, Cornelius ended up capturing some memorable live performances: Aretha Franklin singing an intimate version of Oooo Baby, Baby with Smokey Robinson, and James Brown at the height of his powers in 1974, belting out a medley of his hits with sidemen in bright red capes, to name just a few.
Over the years, he opened up the show to white performers such as Elton John and welcomed hip-hop acts such as Heavy D & the Boyz. By the time the last episode was produced in 2006, Soul Train had achieved its status as the longest-running syndicated show in TV history.
Two years ago he told the Los Angeles Times he was talking to actor Eddie Murphy about doing a movie that would conjure up the spirit of his show: “We were just flat out in love with the music.” The film never got made, but Cornelius has scarcely been forgotten. “Before MTV, there was Soul Train,” said composer and music producer Quincy Jones. “That will be the great legacy of Don Cornelius.”