‘Soul Train’ creator Don Cornelius found dead
Don Cornelius became the baritone-voiced bellwether of Chicago cool when he took “Soul Train” from the South Side to a national audience in the 1970s.
Cornelius, 75, was found dead Wednesday at his Mulholland Drive home in Encino, Calif. He apparently died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police say. There was no sign of foul play, but the Los Angeles Police Department was investigating.
Born in Chicago in 1936, Cornelius grew up in the Bronzeville neighborhood and worked numerous jobs: he sold insurance, worked as a TV newsman and deejayed at WVON, which serenaded the South and West Sides with soul music. While employed at WCIU-TV in the ’60s, he started hosting soul dance parties around the city and eventually approached station management about a show based on the same idea. They accepted.
“I wasn’t surprised because I was invited to come over there by one of my mentors, Roy Wood, who was the news director at WVON-AM radio,” Cornelius told the Tribune last year. “He was a good man. He had persuaded them to do a black-oriented news show called ‘A Black’s View of the News.’ I knew the format at Channel 26 had a lot to do with ethnic-targeted programming, so I said to the owner one day, ‘Why don’t you let me try this?'”
“Soul Train” debuted in 1970 with low expectations and overhead. Color cameras weren’t in the budget and the dancefloor was the size of a typical living room. 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.
Besides calling in favors from stars such as Curtis Mayfield, the O’Jays, B.B. King and Jerry Butler that he had befriended over the years, Cornelius brought in young dancers he met at parties or on the street to cut loose in front of the cameras. They were the unpaid star attractions who popularized enduring dance moves such as the “robot” and “pop and lock.” One of the show’s most avid viewers, the young Michael Jackson, was clearly paying attention when one of the show’s dancers debuted the “moonwalk” in the ’70s. The high-stepping “Soul Train” alumni include actress Rosie Perez, singer Jody Watley and rapper MC Hammer.
The show moved to Los Angeles in its second year and entered into national syndication, turning Cornelius from local celebrity into a music-industry tastemaker. Stars such as Sly and the Family Stone, Al Green, James Brown and Aretha Franklin appeared. Indicative of the show’s burgeoning reach (and bigger budget), Barry White showed up in 1975 wearing a black velvet tuxedo and conducting a 40-piece orchestra. White performers wanted in, too, and Elton John and David Bowie were among the guests.
Cornelius’ show mirrored African-American culture and influenced it, not just with music but with its sense of style and language. Cornelius’ invitation to visit and “style a while,” and depart with “peace, love and soul” fit with his unflappable demeanor. Behind the double-breasted suits, professorial glasses and smooth turns of phrase was a keen sense of business and community. In an industry dominated by whites, he was a pioneering African-American empire builder and partnered with Johnson Products, another black-owned Chicago institution, as a sponsor.
Though he wasn’t particularly a fan of disco or hip-hop, Cornelius made sure his show adapted to them.
“I’ve been accused of not being up on hip-hop or not being a fan of hip-hop, which was never true,” Cornelius told the Tribune. “If you had a following and you were charting in the major industry magazines — Billboard, and before that Cash Box — we had a commitment that ‘Soul Train’ was yours. And we lived up to that. We saw ourselves as a mirror of what black radio was doing. That whole criteria was part of what kept us going so long.”
Indeed, “Soul Train” provided the first wave of national television exposure for acts such as L.L. Cool J, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Public Enemy. The host finally bailed in 1993 and the show continued until 2006 without him, though it was never really the same. By the end, “Soul Train” had been eclipsed by other outlets showcasing cutting-edge African-American talent, but it remained the template for many of them.
“I don’t know of any more of a significant show than ‘Soul Train,'” said Kevin Swain, director of the 2010 documentary “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America.” “Dick Clark obviously had an impact, but in modern pop culture, ‘Soul Train’ was the most important vehicle because it brought African-American culture to television in a way that hadn’t been seen before, and it brought it in a fun and hip way that wasn’t heavy handed or overly political. And it was the single most important show for promoting black music. There probably wouldn’t be a (cable channel such as) BET without ‘Soul Train.'”
Just last September, Cornelius was the subject of a tribute at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, celebrating the 40th anniversary of “Soul Train” with a concert featuring his friends Jerry Butler, the Impressions, the Emotions andChi-Lites. But it was Cornelius who stole the show, striding on stage in black leather. He declared the dedication of a city street in his honor as part of the festivities “the most important thing that has ever happened to me.”
“It’ll be good to come back and see some people that I haven’t seen in a long time,” Cornelius told the Tribune in anticipation of the concert. “And it’ll probably be the last one in a while where people give me some applause for something I may have done.”
The Tribune’s Nina Metz contributed to this report