Remembering the Legendary and Visionary ‘Soul Train’ Creator, Host and Producer Don Cornelius
By Danny J. Bakewell, Jr. Contributing Editor & Brandon I. Brooks Asst. Managing Editor
Don Cornelius launched the world famous “Soul Train” television series in the early 70’s after working as a journalist during the civil rights movement. The movement inspired him to create an avenue for Black artists to display their talents to America and ultimately the world.
“There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity,” Cornelius said in a 2006 interview. “I’m trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks, which they knew was for them.”
“Soul Train” would go on to become one of the most successful television series in history as the show was syndicated for over 35 years. Cornelius would serve as the show’s host and executive producer for over 20 years until stepping down as host in the 90‘s and just focusing on producing and building the brand.
The franchise still boasts being the “longest-running, first-run, nationally syndicated program in television history.” During that period of time, tons of artists and dancers have graced the stage and influenced millions around the world with the what Cornelius has coined as the “Soul of America.”
Who could forget the world famous “Soul Train Line” which has become a party staple at not only Black events around the world but in almost every culture around the globe.
Cornelius has been a king-maker for decades opening the doors for some of the greatest musicians in music history. “Soul Train,” exposed Black artist to a worldwide audience and catapulted the careers of some of the greatest entertainers music has ever witnessed.
The “Soul Train” era has seen the likes of great entertainers such as Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, George Clinton, Curtis Mayfield and in recent years Destiny’s Child, Beyonce, Luther Vandross and just about any and every Black musician you can think of that had relevance in the last 40 years of popular music. Soul Train was made the unofficial, official stamp of the industry. You had to go on Soul Train if you wanted to make it in the business.
Upon learning of his passing thousands of prayers for him and his family immediately took to the airwaves of social media as well comments from many of his friends poured into the Sentinel remembering the legendary businessman, civil rights leader and music icon.
Berry Gordy – Founder of Motown
“Don was a pioneer, the first to present Soul music to the masses via television. His Soul Train show was an important and timely vehicle that showcased Black talent and their new releases to the public. From his unique Soul Train dances to his brilliant commentary, there are not enough adjectives to describe how important his role was to our society.
There was American Bandstand and Where the Action Is, The Ed Sullivan Show, Hullabaloo, and others, all extremely important to me and Motown and our growth; but Soul Train was our own, and yet it was for everybody.
Don was a wonderful human being and a true friend who loved Motown music. He supported us in every way. I will miss him.”
“I am shocked and deeply saddened at the sudden passing of my friend, colleague, and business partner Don Cornelius,” said Quincy Jones. “Don was a visionary pioneer and a giant in our business. Before MTV there was ‘Soul Train,’ that will be the great legacy of Don Cornelius. 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.”
Clarence Avant – Music Executive
“Let me put it like this. Don Cornelius was my friend — a real, real, friend. I’ve known him since the inception of Soul Train. But without Soul Train, we wouldn’t be where we are today in this music business.
There are two people that made a tremendous impact on African Americans – Berry Gordy with Motown and Don Cornelius with Soul Train.
Think about it. We were not on television back then in any numbers in the 1970s when it started. We just looked at what they put on and certainly they were not images of Black artists. When they decided to put them on, it was American Bandstand, but that was not like Soul Train.
Soul Train dedicated itself 99.9 percent to Afro-American artists and without that, there’s a whole lot of artists that have gone on before Don, that are still here, and their careers would not have been the same without Soul Train. He made a tremendous impact on these artists”.
I used to say to him, “Damn, man. Why you got four or five artists on your show at one time?” But the Soul Train dancers and all of those things made an impact. He was there before BET, MTV, all of them. And his impact, well, there are some things that we know that ‘they’ don’t know because he was on the air, whether it was 1 a.m. in the morning or 3 a.m. in the morning.
You only had the three networks back then and certainly the South wouldn’t carry him. But then, he finally got syndicated and the rest is history.
But his impact, in terms of the media, he had more impact on African American artists than anybody in this industry period, bar none”.
Danny J. Bakewell, Sr. Publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel had this to say. “Words cannot express how shocked and deeply saddened my family and I are, at the passing of our dear friend, brother and colleague Don Cornelius. Don and The Soul Train Brand are not only An institution within the Black Community but they are an American Institution. The world has lost one of our true Entertainment Geniuses and a true leader and icons in our community today”.
“I have known Don for year’s, he was a big supporter of my work at the Brotherhood Crusade and was always available to support any and everything that was going on in our community. Don was a tireless fighter for the welfare, respect and integrity of the African American Community. He loved Taste of Soul and was truly in awe of the wonderful spirit and love demonstrated by all 250,000 people who attended this year’s Taste of Soul. My heart goes out to his son Tony and the entire Cornelius and Soul Train Family”.
When news of Don’s passing first hit the airwaves social media immediately went into over drive. Holly Robinson Peete posted on her twitter “Don was a friend, supporter, neighbor, a pioneer. We will miss you… Rest With Angels Don. Prayers for son Tony and entire family”.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson who purchased the Soul Train Brand several years ago posted on his twitter “Don Cornelius was a pioneer & a trailblazer. He was the first African-American to create, produce, host & more importantly OWN his own show”. “Don’s contribution to us all is immeasurable. My condolences to his son & my good friend Tony Cornelius & the entire Cornelius family.”
Minyon Moore – Former Asst. to President, Director of Public Policy & Affairs – Bill Clinton
Don will always be remembered as an American Treasure around the world. He was very generous in spirit, heart and soul. His legacy will live on for generations to come. He was a friend to many of us in Washington, DC. We will miss him.
Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr.
We are all saddened by the passing of my friend and Brother Beloved, Don Cornelius. At this moment, “Precious Memories” flood my soul as I remember all that this great man contributed to the popular culture—and all that he gave to me personally.
I first met Don in 1964 when he was a reporter with the iconic WVON radio station. Then, and throughout the course of his lifetime, Don was driven by a singular determination to tell the story of the African American experience. Indeed, his coverage of Dr. King’s charge for open housing in the city of Chicago gave voice to the legitimate hopes and aspirations of a community pinned under the historical weight of disadvantage.
Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, Don Cornelius transitioned from journalism and ventured into the realm of music and entertainment. There existed a disconnect between the profound impact that Black culture had on American society and the absence of these artists from the mainstream stages, especially in the medium of television. His remedy was to provide a stage upon which these cultural innovators and their talents could be highlighted. With his own $400, Don rented out the WCIU/Channel 26 studios and started “SOUL TRAIN”, a dance review featuring young high schoolers and some of the highest profile, yet under-recognized Black talent in the world of entertainment. It exploded in popularity, and after a year, with the sponsorship of JOHNSON’S PRODUCTS Hair Company, “SOUL TRAIN” went national—and the rest is, quite literally, history.
I was blessed to have known Don over the years and he was an unceasing and tireless supporter of my work. But, more than all of this, Don was a personal friend. He shared many wonderful times in my home with my wife and children. And in times of triumph and challenge, he was always there. A part of my soul has traveled with him today. My love, thoughts and prayers are with his family.
We are beneficiaries of his special kind of genius.
Let us all wish him, “Love! Peace! And, Soul!”
The Rev. Al Sharpton said he was shocked and grief-stricken.
“I have known him since I was19-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.”
Don Cornelius will forever be part of American music history and a vital part of Black history to the world. He fought during the civil rights movement and helped to lead four generations out of the streets and onto the dance floor. His influence and impact on the music world will be felt for decades to come.
Known for the catchphrase with which he closed each episode: “I’m Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!”
“Soul Train” also spun off the Soul Train Music Awards and the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards. “Soul Train” went off the air in 2006.
Cornelius’ colleagues have been quick to commemorate him. Aretha Franklin, who shot to fame in part because of “Soul Train,” released a statement calling Cornelius’ death “sad, stunning, and downright shocking … a huge and momentous loss to the African-American community and the world at large.”
Congresswoman Maxine Waters
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of my dear friend Don Cornelius. Don was the brilliant mind that founded Soul Train, the African-American counterpart to American Bandstand, which created the platform for African-American youth and artist to display their talent on the national stage,”
“Soul Train was responsible for exposing America to the true essence of Black culture through music, fashion and dance every week and continued to keep Americans glued to their televisions sets every weekend from 1971 to 2006. Serving as its host and executive producer, Don was responsible for catapulting the careers of countless acts that you and I continue to enjoy today,”
“In 2000, I had the pleasure of working with Don while organizing an extravaganza for the National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. His role as Producer for this event was essential to its success and displayed stellar entertainment for the African-American community unlike anything that had been before at the National Democratic Convention. I will forever be in debted to him for his vital role in the perpetuation and preservation of Black culture in America and making people proud to be Black. Don Cornelius was a great friend, genius and purveyor of Black culture and he will truly be missed, “
Gladys Knight – Legendary Entertainer
Don Cornelius was a pioneer in the field of musical television for African American artists, incorporating dance along with song. He believed wholeheartedly in his dream of giving people of Color a face on this powerful thing called T.V. A dream such as his was almost unthinkable for Black people with the social climate of prejudice being what it was. But he persevered, he worked, and succeeded. His persona was cool and laid back, but underneath he had a drive to get things done. He was a great friend and counselor. He opened many, many doors and hearts teaching all who came in contact with his soul train about peace, love, and SOUL!!! I pray for him and his family for he truly lifted us up as artists and as people to a higher place. Job well done Don! We love you!
Shelley Berger – Manager of The Temptations
“For me, Don Cornelius was a visionary who broke down walls, at a time where it was very, very difficult for Black artists to get on television. He made it his business to bring Black artists … R & B artists … and later on Rap and Hip-hop artists to the general public with Soul Train. And I don’t think that he will ever get the kind of adulation that he deserved”
OTIS of the Temptations
“I’ve lost a wonderful friend; he will be sorely missed. I just want to thank him for making the Temptations even larger. I’m very grateful for the time I spent with him on Soul Train, but most of all, he was a very wonderful person.”
James Ingram – Legendary Singer and Song Writer?Don Cornelius was one of our most important visionaries. He taught us how to dream big with Soul. He was my friend and I will forever miss him.
Kelly Price – Entertainer
“In the wake of this movement we have to revive R&B music, I thought it fitting to issue this statement and pay respect for a man who gave the R&B culture a FACE.
It saddened me to learn of the death of Don Cornelius this morning.
Before I, and many like me, had a face on television, Don Cornelius and Soul Train gave us a face. I along with many other kids in my era rose on Saturday to see Cartoons and Soul Train! We were proud of the look of familiarity Soul Train gave us. My very first award was a Soul Train Award.
Mr. Cornelius revolutionized our culture and gave us our own unique identity in media at a time when having that look seemed impossible. Mr. Cornelius said TO THE WORLD “watch us do our thang! Its beautiful and there’s nothing else like it!” On this first day of BLACK HISTORY MONTH I honor Don Cornelius. I pray for the peace of Tony Cornelius and the Cornelius Family and I wish to everyone who ever experienced the flair of Don Cornelius to take from him what he wanted us all to have…LOVE, PEACE AND SOUL! ”
Reve Gipson Parks
“My mother was the former entertainment editor of the Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper and when Soul Train first came on the air, our mother was very supportive of the show and always supportive of Don, and they became very good friends. Don was such a giving and caring person … he was just absolutely wonderful … and as far as I’m concerned, he gave so much to the music industry today … because he certainly gave a lot of R & B artists breaks in terms of going on his TV show. They just got great exposure from it. But above and beyond everything, he was just a dear friend of my mother … so kind to her. And that’s what I’ll always remember.
Neil Portnow – President/CEO The Recording Academy
Recording Academy Trustee Award recipient Don Cornelius created a cultural phenomenon with “Soul Train”, providing a platform for recording artists to showcase their talents to a wider, more diverse audience. He made an incredible impact on American television, one that will continue to be appreciated for generations to come. His beautiful, deep voice and measured pace always sounded warm and familiar to the millions who admired and followed his broadcasts. The music industry has lost a true visionary and trailblazer, and our deepest sympathies extend to his family, friends, and all who welcomed him in their homes for so many years.
Don Cornelius’ lasting legacy will be his impact on diversifying pop culture and giving rise to a hugely influential group of black performers. Cornelius created “Soul Train” and hosted the show in national syndication from 1971 to 1993. It was the first real venue on American TV for soul music, and as the show’s writer, producer, and emcee, Cornelius played a vital role in bringing some of the greatest African American entertainers of all time to a worldwide audience.
Don Cornelius, the brilliant creator of the television series “Soul Train”, was found dead in his Sherman Oaks, California home early Wednesday morning, February 1. The body was discovered around 4 AM PT after police responded to a call of a shooting.
He was pronounced dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at 4:56 a.m. at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter.
Cornelius died at the age of 75.