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Don Cornelius, the silky, deep-voiced creator and host of the groundbreaking African-American song and dance TV series Soul Train, was found dead Wednesday morning of an apparent suicide. He was 75.
According to the Los Angeles Police Department, Cornelius’ body was discovered by a family member at around 4 a.m. in his Encino home on Mulholland Drive. He was pronounced dead at 4:56 a.m. at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of “an apparent suicide with a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” Los Angeles County assistant chief coroner Ed Winter told The Hollywood Reporter. Winter said the department is investigating.
The dapper Cornelius launched Soul Train in 1970 in Chicago before taking the show national a year later. He featured trend-setting black dancers and invited such breakout African-American talents as Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Barry White to perform.
Cornelius was the host of Soul Train until 1993, but he remained behind the scenes as younger hosts fronted the show. It ceased production in 2006 with the longest run in syndication history, and Cornelius sold the rights to the Soul Train library to MadVision Entertainment two years later for an undisclosed sum.
Cornelius ended each show with this signature phrase: “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.”
“It’s just so sad, stunning and downright shocking and a huge and momentous loss to the African-American community and the world at large,” said Franklin. “Don Cornelius single-handedly brought about a melding and unity of brother and sisterhood among young adults worldwide and globally with the unforgettable creation of Soul Train.
”Cornelius also introduced the annual Soul Train Music Awards in 1985 to extend the brand (it ran until 2008), followed by the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards and the Soul Train Christmas Starfest.
Donald Cortez Cornelius was born on Sept. 27, 1936, on the south side of Chicago. After graduating from high school, he joined the Marines, then held a series of odd jobs, including car salesmen and cop.
While issuing a traffic ticket, Cornelius was advised by the motorist he had stopped that with his resonant voice, he should get into broadcasting. The driver, Ed Cobb, was a radio personality, and he hired Cornelius as an announcer and substitute disc jockey for his station. Cornelius proved himself a natural.
In 1967, Cornelius joined WCIU-TV, a UHF station trying to reach minority audiences, and worked as a news and sports reporter. He also booked local concert tours on the side and proposed to the station a soul-music version of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
Management was willing to listen but offered no financial backing, so Cornelius produced a pilot episode with his own money. He came up with the name Soul Train, based on his experiences working with black artists who performed in four different Chicago locales a day, always on the move.
Cornelius faced difficulty in finding a sponsor, but Sears, Roebuck & Co. signed on, and Soul Train premiered on Aug. 17, 1970. The show ran live five days a week, with Cornelius hosting and introducing the performers.
Based on the show’s quick success, Cornelius shifted operations to Los Angeles in a bid to syndicate the show nationally. He attracted the sponsorship of Johnson Products, which manufactured the Afro Sheen line of hair-care products, and Soul Train made its national debut on Oct. 2, 1971, in eight markets.
In addition to African-American stars like The O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and James Brown, Cornelius brought in white “blue-eyed soul” artists like David Bowie, Elton John and Hall & Oates who had crossover hits. The show, which opened with a parade of kids, two at a time, flashing their dance moves as they walked onto the set, provided a window into African-American culture for other audiences.
Clark emulated Soul Train by producing an ABC-backed program called Soul Unlimited. But after a while, Clark dropped the show, and Cornelius and Clark teamed to co-produce specials for ABC.
In 1975, Cornelius partnered with Dick Griffey to form Soul Train Records, an association that lasted three years. Cornelius subsequently reshifted his emphasis to TV that included a British version, 6:20 Soul Train.
At its peak, Cornelius’ show thrived during the disco era. The founder was not enthusiastic about the rise of rap and hip-hop, expressing qualms about the lack of musical creativity in those genres.
In a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Cornelius said he was excited about a movie project he was developing about Soul Train.
“We’ve been in discussions with several people about getting a movie off the ground,” he told the newspaper. “It wouldn’t be the Soul Train dance show, it would be more of a biographical look at the project,” he said. “It’s going to be about some of the things that really happened on the show.”
Cornelius married his childhood sweetheart, Delores Harrison, in 1956. The couple had two children, Anthony and Raymond, before divorcing. He married Viktoria Chapman in 2001, and that union ended in divorce as well.
In 2008, he was arrested for misdemeanor domestic violence for beating his wife, after which he pled no contest and served three years probation.
Erin Carlson contributed to this report.
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