The sobering news that Don Cornelius, creator and longtime host of the groundbreaking music show “Soul Train,” has died has left an indelible mark on fans and colleagues across the world. According to the Los Angeles Times, police arrived at Cornelius’ Sherman Oaks home on Feburary 1 and found him dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Donald Cortez Cornelius, a native Chicagoan, began his career moonlighting as a radio news announcer at WCIU-TV in the 1960s. It was there he mused the idea of building an African-American version of American Bandstand, which was powered by Dick Clark talented hosting style and superstar brand of musical talent, and would feature live dancing five days a week. There had never been a place on television for African-American’s to cut loose, get down, and celebrate the music they adored—until Don Cornelius put his paint brush to canvas and created an innovative forum that became known as “hippest trip on the planet.”
On August 17, 1970, the first episode of Soul Train premiered on WCIU and by the following year, it was being syndicated across the country. The influential show was “Black star power” before BET coined the phrase, displaying some of the best and brightest Black talent. Artists such asThe O’Jays, Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan, and Michael Jackson all helped Soul Train become the longest-running nationally syndicated show in history. Even Elton John came by to show how funky he could be.
Don Cornelius was the conductor of the Soul Train until 2006 and served as an inspiration for many of today’s stars. Folks like Erykah Badu and ?uestlove have continuously professed their admiration for both the in-front camera hosting duties and behind-the-scenes work that Cornelius did to keep the Soul Train on track for so long.
Whether it was the contagiously catchy theme song, the fresh and innovative new dances that debuted on the famous “Soul Train line” or seeing our gifted musicians become giant stars in the blink of an eye, it all traces back to one man—Don Cornelius.
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A statement released by the legendary production duo, Gamble and Huff said, “Don’s vision allowed for African-American artists to be exposed to people all over the world through the power of television. The ‘Soul Train’ and TSOP brands will forever be inseparable.”
Vh1 will air “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip In America” on Friday, February 3rd. The monumental 90-minute documentary celebrating the show’s impact on pop culture, music, dance and fashion. The documentary is narrated by Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard and features an original score by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots. The film features a rare interview with Don Cornelius in which he reveals exclusive details regarding the launch and early days of the legendary series, plus interviews with popular musicians (Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, Smokey Robinson, Snoop Dogg, Aretha Franklin), Sly Stone’s first exclusive documentary interview in years, comics (Cedric “The Entertainer,” Nick Cannon), music industry executives (L.A. Reid, Clive Davis, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff) and more who discuss how Soul Train impacted their lives.
“We are deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Don Cornelius. He was a pioneer in the television and music industries and his legacy and influence on American culture will continue to live on for many generations to come. He made Soul Train a destination for lovers of black culture and music and connected the world to our culture and we are forever grateful,” said Debra L. Lee, Chairman & CEO of BET Networks.
“Don Cornelius was the heart of Soul Train,” stated Paxton Baker, EVP & GM, Centric. “There were so many different things he affected through a one-hour television show that was nothing short of amazing… Don Cornelius provided to Americans, African-Americans in particular, the opportunity to start working in this business in positions that were otherwise closed to them.
106 & Park, a show that surely takes many of its cues fromt the legacy of Soul Train, payed tribute to Cornelius on February 1st; BET also aired the documentary “Soul Train: Hippest Trip In America” in tribute to the icon and will re-air the 2011 Soul Train Awards on February 2nd at 8pm EST. CENTRIC began a 24-hour Soul Train marathon at midnight on February 2nd, with additional marathons to run this weekend. Check your local listings other tributes and programming to follow.
Legendary singer Aretha Franklin also released a statement: “Don Cornelius! It’s so shocking and stunning. God bless him. He created a solid and broad foundation for young people and adults alike to socialize, dance and have good clean fun. He united the young adult community single-handedly and globally. With the inception of Soul Train, a young, progressive brother set the pace and worldwide standard for young aspiring African American men and entrepreneurs in TV—out of Chicago. He transcended cultural barriers among young adults. They became one. Everybody loved Soul Train and appreciated Don!”