Don Cornelius, who helped deliver funk, soul and disco music into living rooms across America and helped prime the world for the impending hip-hop revolution, was one of the most important tastemakers of the 1970s — and was a key purveyor of black pop culture on television.
NEW YORK — In an era when Beyoncé and Jay-Z are music royalty, when Barack Obama is the nation’s chief executive, and when black stars in the cast of a TV show are commonplace, it may be hard to grasp the magnitude of what Don Cornelius created once he got his “Soul Train” rolling.
“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, weekly, to musicians such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Earth Wind & Fire, the Jacksons, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson in the 1970s and 1980s.
The show also gave viewers groovy dances and Afro-envy, helping make them hip to a funky world that many never had experienced, or maybe even suspected.
But it was more than that. Before BET would give African Americans their TV channel, and before black music and faces found their way to MTV videos, network dramas and comedies, “Soul Train” became a pioneering outlet for a culture whose access to television was strictly limited.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- Analysis: French anger shifts from pension law to focus on Macron
- Lentils are just waiting for their 'hummus moment'
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
- ‘We’ve lost the aqueduct’: How severe flooding threatens a Los Angeles water lifeline
- 5 planets will line up in a row above the Earth. Here’s how to view the rare event
“Most of what we get credit for is people saying, ‘I learned how to dance from watching “Soul Train” back in the day,’ ” Cornelius told Vibe magazine in 2006. “But what I take credit for is that there were no black television commercials to speak of before ‘Soul Train.’ There were few black faces in those ads before ‘Soul Train.’
“And what I am most proud of, is that we made television history.”
Cornelius, the producer and television host who created the show, was found shot to death in his Los Angeles home Wednesday morning in what appeared to be a suicide, the Los Angeles Police Department and the county coroner’s office said. He was 75.
The Los Angeles County assistant chief coroner, Ed Winter, said Cornelius was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. “It was reported as a suicide, a self-inflicted wound,” Winter said.
Authorities ruled out foul play but had not found a suicide note and were talking to relatives about his mental state.
“Soul Train” didn’t make history only by influencing the music charts. The show served as a pop-culture preview and barometer of fashion, hairstyles and urban patois.
By some measures, “Soul Train” was the equivalent of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” Cornelius’ creation premiered 13 years after “Bandstand” went national, using a similar format, and took a while longer to attract local stations to air it and advertisers to support it.
From there, it became a Saturday ritual as soul and rap artists (and white artists, including Elton John and David Bowie) showed off their latest releases while kids responded on the dance floor.
“When you come up with a good idea, you don’t have to do a whole lot,” Cornelius told The New York Times in 1996. “The idea does it for you.”
“Hippest trip” in U.S.
On “Soul Train” — “the hippest trip in America,” the announcer proclaimed, “across the tracks of your mind” — the host was Cornelius, but to describe him as the black Dick Clark is misleading.
For Cornelius, the difference between “Bandstand” and his show was in the execution, as he told The Associated Press in 1995.
“If I saw ‘American Bandstand’ and I saw dancing and I knew black kids can dance better; and I saw white artists and I knew black artists make better music; and if I saw a white host and I knew a black host could project a hipper line of speech — and I DID know all these things,” then it was reasonable to try, he said.
So the former disc jockey and journalist created the show in 1970 on Chicago’s WCIU-TV and served as writer, producer and host. The show, a quick success, was broadcast nationally in 1971, beginning its 35-year national run.
Besides the performers, the program showcased young dancers who would strut their stuff, laying the groundwork for countless dance programs, including current hits such as “So You Think You Can Dance” and MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew.”
“We had a show that kids gravitated to,” Cornelius said.
On the show, he was the epitome of cool, with a baritone rumble that recalled seductive soul maestro Barry White, and an unflappable manner all the way through the hour to his trademark signoff: “We wish you love, peace, and SOUL.”
He laced his show with pro-social messages directed at his black audience.
On a 1974 program, he interviewed James Brown about violence in black communities — “black-on-black crime looks very bad in the sight of The Man,” Brown said sorrowfully. Cornelius also brought on a 19-year-old Al Sharpton, already a civil-rights activist, who presented Brown with an award for his music.
Cornelius helped bring the best R&B, soul and later hip-hop acts to TV. The show was one of the first on TV to showcase African-American artists including Franklin, Gaye and White.
Though “Soul Train” became one of the longest-running syndicated shows in TV history, its power waned 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. But even after Jackson became the King of Pop, Cornelius believed a need existed to highlight the achievements of African Americans still marginalized at mainstream events. So he created the “Soul Train 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.
A loss of influence
Along the way, Cornelius became estranged from a changing music scene that clashed with his relatively conservative taste. Yet, while he suggested violently or sexually explicit gangsta rap should be labeled “X-rated,” he said the focus should be on eliminating poverty and violence from low-income black communities.
Cornelius stopped hosting the show in 1993, and “Soul Train” ceased production in 2006.
Cornelius’ world grew dark in recent years as he faced fallout from a divorce and other pressures. In 2009, he was sentenced to three years’ probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor spousal battery and, in his divorce case that year, he also mentioned having significant health problems.
He is survived by two children, Anthony and Raymond, with his first wife, Delores Harrison.
Cornelius, who was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in 1995 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, said in 2006 that he remained grateful to the musicians who made “Soul Train” the destination for the best and latest in black music.
“As long as the music stayed hot and important and good, that there would always be a reason for ‘Soul Train,’ ” he said.
Information from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times is included in this report.