‘Soul Train’ host Don Cornelius dies in apparent suicide

'Soul Train' host Don Cornelius introduced television audiences to legendary artists including Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Barry White.

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."

The pioneering media mogul, 75, was found dead in his Sherman Oaks, Calif., home Wednesday morning. He was pronounced dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at 4:56 a.m. at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, according to the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.

"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."

"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.


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