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Soul Train Pioneer Don Cornelius Found Dead


via Chicago Suntimes
Don Cornelius, the South Side native who founded and hosted the iconic TV music and dance show “Soul Train,” shot himself to death Wednesday morning at his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif., Los Angeles police say.

Officers responding to a report of a shooting found the 75-year-old at his Mulholland Drive home at around 4 a.m.

He was pronounced dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at 4:56 a.m. at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter.

“I am shocked and deeply saddened at the sudden passing of my friend, colleague, and business partner Don Cornelius,” said Quincy Jones. “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.”

Cornelius started his career as a fill-in disc jockey and also worked in the news department at WVON-AM in 1966, having gone to broadcasting school after working in the insurance business.

He also appeared on WCIU-Channel 26’s “A Black’s View of the News” before he created “Soul Train,” which would become the longest-running syndicated program in television history.
He was the show’s host-producer-salesman as it premiered in Chicago on Aug. 17, 1970, on WCIU as a local teen dance show featuring primarily African-American kids and bands. The original version of “Soul Train” was produced on the 43rd floor of the Chicago Board of Trade building.

“Soul Train,” with its trademark opening of an animated chugging train, was the first black-oriented musical variety show on American TV.
The show became a national sensation in 1971, when Cornelius moved to Los Angeles and put the show in syndication, thanks in part to the support of George Johnson of Johnson Prodcuts Company. The show aired nationally until 2006.

But it wasn’t an immediate success for Cornelius, the ex-disc jockey with the distinctive baritone rumble and cool manner. Only a handful of TV stations initially were receptive when the show went into national syndication.

“When we rolled it out, there were only eight takers,” he recalled in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. “Which was somewhere between a little disappointing and a whole lot disappointing.”

The reasons he heard? “There was just, ‘We don’t want it. We pass,’ ” he said, with race going unmentioned. “No one was blatant enough to say that.”

“Soul Train” had arrived on the scene at a time when the country was still reeling from the civil rights movement, political upheaval and cultural swings. It also arrived when black faces on TV were still an event, not a regular occurrence.

“Soul Train” was seen by some at first as the black “American Bandstand,” the mainstay TV music show hosted by Dick Clark. While “American Bandstand” featured black artists, it was more of a showcase for white artists and very mainstream black performers.

“Soul Train” followed some of the “Bandstand” format, featuring a live audience, musical guests and young dancers. But that’s where the comparisons stopped. Cornelius, the suave, ultra-cool emcee, made “Soul Train” appointment viewing by creating a show that showed another side of black music and culture.

When it started, glistening Afros dominated the set, as young blacks boogied and shimmied to the music of the likes of Earth Wind & Fire and other acts perhaps less likely to get on “American Bandstand.”

Still, Cornelius credited Clark as his inspiration. “Almost all of what I learned about mounting and hosting a dance show, I learned from Dick Clark,” Cornelius told Advertising Age.

Airing Saturdays, “Soul Train” introduced television audiences to such legendary artists as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Barry White and brought the best R&B, soul and, later, hip-hop acts to TV and had teenagers dance to them. It was one of the first shows to showcase African Americans, though the dance group in later years was racially mixed.

“There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity,” Cornelius said in 2006, adding: “I’m trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks which they knew was for them.”

People tuned into to see the musical acts, but the dancers soon became as much of a main attraction. They introduced Americans to new dances and fashion styles and made the “Soul Train” dance line — where people stand line up on each side while others sashay down to show their moves — a cultural flashpoint.

Though “Soul Train” became the longest-running syndicated show in TV history, its power began to wane in the 1980s and ‘90s as American pop culture began folding in black culture instead of keeping it segregated. By that time, there were more options for black artists to appear on mainstream shows, and on shows like “American Bandstand,” blacks could be seen dancing along with whites.

But even when Michael Jackson became the King of Pop, there was still a need to highlight the achievements of African Americans, whose achievements were still marginalized at mainstream events. So Cornelius created the “Soul Train Music Awards,” which would become a key honor for musicians. The series also spawned the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards and the Soul Train Christmas Starfest.

Cornelius was the show’s first host and executive producer. He stepped down as the host of “Soul Train” in 1993.

In his later years, Cornelius had a troubled marriage. In 2009, he was sentenced to three years of probation after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of spousal battery. In his divorce case that year, he also mentioned having “significant health issues” and said he wanted to “finalize this divorce before I die.” He was divorced in 2010.

TMZ said Cornelius’ health problems over the years included a stroke and said he had undergone brain surgery.

In Chicago last September, 15,000 people came to Millennium Park for the 40th anniversary “Soul Train” concert, and Cornelius was presented with an honorary “Don Cornelius Way” street sign before the concert — with the “Soul Train” logo — that’s posted at the corner of Halsted and Madison, where Cornelius launched the show at WCIU.

“This is the biggest thing that ever happened to me,” Cornelius, a DuSable High School product, said after being presented with the sign..

WBEZ-FM’s Richard Steele told the crowd that “Soul Train” made people “proud to wear an afro.”

In a Chicago Sun-Times interview published Sept. 2, 2010, Cornelius was asked what his favorite moment in the show’s history was.

“Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin doing a duet on ‘Ooh, Baby Baby,’ ” he said. “And anything with James Brown playing live on our stage.”

And why did he walk away from “Soul Train?”

“A guy like me can’t be doing ‘love, peace and soul!’

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