Don Cornelius, creator of the television show Soul Train, changed the media entertainment landscape forever. Yesterday, the Los Angeles County Coroner confirmed that Cornelius had died from a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head. He was 75.
Soul Train is one of the longest-running syndicated shows in television history. Created by Cornelius after he returned from Marine service in Korea and studied broadcasting, the show aimed to serve as a national platform for Black artists. Through it, Cornelius brought us exposure to musicians like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson and left a bright and brilliant mark on the 70s and ’80s.
“Soul Train created an outlet for black artists that never would have been if it hadn’t been for Cornelius,” said Kenny Gamble, who with his partner, Leon Huff, created the Philly soul sound and wrote the theme song for the show. “It was a tremendous export from America to the world, that showed African-American life and the joy of music and dance, and it brought people together.”
Patterned on the show “American Bandstand” hosted by Dick Clark, Soul Train centered on black music, fashion and dance, Cornelius explained in 2006, “There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity. I’m trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks, which they knew was for them.” And when Dick Clark tried to co-opt the show’s success with his own attempt called Soul Unlimited, Cornelius wouldn’t have it.
In this way, just a few years after Dr. King’s assasination, Don Cornelius made a deep, intentional and indelible contribution to the civil rights movement. He unapologetically celebrated black culture and art. He even financed the show himself and was determined to hire black artists both on and off camera. For those who might want to make a pilgrimage, as of last year, the set and memorabilia of Soul Train is housed at the Smithsonian’s Museum of African-American History and Culture.
The latter years of his life were occasionally fraught with conflict, including a difficult divorce from his second wife, Viktoria. In 2009, during his divorce proceedings, he mentioned having “significant health problems” but did not explain further.
Now, as the tributes from civil rights leaders, musicians, academics, actors, and loving fans pour in, many of us are thinking about our childhood weekend mornings with Don Cornelius and how they shaped us. And while I do not understand the pain that brought him to his final moments, I do know that we owe him a great debt. In honor of this legacy of “love, peace and soul,” if you (or anyone you know) needs support dealing with depression, click here for resources.
Now, it’s time make our way down the Soul Train Line! Share your favorite memories and videos in the comments – the line, will always and forever, be mine.