Remembering the Legendary ‘Soul Train’ Creator Don Cornelius

If you did not know him, you should.

Don Cornelius was born on Sept. 27, 1936, and grew up on Chicago’s South Side. He was a Chicago police officer in the mid-1960s, when he met radio personality Ed Cobb. Cobb liked his distinctive voice and Cornelius was soon hired as an announcer on WVON. In the early 70s, Cornelius became a household name after he launched Soul Train. The iconic dance show, which gave many African-Americans a forum to display their talents, became one of television’s longest-running syndicated programs. The suave Cornelius was known for the catchphrase that he used to end the show: “I’m Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul.”

The show made Cornelius a television icon, and featured top black artists including Gladys Knight, Lou Rawls, and Barry White. In 1987, Cornelius started the Soul Train Music Awards, which showcased performers such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Run DMC.Long-time friends such as Clarence Avant, the former chairman of Motown Records, said that no matter the reasons for his death, the music industry owes Cornelius a great debt. “His legacy to music, especially black music, will be forever cemented in history,” he said. “He was one of my dearest friends and I will miss him deeply.’’

Aretha Franklin, who performed on Soul Train, released a statement calling Cornelius’ death “sad, stunning, and downright shocking … a huge and momentous loss to the African-American community and the world at large.” Smokey Robinson said Cornelius “brought exposure to black talent and a positive image to young black teenagers that had never been done before.”“He was sinking deeper and deeper into depression and there wasn’t much anyone could do.”

Director J. Kevin Swain said he met Cornelius in 1988, when Swain was a production coordinator on the Soul Train Music Awards. “Our roots are pretty deep,” he said. “He took me in and showed me the ropes. Don was very serious about his work, and if you didn’t pull your weight you would be out. He was a shrewd businessman.”Cornelius gave up his hosting gig in 1993, and sold Soul Train to MadVision Entertainment in 2008.

Over the years he was plagued by a number of health issues. In 1982, he underwent a 21-hour operation to fix a congenital malformation in blood vessels in his brain. “You choose your brain surgeons for their stamina,” he later told the Washington Post. “You’re never quite the same afterward. Travel is always a real test.” He also suffered a stroke in the last decade.  By 2010, things seemed to be picking up for the former host. He spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the release of a double-CD collection of Soul Train highlights, and announced he was developing a feature film inspired by the TV show for Warner Bros.

Last September, Cornelius was back in Chicago at a concert to honor the 40th anniversary of Soul Train. There, Cornelius was presented with an honorary street sign with his name and the Soul Train logo on it. “This is the biggest thing that ever happened to me,” he said.

That same night, Swain, who is now a Los Angeles-based director, screened his documentary, Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America. “I had never seen him more happy and full of joy,” said Swain. “I felt like his love and respect particularly after the documentary. That meant the world to me. He was my hero. My life wouldn’t be what is if it wasn’t for Don Cornelius.”

-See more details @ The Daily Beast




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Release date June 28, 2011.