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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower