By Dwight Hobbes
The tragic death of Don Cornelius (Sept. 27, 1936 – Feb. 1, 2012) marks the passing of a media pioneer. It’s reported Donald “Don” Cortez Cornelius died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Sherman Oaks home in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.
Cornelius’ contribution to national and international acceptance of soul music remains incalculable. Before his historic television creation Soul Train, Black artists’ greatest opportunity for mainstream exposure was Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
While American Bandstand significantly breached the color barrier, promoting Motown stars and giving artists like Bobby Womack and Ann Peebles a leg up, Soul Train threw the doors open. Audiences across the nation no longer had to settle for occasionally catching soul and R&B singers on the tube. Regularly, teenagers (and adults) enjoyed their music and saw themselves reflected in an aesthetic ingeniously tailored to urban America.
The ensuing groundswell heavily sustained the careers of iconic figures James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and more, introducing, among a host of eventual superstars, Rufus (later to become Rufus featuring Chaka Khan), Al Green and Earth, Wind & Fire.
The Jackson Five’s performances on Soul Train readied audiences for solo careers by Michael Jackson and Jermaine Jackson and, by association, Janet Jackson. There literally is no end to the worldwide impact Soul Train has, to this day, on popular music.
As well, dancers on the show went on to prominence, including actors Rosie Perez and Nick Cannon and singer Jodi Watley.
Regrettably, an entire generation of BET-devotees have no idea who Don Cornelius was or how Soul Train broke the ground on which a multi-billion dollar Black entertainment industry thrives.
Cornelius, originally a journalist inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and determined to make a difference, was host, writer and producer of Soul Train. In 1967, he worked as news reader and fill-in disc jockey at Chicago radio station WVON, then was hired by WCIU-TV to report news and sports. He came up with the idea to promote and emcee a touring series of concerts featuring local talent for “record hops” at Chicago high schools. He called the traveling caravan of shows “The Soul Train.”
WCIU-TV took note of its success. In 1970, the station engineered sponsorship and Soul Train hit the air, forever changing music media the world over.
Don Cornelius is survived by two sons, Anthony and Raymond.