Written by James C. McKinley Jr. and Originally Published in The NY Times on February 1st, 2012.
Don Cornelius, the smooth-voiced television host who brought black music and culture into America’s living rooms when he created the dance show “Soul Train,” was found dead at his home in Los Angeles early Wednesday in what appeared to be a suicide, the authorities said. He was 75.
Police officers responding to a report of a shooting found Mr. Cornelius’s body at 4 a.m. on the floor of his house on Mulholland Drive with a gunshot wound to the head. It appeared to have been self-inflicted, said Ed Winter, the Los Angeles County assistant chief coroner.
He was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. The police said they had ruled out murder and were talking to relatives about Mr. Cornelius’s mental state.
“Soul Train,” one of the longest-running syndicated shows in television history, played a critical role in spreading the music of black America to the world, offering wide exposure to musicians like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson in the 1970s and ’80s.
“ ‘Soul Train’ created an outlet for black artists that never would have been if it hadn’t been for Cornelius,” said Kenny Gamble, who with his partner, Leon Huff, created the Philly soul sound and wrote the theme song for the show. “It was a tremendous export from America to the world, that showed African-American life and the joy of music and dance, and it brought people together.”
News of Mr. Cornelius’s death prompted an outpouring of tributes from civil rights leaders, musicians, entrepreneurs, academics and writers. “He was able to provide the country a window into black youth culture and black music,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “For young black teenagers like myself, it gave a sense of pride and a sense that the culture we loved could be shared and appreciated nationally.”
Mr. Cornelius, a former disc jockey, created “Soul Train” in 1970 for the Chicago television station WCIU and served as its writer, producer and host. When it became a local sensation, he moved the show to Los Angeles and began broadcasting nationally in 1971, beginning a 35-year run in syndication.
In its heyday, it was a formative experience every Saturday morning for young people of all backgrounds and afforded some of the most important soul and R&B acts their first national television exposure. It was also a platform for white rock musicians like Elton John and David Bowie to reach black audiences.
Beyond music, “Soul Train” showcased dances and clothing styles then popular among young blacks. It laid the groundwork for dance programs like Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” and MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew.”
Born on Chicago’s South Side on Sept. 27, 1936, Mr. Cornelius had an early craving to go into broadcasting. He graduated from DuSable High School in 1954, did a stint in the Marine Corps and then returned to Chicago to marry a childhood sweetheart, Delores Harrison. They had two sons, Anthony and Raymond, who are among his survivors.
In 1966, he gave up a career selling insurance and cars to take a three-month broadcast course, despite having young children to feed. With his deep baritone, he landed a job as a substitute disc jockey at WVON in Chicago and later as a sports anchor on the television program “A Black’s View of the News.” He produced the “Soul Train” pilot with $400 of his own money, taking the title from a road show he had created for local high schools.
“ ‘Soul Train’ was developed as a radio show on television,” Mr. Cornelius told The New York Times in 1995. “It was the radio show that I always wanted and never had. I selected the music, and still do, by simply seeing what had chart success.”
He said the show was originally patterned on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” but with a focus on black music, fashion and dance. “There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity,” he told The Associated Press in 2006. “I’m trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks, which they knew was for them.”
The formula for the show did not change much over the years, though the sets were updated and the music evolved from Motown to funk and eventually to rap. As the host every week, Mr. Cornelius, tall and powerfully built, would play the hottest songs and corral a few performers to be interviewed. They would do a song or two, sometimes live, sometimes lip-synching. He signed off each show by intoning “Love, peace and soul.”
Mr. Cornelius stepped down as host in 1993, handing the reins to a series of actors, comedians and other guest hosts. “I took myself off because I just felt that 22 years was enough and that the audience was changing and I wasn’t,” he said.
It was not until 2006, however, that he stopped producing new shows. He sold the franchise and the archives two years later to a subsidiary of Vibe Holdings LLC.
In recent years he went through a bitter divorce from his second wife, Viktoria Chapman-Cornelius, a Russian model. In 2008 he was arrested and charged with spousal battery, assault with a deadly weapon and dissuading a witness from making a police report, all misdemeanors, after a domestic dispute with his wife in their home.
A year later he was sentenced to three years’ probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of spousal battery in a plea bargain. During divorce proceedings later that year, he mentioned having “significant health problems” but did not elaborate.
Clarence Avant, a former chairman of Motown Records, said the suggestion that Mr. Cornelius had committed suicide surprised his friends. He did not appear despondent or upset when the two men met for lunch last week, Mr. Avant said, though Mr. Cornelius did mention that he had had seizures recently and avoided driving himself. “He was very private,” Mr. Avant said.