AYINDE J. STEVENS
Last Wednesday, on what should have been the beginning of another Black History Month, emcee and producer Don Cornelius died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
After being found by police in his Los Angeles area home after 4 a.m., he was rushed to Cedars Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills, Calif., where, according to The New York Times, he was pronounced dead at 4:56 a.m.
He was 76.
Born on Sept. 27, 1936, in the south side section of Chicago, Cornelius graduated from the historic DuSable High School, served in the Marines and became an insurance salesman.
Cornelius later got a job at WVON, a Chicago radio station, as a disc jockey and news announcer.
However, Cornelius will be best known for creating and hosting the hit syndicated television dance show, “Soul Train.”
Inspired by local dance parties, the show premiered on Aug. 17, 1970, on local Chicago television station WCIU-TV. When it expanded into national syndication on Oct. 17, 1971, it only had seven other markets in cities such as Atlanta, San Francisco and Philadelphia. It would later expand to 17 other markets and moved to Los Angeles while still having a local presence in Chicago until 1976.
Despite the inroads made by Motown singers like Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye, many African American artists were still having a hard time getting their talents into mainstream American culture.
The format of the show involved a musical guest performing two numbers, the “Soul Train Line” dance, which showcased the latest dance moves, and a word puzzle which two dancers had to solve. The answer would be either the musical guest or an important African American figure.
The show promoted the careers of numerous artists, such as Aretha Franklin, The O’Jays, B.B. King, Michael Jackson and many others.
But the real draw to the show was the “Soul Train Line” and its dancers were what made the show the “hippest trip in America.”
Dancers’ careers started by the show include football star Walter Payton, actress Rosie Perez and rapper M.C. Hammer. Performers like Elton John and David Bowie also appeared on the show.
The show had a major impact on the civil rights era. It was the only show that directly appealed to young African Americans in the inner city. As a result, “Soul Train” became their source into the latest music, style and dance.
For whites and people outside the United States unfamiliar with black culture, it exposed them to a resurgence of said culture.
The show’s golden age was during the 1970s and 80s. During this time it was often compared to another dance show, “American Bandstand.” Cornelius, however, never really liked the comparison.
When “Bandstand” host and media mogul Dick Clark tried to create a “Soul Train”-like show called “Soul Unlimited,” Cornelius fought Clark in court and won, causing “Soul Unlimited” to be cancelled.
One main difference between the two was that while Clark was pushing the top 40 list, Cornelius was getting the message out that black people are here and we are here to stay.
Also, “Soul Train” was one of the first shows created, produced and hosted by an African American. Cornelius, being a former salesman, managed to remain on top and very much in control of the show; not to mention being very influential in the music industry. However, as time went on, soul gave way to disco; and in turn, that gave way to hip-hop.
Cornelius, despite not really being a fan of newer genres, allowed them on the show.
However, becoming more disenchanted by the changing tastes in music, he stepped down from hosting in 1993 and the show lost influence.
Cornelius retained control of the show until its cancellation in 2006.
Cornelius leaves this earth having created one of the most successful television shows in history.
In 2011, the city of Chicago hosted a 40th anniversary tribute to “Soul Train” and its creator Don Cornelius, for which he would dress, for the last time, in his iconic black leather suit.
The African American community remembers Cornelius’ sign off: “Peace, Love, and Soul.”
Well, Don, with you gone, that phrase will never be the same.
Cornelius leaves behind his second wife and two children from a previous marriage, according to news reports.