RIP. Not a good start to Black History Month.
Don Cornelius, who with the creation of Soul Train helped break down racial barriers and broaden the reach of black culture with funky music, groovy dance steps and cutting edge style, died early Wednesday of an apparent suicide. He was 75.
Officers responding to a report of a shooting found Cornelius at his Mulholland Drive home at around 4 a.m., police said. He was pronounced dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at 4:56 a.m. at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter.
“I am shocked and deeply saddened at the sudden passing of my friend, colleague, and business partner Don Cornelius,” said Quincy Jones. "Don was a visionary pioneer and a giant in our business. Before MTV there was Soul Train, that will be the great legacy of Don Cornelius. 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.
“I have known him since I was19 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.”
Soul Train began in 1970 in Chicago on WCIU-TV as a local program and aired nationally from 1971 to 2006.
It introduced television audiences to such legendary artists as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Barry White and brought the best R&B, soul and later hip-hop acts to TV and had teenagers dance to them. It was one of the first shows to showcase African-Americans prominently, although the dance group was racially mixed. Cornelius was the first host and executive producer.
“There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity,” he said in 2006, then added: “I’m trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks, which they knew was for them.”
Soul Train, with its trademark opening of an animated chugging train, was not, however, an immediate success for Cornelius, an ex-disc jockey with a baritone rumble and cool manner.
Only a handful of stations initially were receptive.
“When we rolled it out, there were only eight takers,” he recalled in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. “Which was somewhere between a little disappointing and a whole lot disappointing.”
The reasons he heard? “There was just, ‘We don’t want it. We pass,’” he said, with race going unmentioned. “No one was blatant enough to say that.”
Audience reaction and the high-powered talent the show attracted helped it spread. Over the years, Soul Train showcased some of R&B’s biggest stars, including Gaye and Brown, as well as crossover white artists. In later years, it featured rap stars, although Cornelius acknowledged that he was no fan of the genre or the racier dance moves that younger teens had embraced.
The show’s highlight was a dance line. Teens strutted and pranced their way between two lines of dancers awaiting their turn to show off. Over time, the dance line worked its way into American culture and is now an integral part of wedding receptions and parties.
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 he remained grateful to the musicians who made Soul Train the destination for the best and latest in black music.
“I figured as long as the music stayed hot and important and good, that there would always be a reason for Soul Train,” Cornelius said.
The series spawned a franchise that includes the Soul Train Music Awards, the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards and the Soul Train Christmas Starfest.
Cornelius stepped down as Soul Train host in 1993. The awards returned to the air in 2009 after two-year hiatus. Last year’s awards were held on Nov. 27 in Atlanta, with Earth Wind & Fire receiving the “Legend Award.”
In his later years, Cornelius had a troubled marriage. In 2009, he was sentenced to three years’ probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor spousal battery. In his divorce case that year, he also mentioned having significant health issues.
Associated Press writers Nekesa Mumbi Moody in New York and Robert Jablon and Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.