Bloomberg News

Don Cornelius of ‘Soul Train’ Dies at 75 in Likely Suicide

February 12, 2012

(Updates with report of divorce in second paragraph.)

Feb. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Don Cornelius, the creator and host of “Soul Train,” the television show that brought R&B music and the moves of young black dancers to a U.S. audience, has died in an apparent suicide. He was 75.

Officers responding to a report of a shooting found him at his Mulholland Drive home at around 4 a.m., Los Angeles police told the Associated Press. He was pronounced dead of a self- inflicted gunshot wound at 4:56 a.m. at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter told AP. The entertainer was recently divorced, the Los Angeles Times said.

Cornelius was a part-time news announcer on AM radio in Chicago when he left to create “Soul Train” in 1970. From its local start on Chicago’s WCIU-TV, the show generated a national version based in Los Angeles that grew through syndication to more than 130 stations in 1989, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Like its pop music counterpart, Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” Cornelius’s “Soul Train” became a fixture of Saturday-morning television.

“‘Soul Train’ was a new idea,” Cornelius told United Press International in 1984. “It was special-market television in a general audience medium before cable came along. It was very difficult to compete and survive out there. We took the ‘Bandstand’ format and gave it another look, created another character. We have white viewers, of course, but it wasn’t practical to sell the show in areas of low black population. Some of our sponsors were definitely looking for the black audience.”

Franklin, Jackson, Wonder

Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, James Brown, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson were among the black artists who appeared on “Soul Train.” In 1974, Elton John became the first white artist to appear on the show, according to Rickey Vincent’s 1996 book, “Funk: The Music, the People and the Rhythm of the One.”

“Dance shows aren’t new, of course,” the radio host and reviewer Clayton Riley wrote in the New York Times in 1973. “But if you’re into comparisons, ‘Soul Train’ is to the old ‘American Bandstand’ what champagne is to seltzer water.”

Vincent called “Soul Train” the “most undiluted showcase of black sexuality in the country” and “a cultural mecca for the entire decade of the 70s.”

Expanding his franchise, Cornelius created the annual Soul Train Music Awards in 1987.

Sale to MadVision

He hosted “Soul Train” until 1993 and produced his last new episode in 2006. In 2008, he sold the franchise to Los Angeles-based MadVision Entertainment, which planned to open the show’s archives for older viewers and create a new version of the program, the New York Times reported at the time.

He told the Los Angeles Times in 2010 that he was excited about a movie project he was developing, “a biographical look” at the history of “Soul Train.”

Donald Cortez Cornelius was born on Sept. 27, 1936, in Chicago, according to the Gale Group’s “Who’s Who Among African Americans.”

He sold insurance for Golden State Mutual Life from 1956 to 1966, became an announcer at WVON radio in Chicago and then joined WCIU as a sports anchor in 1968. With his wife, Delores, he had two sons.

--Editors: Charles W. Stevens, Steven Gittelson

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at larnold4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at cstevens@bloomberg.net


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