Don Cornelius was sartorially resplendent, possessed of a deep, resonant voice and on a first-name basis with practically everyone in the music business, particularly as he interviewed and introduced them to the world on his eternally popular show, “Soul Train.”
A family member, according to the Los Angeles Times, found Cornelius with a gunshot wound to his head at his home on Mulholland Drive in Encino, Calif., on Wednesday. He was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead, according to law enforcement officials, who, along with the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, are investigating his death. Initial reports have found no evidence of foul play and the wound appears to have been self-inflicted, the police told reporters. He was 75.
There are rumors that Cornelius was experiencing some physical and emotional problems as well as enduring a recent divorce.
Every baby boomer can recall those moments when they were transfixed by “Soul Train,” a dance show inspired by “American Bandstand,” but, ah, with much more soul.
“Soul Train” began in Chicago on a UHF station, WCIU, in 1970. A year later, it was syndicated and almost immediately gained national attention, prompting Cornelius to move it to Hollywood.
“There was no place else to be on Saturday morning, and I would be dancing right along with them,” said Catherine Johannes of Los Angeles, who grew up in Detroit. “He was so fine and you could always expect the top entertainers on the show.”
Cornelius was born on Sept. 27, 1936, in Chicago. Among his first jobs was selling insurance in the early 1950s before attending a broadcasting school with an aim to be on the air as a disc jockey. Soon, he was filling in for other hosts and working in the news department of WVON radio in Chicago.
When Black Nationalism raged across the land, he was well-placed and became a sports anchor who delivered a Black perspective on the news on WCIU television.
Out of his savings, he took $400 to make a pilot of “Soul Train,” and the rest, as they say, was history. And what an illustrious and glorious history, which, for more than a generation, helped launch and promote countless artists from R&B to rap and just about every major performer in the world.
“I am shocked and grief stricken by the reported news of the suicide of Don Cornelius, the creator of ‘Soul Train,’” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. “I had known him since I was 19 years old and James Brown had me speak on ‘Soul Train.’ We maintained a friendship for the last 38 years.
“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,” Sharpton added. “Had it not been for Don Cornelius, we would not have ever transcended from the Chitlin Circuit to become mainstream cultural trendsetters.”
In 1993, Cornelius stepped aside and the show continued without him until 2006. Two years later, he was arrested and charged with spousal battery, dissuading a witness from making a police report and assault with a deadly weapon. After pleading no contest to the charges of domestic violence, he was sentenced to three years probation.
This incident with his wife, Viktoria, was the beginning of the end of their marriage in 2009, though not without rancor and dispute.
In recent years, Cornelius was seriously incapacitated by a stroke and had to undergo brain surgery. Recently, he had been working with producers who were interested in a film project about him and his show.
His friends, fans and relatives will always remember his signature “Peace and Power!” as the credits rolled on his show and the spirited dancers worked feverishly to transmit some of Cornelius’ charm and genius.
He is survived by two sons, Anthony and Raymond.