Dominion of New York

Art & Entertainment

February 1, 2012

The Genius of Don Cornelius (1936-2012): How Soul Train Began

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Written by: Kelly Virella


our years ago, the Chicago Reader published a smart review of a book about Soul TrainA Critical History of Soul Train on Television, by Chris Lehman. The lengthy essay is the perfect is the perfect guide to understanding the significance of the show and the contributions and complexity of the show’s creator, Don Cornelius, who died today in an apparent suicide.

An officer responding to a report of a shooting found Cornelius at his Mulholland Drive home at around 4 a.m., USA Today reports.

He was pronounced dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at 4:56 a.m. at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter, the paper reports.

Here’s an excerpt of the Chicago Reader’s excellent article:

In 1967, Don Cornelius was already over 30. Born in Chicago in 1936 and raised in Bronzeville, he attended DuSable High School, whose rich arts programs also produced Nat “King” Cole, Von Freeman, and Redd Foxx, among others. An aspiring cartoonist, he joined the marines after high school and spent his 20s trying his hand at numerous jobs, including insurance salesman and cop. With encouragement from customers—and, according to Lehman’s book, WVON news director Roy Wood, who remarked on Cornelius’s rich baritone when Cornelius pulled him over for a traffic violation—he took a broadcasting course and had soon become an auxiliary member of the legendary Good Guys, the influential black deejays who made Leonard Chess’s WVON (the Voice of the Negro) so popular in the 60s. He read the news, pinch-hit for sick deejays, and began reporting on sports for WCIU’s A Black’s View of the News.

In 1969, with only three years of broadcasting under his belt, Cornelius decided he was ready to launch his own TV show, based on a series of high school record hops he had hosted. Because he’d brought a “caravan” of stars from school to school, he had called this traveling event the Soul Train. He lined up Sears as a sponsor and used his WVON connections to book local R&B stars, including Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, and the Emotions, for the premiere episode. When Soul Train became a local hit, Cornelius took it to Los Angeles, where in 1971 he launched the syndicated national version, fully owned by his production company.

The show debuted in the middle of a magnificent era of black music and fashion, and it quickly challenged its venerable Saturday-morning colleague, American Bandstand, in the ratings. It continued to be popular through the 80s, and the dapper and deadly serious Cornelius hosted it himself until 1993, when he turned the mike over to a rotation of B-list black stars (including future A-listers Jamie Foxx and Tyra Banks). They were followed by several long-term hosts, most notably Shemar Moore, a former soap star who now plays agent Derek Morgan on Criminal Minds. But though he was off camera, Cornelius was always on the set, writing, producing, and overseeing every episode. Read More.


Photo Courtesy of Flickr/juggernautco

About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.



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