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
PROMOTED VIDEO
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

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee