The television and music industries are mourning the death of Soul Train host and creator Don Cornelius. He was found dead in his home in Los Angeles Wednesday from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Cornelius’ health had been declining for the last few years and was reportedly showing signs of dementia. Cornelius also had brushes with the law; he was charged with spousal battery in a domestic violence incident. His marriage ended in divorce in 2009.
Cornelius was a true television pioneer. Before MTV, BET, and the Internet, Soul Train was the first program to regularly showcase black performers with national exposure. Soul Train was a show where you can find the latest fashions, music, hairstyles, and dance moves. The show was indeed a cultural achievement; it helped break down racial barriers and provided those not familiar with the African-American community a window into black culture like no other show at the time could. From Aretha Franklin to Smokey Robinson, from the O’Jays to the Commodores, from The Jackson 5 to Donna Summer (they’ve all appeared)… if you were an African-American performer, Soul Train was the place to be.
Cornelius was discovered in the unlikeliest of places: he gave a ticket a WVON-AM producer during a traffic stop when he was a cop. The producer invited him to the station for a tryout and soon after, joined WVON as a radio personality in the mid-1960’s. During this time, he worked the record-hop circuit and emceed high school dances, calling them “The Soul Train”. Cornelius joined WCIU-TV in 1967 as a sports reporter for Black’s Views Of The News.
In 1970, Cornelius pitched WCIU owner Howard Shapiro an idea about a early fringe dance show strip targeted to African-American teenagers, similar in vein to the record hops he did. Like those traveling concerts, Cornelius would dub the show Soul Train and with sponsorship from Sears, the series debuted on August 17. In 1971, Cornelius and Johnson Products Company took Soul Train to national syndication as a weekly show, clearing seven markets at first, and eventually growing to near 100. Two years later, Cornelius stepped down as host of the daily Chicago version of Soul Train to focus more on the weekly syndicated version in L.A., ceding the hosting duties for the Chicago version to producer Clinton Ghent.
Soul Train remained an important television series to showcase black artists – even in the 1980’s when MTV initially refused to air videos featuring African-American artists, a practice Cornelius routinely criticized – and continued to do so even after MTV started showing more artists featuring people of color.
Even though Soul Train featured primarily black artists, the show also featured Caucasian acts including Teena Marie, Elton John, Hall & Oates, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Paula Abdul, New Kids On The Block, Robin Thicke, and the Pussycat Dolls. Comedians were also regularly featured on Soul Train, including Arsenio Hall and Willie Tyler & Lester, among others.
Numbers for Soul Train continued to be strong in large markets well into the 1990’s – WPIX in New York City regularly won its Saturday 11 a.m. time slot with the show, while WGN-TV in Chicago also performed strongly. In Los Angeles, Fox-owned KTTV tried to keep the show away from Tribune-owned rival KTLA, since then-syndicator Tribune Entertainment and KTLA were both owned by Chicago-based Tribune Co. KTTV aired Soul Train from 1971 to 1990; Tribune bought KTLA in 1985.
By the end of the 1990’s, ratings for Soul Train began to decline, thanks to competition from MTV and BET and other syndicated fare targeted to African-American audiences (such as It’s Showtime At The Apollo.) Cornelius – who increasingly became disconnected with the music scene as traditional soul and R&B music was being pushed aside for hip-hop and rap, stepped down as host in 1993, but remained on board as executive producer. By the start of the 21st Century, Soul Train was being downgraded into late night and early morning weekend time periods as local stations made more room for off-network dramas and infomercials (in Chicago, WGN actually upgraded the show in its later years, moving Soul Train to 1 p.m. Saturdays, due to an expansion of Kids WB’s Saturday morning cartoon lineup.)
Soul Train unofficially ended production in 2006, capping off an amazing 35-year run – making it the longest running first-run syndication series in television history (that is, until Entertainment Tonight passes it – its currently in its 31st season.) Don Cornelius Productions opted to air reruns from May 2006 on, but had to switch syndicators midway through the 2007-08 season when Tribune Entertainment closed its doors on December 18, 2007. Trifecta Entertainment took over distribution for the reminder of the season, but opted not to continue after September 2008.
Aside from Soul Train, Cornelius has made appearances on in other media, including the election night episode of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show on November 8, 1988, which aired on Showtime (and later on Fox.) Other appearances include The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and in the movie Mafia!
In 2008, a book was published detailing Soul Train’s Chicago origins in A Critical History Of Soul Train On Television. Written by Chris Lehman, the book uncovers little-known facts about the early days of Soul Train at WCIU (to read a partial list of these facts – and a link to a Chicago Reader article written in October 2008 regarding the book, click here.)
Also in 2008, Madvision Entertainment acquired the rights to Soul Train and a year later licensed them to Time-Life to release on DVD, who released several Soul Train sets (if you watch TV late at night, there is no way you can miss an infomercial for this product.)
Last year, the City of Chicago celebrated the legacy of Soul Train with a photo exhibit on display at Randolph Street in the Loop, and held a Soul Train 40th Anniversary Concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park last September, and was attended by Cornelius.
As Don Cornelius would say, we wish him love, peace, and soul!