Feature

Don Cornelius, 1936–2012

The DJ who put soul on the small screen

Don Cornelius was the high priest of soul, funk, and disco for almost 25 years. As the creator and host of TV’s Soul Train, he provided a national showcase for artists including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Earth, Wind & Fire. But perhaps the show’s biggest star was Cornelius himself—an unforgettable presence with his towering Afro, outsize glasses, and smooth baritone voice. At the end of each episode, he’d blow viewers a kiss and give his trademark sign-off: “As always in parting, we wish you love, peace, and soul.”

It took a while for Cornelius to find his calling. Born on Chicago’s South Side, he served in the Marines after high school and then spent a decade selling insurance. “When he turned 30, he found a more suitable job on a local AM radio station,” said Bloomberg Businessweek. But Cornelius had bigger dreams. Black music was soaring in popularity, yet there was no dedicated outlet for it on TV. So he left radio in 1970 and, with $400 of his own money, created Soul Train for Chicago’s WCIU-TV.

The show went national the following year, bringing “black music, dance, fashion, and style to mainstream America,” said the Los Angeles Times. But Cornelius’s greatest achievement was persuading major corporations to spend advertising dollars to reach largely black audiences. “Most of what we get credit for is people saying, ‘I learned how to dance from watching Soul Train,’” he said in 2006. “[But] what I am most proud of is that we made television history.”

Cornelius quit as host in 1993, but continued producing Soul Train until its final episode, in 2006, said The Washington Post. Behind the scenes, his personal life was in turmoil. He was sentenced to three years probation for spousal battery in 2009, and during divorce proceedings later that year said he was suffering from “significant health problems.” Cornelius died at his Los Angeles home last week, after shooting himself in the head. He will be remembered “as a visionary and a giant,” said music producer Quincy Jones. “Before MTV there was Soul Train; that will be the great legacy of Don Cornelius.”

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