Don Cornelius: Creator and host of the ground-breaking US TV programme 'Soul Train'


When Don Cornelius convinced Howard Shapiro, owner of the independent Chicago station WCIU-TV, to let him produce and present Soul Train, a weekly show dedicated to African-American music, in 1970, he was a man on a mission.

"There was no television for black folks," he recalled. "It was a period when television was a very white medium, and that didn't make sense to me. I wanted to bring more of our African-American entertainment to not only the black viewers but to the crossover viewers as well."

Aretha Franklin, who appeared on Soul Train, several times, called Cornelius "an American treasure. He united the young adult community single-handedly and globally. With the inception of Soul Train, a young, progressive brother set the pace and worldwide standard for young aspiring African-American men and entrepreneurs in TV ... He transcended barriers among young adults. They became one."

Aired on 17 August 1970 and sponsored by the Chicago-based chain of department stores Sears, Roebuck, the first edition of Soul Train featured local acts Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites and the Emotions, and proved a ratings success. Another Chicagoan sponsor signed on and Cornelius began contemplating rolling out Soul Train nationally. He targeted as many as 25 cities. "There were only eight takers, which was somewhere between a little disappointing and a whole lot disappointing," he recalled, listing Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco as cities where TV stations joined Chicago in broadcasting Soul Train. Race remained taboo with many corporations and individuals in the media. "No one was blatant enough to say that," he said. "There was just: 'we don't want it, we pass'."

By April 1972, TV stations in the 18 other cities had come on board and Cornelius knew he was on to a winner. In October 1973, Soul Train introduced its memorable animated opening sequence of a chugging locomotive set to the lush theme "TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)" written by the Philadelphia International co-founders Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and performed by MFSB and the Three Degrees. In the mid-1970s the programme featured Elton John, the Average White Band and David Bowie performing their blue-eyed soul hits "Philadelphia Freedom", "Cut The Cake" and "Golden Years", while Cornelius and Dick Griffey launched Soul Train Records with releases by the Soul Train Gang, The Whispers and the session group Shalamar.

In 1977, the "Uptown Festival" medley by Shalamar charted on both sides of the Atlantic, while the addition of Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, two of the programme's most popular dancers, turned Shalamar into mainstays of the British Top 40.

Mandatory viewing for its target audience who enjoyed the guest appearances of Blaxploitation stars, comedians and politicians like The Reverend Al Sharpton, in the space of a decade Soul Train made huge inroads into the US collective consciousness and delighted aficionados of soul, funk and disco music as well as teenagers eager to recreate the dance steps they had seen. It became the longest-running nationally syndicated show in TV history and remains a cultural touchstone referenced in movies, TV shows and songs like Bowie's "Young Americans". Cornelius fronted the programme until 1993 but remained part of the team behind its subsequent seasons that continued until 2006. "I took myself off because I just felt that 22 years was enough and that the audience was changing and I wasn't," said the presenter who used to end every edition with a heartfelt "and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!"

Born in Chicago in 1936, he joined the Marines when he graduated from High School in 1954. He served 18 months in Korea then held various jobs, including a car and insurance salesman and a police officer. In 1966, after he pulled a car over, the driver remarked that his basso profundo voice made Cornelius a natural for radio. By then, married with two sons, but he enrolled in a three-month broadcasting course. He joined WVON, the Chicago AM station owned by Leonard and Phil Chess, the owners of the eponymous blues label, as a news announcer, reporter and back-up DJ.

WVON stood for Voice of the Negro and the station served listeners as keen to hear the latest Motown or Chess release as to participate in the Civil Rights movement. Cornelius soon grew the Afro that would become as recognisable as his sharp suits and his invitation to join him on "the hippest trip in America. Soooooooooooul Train!"

The Soul Train concept evolved out of the record hops Cornelius organised for WVON and WCIU and his wish to create an African-American equivalent of American Bandstand, the most popular music programme of the day, hosted by Dick Clark. Indeed, so successful was Soul Train that Clark tried to jump on the bandwagon with Soul Unlimited in 1973 until Cornelius's legal team intervened. Cornelius presented both the Chicago and Los Angeles versions of the show until 1973 when he moved the operation to California and concentrated on the syndicated edition broadcast on Saturday mornings.

James Brown, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder were regulars throughout the 1970s. In the '80s, Kool & The Gang, Sister Sledge and The Whispers rubbed shoulders with British funksters Junior, Loose Ends and Soul II Soul and crossover dance acts like Sheena Easton, Hall & Oates and Robert Palmer. Despite showcasing the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, Run-DMC and LL Cool J, Cornelius was not a big fan of rap music and followed Public Enemy's "Rebel Without A Pause" in 1987 with a frank admission: "That was frightening." Soul Train had come a long way from BB King, Lou Rawls and the Staple Singers.

Cornelius sold the franchise and its archives to MadVision Entertainment in 2008. The following year, he was sentenced to probation after pleading no contest to a misdemeanour charge of spousal battery. He divorced his second wife the following year. He is believed to have committed suicide.

Donald Cortez Cornelius, TV host and producer: born Chicago 27 September 1936; married firstly Delores Harrison (marriage dissolved; two sons), 2001 Viktoria Chapman (divorced 2010); died Los Angeles 1 February 2012.