Don Cornelius, a pioneer among African-American TV producers as the creator and host of the long-running syndicated R&B show “Soul Train,” has died. He was 75.
Cornelius was pronounced dead early Wednesday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to L.A. County assistant chief coroner Ed Winter.
Los Angeles Police Dept. officers responding to a report of a shooting found Cornelius at his Sherman Oaks home at around 4 a.m.
Founded in 1971 in Chicago as a weekday local showcase for black musical talent, Cornelius’ “Soul Train” swiftly became the nation’s principal platform for popular soul performers and flourished through the funk, disco and hip-hop eras. Firstrun weekly shows ran in syndication — mainly via Chicago-based Tribune Co. — from 1971 to 2006.
Cornelius was the program’s frontman, and his mellifluous baritone voice, elegantly tailored outfits and salutation of “love, peace and soul” became iconic.
“Soul Train” permanently altered the landscape for black performers on TV, as Cornelius himself noted.
“It was a time when television got more inclusive,” Cornelius told Variety in 2010. “It wasn’t just one culture that was using the media and controlling it…(Now) black artists have unlimited access.”
Born in Chicago, Cornelius worked as a newsreader and fill-in DJ at the Windy City’s top R&B station, WVON. Hired as a reporter by local UHF station WCIU, he moonlighted as a promoter of local record hops and parlayed that experience into the opportunity to host a weekday dance show on WCIU.
Styled much like Dick Clark’s trend-setting pop dance show “American Bandstand,” “Soul Train” debuted on Aug. 17, 1971. A bare-bones production that featured local teens dancing against a blank cyclotron and appearances by Windy City R&B talent, it nonetheless attracted a large local following.
Its flamboyant line dances, “scramble board” competition and appearances by top African-American acts made it a wildly popular syndicated offering. Virtually every major performer of the day appeared on Cornelius’ stage.
Cornelius moved production of the show to L.A. later in the ’70s. His dance floor spawned its own stars: Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniels of Shalamar got their start there, and performers like Rosie Perez and MC Hammer also appeared. The show’s talent booker, Dick Griffey, became a force in the music business as the head of Solar Records.
Debra Lee, chairman and CEO of Black Entertainment Television, was one of the youngsters who tuned in to the show. She said she would finish her chores early so she could check out the latest music, fashions and dance moves. She called Cornelius a role model and “a great interviewer who knew how to connect to artists.”
The show grew so hot that its theme song, the instrumental “TSOP” by Philadelphia International’s house band MFSB, became a No. 1 R&B hit in 1974.
The show’s profile was raised further with the 1987 initiation of the Soul Train Music Awards. The kudocast ran regularly through 2008, when the WGA strike and the sale of the Tribune Co. scotched the event. The kudocast returned to the air in 2009.
Cornelius handed off “Soul Train” hosting duties in 1993, and the show’s popularity would wane as hip-hop became the predominant black music form. Cornelius was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in 1995.
In a statement, Tribune Co. called Cornelius “a one-of-a-kind, a visionary in music and television and a creative force who led an amazing life.”
In 2008, Cornelius was arrested for spousal abuse. He later pleaded no contest to the charge and received probation. Wife Viktoria divorced him in 2009. In later years he was reportedly in declining health.
Time-Life released a three-DVD set of “Soul Train” highlights in 2010, featuring performances by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and other stars.
Cornelius is survived by two sons.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)