He was a pioneering TV host and producer, but knowing Don Cornelius as the man of Soul Train only scratches the surface. Cornelius was found dead this morning at his Los Angeles home. The coroner’s office says it appears to be a suicide. Cornelius was 75.
He created Soul Train in 1970 at WCIU in Chicago. A year later, Americans jumped on board the train for a 35-year ride.
“Mr. Cornelius capitalized on an opportunity to serve a market that wasn’t being served,” WBLS program director Skip Dillard tells FishbowlNY. “While Soul Train focused on showcasing new African American artists and bands, a much larger audience than African Americans tuned in.”
Bob Slade, an African American fixture in New York for four decades at KISS FM, and black music historian, recalls interviewing Cornelius many years ago.
“He told me his dream was to be a disc jockey,” Slade remembers.
The one-time radio DJ, used those skills in front of millions of viewers, from all races, week after week. But Soul Train was recognized as the anti-American Bandstand, allowing less mainstream Black acts to get exposure.
Tower of Power was one such group that performed its R&B classic So Very Hard to Go on Soul Train in 1973. But as Slade recalls from an interview with lead singer Lenny Williams, there was a slight controversy brewing behind the scenes.
“Don and the crew wanted them to lipsync the song,” according to Slade, who points out that artists doing “live” performances on the show was not the norm.
“The debate went back and forth until the group convinced Cornelius to let them perform ‘live.’ They did a great job,” Slade says. The entire group on the bandstand with Lenny doing the vocals.”
Cornelius kept a tight grip over his show and artists, but he was the go-to spot for Black artists. At the height of the show’s popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, superstars Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Michael Jackson would be found gracing the Soul stage.
“Don Cornelius could be called a ‘Ryan Seacrest‘ of his era,” Dillard says. “He certainly built a brand not far different from his long-time American Bandstand rival Dick Clark. His accomplishments will live on!”
But Cornelius, as always gets the last word, with his famous sign-off.
“You can bet your last money, It’s all gonna be a stone gas honey. Until next time..Love, Peace and Sooooul.”
Photo credit: bvnewswire.com