Soul Trains Don Cornelius Dies At 75

Don Cornelius was found shot dead in his Los Angeles home…

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Don Cornelius, the producer and television host who created the dance show “Soul Train,” was found shot dead in his Los Angles home early Wednesday morning in what appears to be a suicide, the Los Angeles Police Department and the county coroner’s office said. He was 75 years old.

A person called the police from Mr. Cornelius’s house on Mulholland Drive in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood just before 4 a.m. and reported shots had been fired, a police spokesman, Chris No, said. When officers arrived, they were let into the house and found Mr. Cornelius lying lifeless on the floor with a gunshot wound to the head that appeared to be self-inflicted, said the Los Angeles County assistant chief coroner, Ed Winter.

Mr. Cornelius was taken to Cedar-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 4:56 a.m., Mr. Winter said. “It was reported as a suicide, a self-inflicted wound,” he said. “I have investigators at the hospital.”

“Soul Train” was one of the longest-running syndicated shows in television history and played a critical role in spreading the music of black America to the world, offering wide exposure to musicians like James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I am shocked and deeply saddened at the sudden passing of my friend, colleague and business partner Don Cornelius,” said Quincy Jones, according to the Associated Press. “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. My heart goes out to Don’s family and loved ones.”

Mr. Cornelius, a former disc jockey, created the show in 1970 in Chicago on WCIU-TV and served as its writer, producer and host. Quickly becoming a success, the show was broadcast nationally in 1971, beginning its 35-year run. Besides the performers, the program showcased young dancers who would strut their stuff, laying the groundwork for countless dance programs, including current hits like Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” and MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew.” “We had a show that kids gravitated to,” Mr. Cornelius said.

In a 2010 interview with The Los Angeles Times, Mr. Cornelius said he was excited about a movie project he was developing about the show. “We’ve been in discussions with several people about getting a movie off the ground. It wouldn’t be the ‘Soul Train’ dance show. It would be more of a biographical look at the project,” he said. “It’s going to be about some of the things that really happened on the show.”

Mr. Cornelius stopped hosting the show in 1993, and “Soul Train” ceased production in 2006. Two years later, he sold the show to MadVision Entertainment.

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Don Cornelius has always been a salesman. As a young man starting out in Chicago, he sold insurance. He also sold tires. And Pontiacs.

But whatever he was selling, his customers reminded him of the obvious: He had a deep, rich voice that belonged on the air.

Later, when he couldn’t sell the idea of his own radio program, he sold the idea of having a television show instead.

The program he launched in Chicago in 1970 was “Soul Train,” which this year marks 25 years on television.

Host for much of “Soul Train’s” quarter century and producer of other programs from his offices in West Hollywood, Cornelius has carved a singular niche in the entertainment business. This fall he will be inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame. He is a partner with Tribune Entertainment Co., the show’s distributor, and with Quincy Jones and Geraldo Rivera in a Tribune-backed TV station ownership venture.

Singer Gladys Knight, singer-composer Brian McKnight and actress-model Tyra Banks will host the two-hour special from Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, honoring top female recording artists in rhythm & blues, rap/hip hop, jazz and gospel music.

Relaxed — as he always appears to be — amid the light-gray, charcoal and black decor of his office, Cornelius recalled the creation of the “Soul Train” franchise. He made it sound like a good idea that was bound to succeed. And maybe it was, given its time and place in broadcast history. But it is also the story of an entrepreneur assuming risks others might not have taken.

The first, logical step was to enroll in broadcast school.

“It was a legitimate school,” he said. “They told you up front almost nobody was going to get a job in radio. And if you did, if you were good enough, it would mean starting out in some little town, not in your home town.”

It was a plus that a few prominent African-American radio personalities had gone to the school, he said.

But it was still a sacrifice for Cornelius. “I had a family at the time,” he said. (He has two sons but is not married now.) “It was a real test of will to stay in school.”

After completing the program, he didn’t have to leave town to get a job. Soon he was a swing man on WVON, subbing for any on-air personality who fell ill. “I found myself wishing they would not get well,” he said.

He wanted to be the main man, the station’s prima donna. “I probably would have given a couple of fingers to get it,” he said.

But before that could happen, he met television. A job as sports anchor on a program offering the black view of the news at WCIU-TV helped him develop a relationship with the station’s owners. It was to them that he pitched the idea of a dance show patterned after Dick Clark’s enduring “American Bandstand.” Soul sounds and black artists would distinguish the Cornelius production.

“I formatted it to be the radio show I always wanted to have,” he said. “To this day, it’s still paced in the direction of a radio show. It never really slows down or engages in discussion or long interviews.

“I started to interject some of the schtick I liked to use on radio. It came off kind of different for television, given what the eye and ear is used to.”

The show took its name from his moonlighting days when he promoted local artists who performed in Chicago high schools, often making as many as four stops a day. After working one school, he and his musicians would pack up the gear and rumble on to the next stop.

It was 1970. And Cornelius, in his early twenties, was an entrepreneur. “Soul Train” was rolling. “Overnight, everyone in Chicago knew who I was,” he said. “The show was the talk of the town.”

Syndication outside Chicago was another matter. That came a year later.

“Our original target was 15 markets. We got eight. It took two years to get 25. Several years after that, Donny Kirschner’s `Rock Concert’ launched with 100 markets without a pilot or previous airing.”

“Soul Train” is now seen in about 100 markets and is enjoying its best cruising speed, said Cornelius. That level gives the show 95 percent coverage of its African-American target market.

The obstacles he faced in launching “Soul Train” at the national level remain today, he said. He still has to work to gain better timeslots. Basically, that involves selling station managers and advertising-research specialists on the value of giving the show a higher profile in markets with heavy concentrations of African-American viewers.

An analysis of a market’s demographics considers the entire area reached by a TV station’s signal, not just the core city, he said. By that reckoning, Washington, D.C., becomes a 22-percent African-American market. That, he said, helps account for the late-night timeslots the show has had on District stations.

The show, with its musical guests and sassy dancers, is intended as a Saturday afternoon program for young people, he said. This summer, WRC has aired it at 1 p.m. most Saturdays, but before that, the station carried it at 2 a.m. or even later.

“If a show like `Soul Train,’ which is the godmother and godfather of all black entertainment television and which is produced with more quality and at greater expense than it’s ever been produced in its 25-year history and remains based on a music genre that is hotter than it’s ever been since its birth and hot enough to dominate the charts at every level, and cannot get on at a good time period in Chocolate City, obviously there’s a problem.”

While Cornelius pursues these matters with apparent intense interest, he admits his energy isn’t what it used to be.

“My health history does not allow me to be what I used to be as a manager or as an entrepreneur,” he said.

His problem started with headaches in the early ’80s. A congenital malformation was discovered in some blood vessels in his brain. On Nov. 12, 1982, he underwent a 21-hour operation. “You choose your brain surgeons for their stamina,” he said. “You’re never quite the same afterward. Travel is always a real test.”

Cornelius fits well into his executive surroundings. They almost serve as camouflage for the Hershey-skinned man in the gray pinstripe suit. His white shirt gave him sharp definition, and the gold watch, bracelet and cuff links defied the basic black color scheme.

“Most of it was here when we moved in,” he said, referring to the black lacquer doors and gray textured wall paper. “We just embellished it a bit.”

The large television and array of stereo equipment, the chairs and tables, the window blinds and telephone are all either charcoal or black.

He smiled and scanned the room. “It’s us,” he said.

 

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