Don Cornelius has died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was pronounced dead at about 4 AM on February 1st at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles County. Cornelius, dynamic and debonair, was easily one of the most influential figures in black entertainment and music media on the television airways. Don Cornelius shaped culture in the United States for many years, championing “the natural” as a hairstyle, the afro-sheen look, and “the pick.”
It is hard now to recall the “Soul Train dance line” without coming to tears. Dancers mastered outrageous splits and back-bends, competing for domination of the room and the at-home viewers. Soul Train held our attention for 35 years, as the longest running first-run syndicated television series in broadcast history. Black performers were honored to appear on Cornelius’ Saturday morning dance and music program; included were the likes of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, Curtis Mayfield, Ike and Tina Turner, and Stevie Wonder. Performers not of color too were welcome, notably Elton John and David Bowie just to name a couple.
The apparent suicide took place in the Cornelius home on Mulholland Drive in Sherman Oaks, California. Friends concede the icon was suffering from ill health and a troubled marriage. Cornelius had a full earlier life, graduating in 1954 from Chicago’s DuSable high school. He served in Korea, then became a police officer. People told Cornelius he had a great voice, and prompted by their praise, he quit police work and began attending broadcasting school. According to the book A Critical History of Soul Train on Television, Don Cornelius then joined the cast of WVON, as one of the “Good Guys,” where he was the studio on-air news reporter.
Soul Train was Don Cornelius’ cultural success, giving a voice to African-American acts; he was a legend in his time. The show ran simultaneously with Dick Clark’s American Bandstand afterschool program of similar style. Don Cornelius will be remembered for his close-off line at the end of each telecast; “Love, peace and soul.”