Don Cornelius, the producer and television host who created the dance show "Soul Train," was found shot dead in his Los Angeles 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.
Don Cornelius conducted us on the "hippest trip in America" for more than two decades on Soul Train, and in the process shone a light on R&B stars that mostly performed in the shadows of the mainstream. At the same time, he invited the nation to a multicultural, cross-generational dance party that was broadcast into living rooms every Saturday morning.
With his smooth, resonant baritone, Cornelius introduced hundreds of stars to the TV audience, including Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, James Brown, Jerry Butler, Marvin Gaye, The O'Jays and Barry White, while overseeing a colorful menagerie of partiers who influenced dance and fashion. It opened a window to African-American culture that had received scant media exposure.
"Back then, there was no targeted television and I just had the sense that television shouldn't be that way," Cornelius told USA TODAY in a rare interview in 2010, when the show's 40th anniversary was celebrated with a VH1 documentary. "The primary mission of the show was to provide TV exposure for people who would not get it otherwise. People who didn't get invited to The Mike Douglas Show, or (Johnny) Carson. There was no ethnic television, just general-market television, which meant mostly white people."
"I am shocked and deeply saddened at the sudden passing of my friend, colleague, and business partner Don Cornelius," said Quincy Jones in a statement. "Don was a visionary pioneer and a giant in our business. Before MTV, there was Soul Train, that will be (his) great legacy. … 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."
The Rev. Al Sharpton said he was shocked and grief-stricken, "I have known him since I was 19 years old and James Brown had me speak on Soul Train," Sharpton said in a statement from New York. "He brought soul music and dance to the world in a way that it had never been shown and he was a cultural game changer on a global level."
Cornelius developed his brainchild while working as a journalist and DJ in Chicago. Soul Train started in 1970 as a daily after-school dance show on WCIU and it was supported by such local acts as Curtis Mayfield and The Chi-Lites. The show was sponsored by Johnson Products, makers of Afro Sheen, and with owner George Johnson's help, Cornelius was able to move production to Los Angeles for the weekly syndicated show that premiered in 1971. Stations skeptical of the unproven series were won over when Gladys Knight agreed to do the pilot. Other artists were quick to jump on board.
Cornelius would host the show until 1993. The Train stayed on the tracks for another 13 years with assorted hosts. By the time he sold it to MadVision Entertainment in 2008, he had created an empire that included the Soul Train Music Awards and the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards.
The show, the longest running, first-run, nationally syndicated program in television history, was rife with iconic elements. There was the Soul Train line in which pairs of dancers popped creative dance moves and flashed outrageous fashions on their way down. The Scrabble Board gave two dancers 60 seconds to unscramble the name of a notable African-American entertainer or historical figure.
The dancers became stars in their own right and created moves such as locking, roboting and waacking (later known as voguing) that would be replicated at clubs and parties around the world. Singer Jody Watley and dance partner Jeffrey Daniels, who would become part of the hit-making trio Shalamar, got their start on the show. (Daniels' "backslide" step is credited with influencing Michael Jackson's moonwalk.) So did Rosie Perez (Pineapple Express) and Fred "Rerun" Berry (What's Happening!!).
When it was time to go, the host always reassured viewers with his signature sign-off: "And you can bet your last money, it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey! I'm Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!"
USA TODAY – By Steve Jones
The NY Times – By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.