'Soul Train' Creator Don Cornelius Dies At 75

Originally published on February 1, 2012 6:47 pm

The host and executive producer of Soul Train has died. The Los Angeles police department reported that Don Cornelius was found dead at his home in Los Angeles Wednesday morning from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

"The hippest trip in America," as Cornelius called it, aired every Saturday morning. The TV show began as a local program in Chicago in 1970 — before Afros were on billboards and hip-hop hit the pop charts. By the end of its second season, Soul Train had been picked up across the country, moved production of the national program to Los Angeles and was well on its way to becoming the place for many Americans to see black culture.

Soul Train invited R&B and soul musicians, like Al Green, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Aretha Franklin, to perform their hits in front of a live — dancing — audience. The performances and the stylish kids in the audience changed the way the mainstream understood what it meant to be cool.

"There were trends set all the time in terms of clothing style, dances, hair — you name it," says Richard Steele, of Chicago public radio station WBEZ, who knew Cornelius when the show debuted. "One of the things about being black in America is back in the day it was very difficult to see yourself on TV."

And it was difficult for whites, Latinos, and Asians to see blacks on TV. "You'll hear people comment about how they used to watch the show to make sure they were looking right at the party on Saturday night, and also that they knew the latest dances," says Steele.

Cornelius, born on the South Side of Chicago in 1936, owned Soul Train, making him the first black owner of a nationally syndicated TV show. Cornelius turned the show over to a younger host in 1993, and Soul Train went off the air in 2006.

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Finally, this hour, we remember Don Cornelius. He was creator and host of "Soul Train," a TV show that in the 1970s exposed Americans of all stripes to African-American music and culture. Cornelius was 75 and died of an apparent suicide at his home in Los Angeles. NPR's Sami Yenigun reports on his legacy.

SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: Before afros could be seen on billboards and before hip-hop hit the billboard charts, the place for many Americans to watch black culture was "Soul Train."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YENIGUN: "Soul Train" broadcast cool across the country for decades, with R&B and soul performances delivered in front of stylish kids dancing like crazy.

RICHARD STEELE: You know, there were trends set on "Soul Train" all the time in terms of clothing, style, dances, hair, you name it.

YENIGUN: That's Richard Steele of member station WBEZ, who knew Don Cornelius when "Soul Train" started in Chicago back in 1970.

STEELE: One of the things about being black in America is back in the day, it was very difficult to see yourself on TV.

YENIGUN: And it was difficult for whites, Latinos and Asians to see blacks on TV. "Soul Train" exposed the culture every Saturday morning, changing the way the mainstream understood what it meant to be cool.

STEELE: You know, you'll hear people comment about how they used to watch the show on Saturdays to make sure they were looking right at the party on Saturday night and also that they knew the latest dances. So it contributed to all of that.

YENIGUN: Cornelius, a tall man with dark skin and a rich baritone voice, was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1936. In the early '70s, he was working part time at WCIU, a local TV station. The station was looking to diversify its programming, and Don Cornelius told NPR in 2002 he saw an opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DON CORNELIUS: I brought this idea to the manager who was one of the owners of a station for this show called "Soul Train," and he said, sure, we'll try that too. And the rest is kind of history.

YENIGUN: What began as a place to see local Chicago artists quickly grew into a venue for national acts: Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, Aretha Franklin and Al Green to name a few.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S STAY TOGETHER")

AL GREEN: (Singing) Let's stay together, loving you whether, whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.

YENIGUN: When the show went national, it moved to L.A., and Richard Steele says that that city's style helped grow the show's profile.

STEELE: The show changed dramatically as far as the dances were concerned because the people out in L.A. have a different dance style than here in Chicago. Here in Chicago, people are kind of laid-back and cool. In L.A., they were performing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YENIGUN: But Steele says what set the show apart was that Cornelius didn't just host and produce it, he owned the rights, something that went back to its inception in Chicago.

STEELE: The owners said: It's your show. You got it. That's how Don happened to own the show, which was just sort of a stroke of luck. I used to work for that guy. And I know he didn't really give up too much too often, but I think they didn't think it wasn't going to be much.

YENIGUN: But the show ran for three decades. Cornelius, in an attempt to change with the times, started working hip-hop into its programming, which Steele says was a tough decision for Cornelius.

STEELE: And so he was never really convinced about the hip-hop thing. I mean, he did it for a while because that was what was selling, but he determined also that at some point, he had to get another host.

YENIGUN: Cornelius turned the show over to a new host in 1993. "Soul Train" ceased production 13 years later. He told NPR that its success made him a patron of the arts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CORNELIUS: I mean, I'm a brother who when I can get the money, I'd buy some art, you know? You can't put any wool over my eyes. You can't run anything by me artistically because I was born with it.

YENIGUN: He wasn't just a patron. He was a bridge builder. At the end of every show, Don Cornelius wished onto his audience love, peace and soul. Sami Yenigun, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Ooh, la-la-la-la. Ooh, la-la-la-la.

We should have been a duo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm telling you, not too many.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) I did you wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) My heart went out to play. But in the...

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