My mouth literally gaped open just now when I read the headline that television icon Don Cornelius was dead. It then opened wider when I read that he had shot himself!!! “Soul Train” hit the air in 1970 in Chicago, going national in 1971, I was eight. It was uplifting programming, seeing people of color dancing and enjoying themselves while some of the greatest talent in music performed.
My thoughts and condolences go out to his family and loved ones. Don Cornelius was an icon. The word icon is misused far too often these days, but it does apply to Cornelius. Why? Because he did what no other has done — Soul Train is one of the longest running shows in television history. Before it there was American Bandstand with Dick Clark, but Soul Train featured all the trend setters that stars on American Bandstand were influenced by. Soul Train is a piece of Black History. How ironic this tragedy should happen on February 1st, the first day of Black History Month.
Tony Vaughn actually brought this to my attention, a long time friend, together we have enjoyed the fruits of life. Apart from the cloth from which we were cut providing a sound foundation, we’ve had the fortune to earn a living doing what we love. Working in the field of entertainment and music was a dream come true for us. During our early days of working in radio, Soul Train was a prominent staple in entertainment. Families and friends around the world have done “Soul Train” lines at their family reunions, graduation parties and weddings. Soul Train became a brand that defined a culture of people ling before Hip-Hop.
So why would he kill himself? I couldn’t help but ask myself this question. I actually had the opportunity to meet and interview him once as he was in preparation for the annual “Soul Train Awards.” What year it was, I don’t recall, I was ecstatic to be able to meet what I considered a living legend. We met, engaged, I got my sound bites for whatever media outlet I was working for at the time, and life went on. As excited as I was to meet him, it was just business as usual for Don, and understandably so. It’s just that sometimes when you meet a person that’s been influential to your chosen profession, you hope that there’s some profound connection… this wasn’t the case with Mr. Cornelius and I. Working as a journalist in news and entertainment ain’t about making friends, it’s about getting the story. It’s nice when these encounters do evolve into a relationship, when one develops a rapport with a colleague in another realm of the music business, but it’s generally not the case.
I didn’t get the impression that life for him went beyond the show. It was a brand that he created and built, but continually had to fight to keep it alive. There was just an aspect of him that didn’t strike me as what I considered to be happy. I don’t know if he completely realized the multitude of lives he inspired and encouraged, and then, maybe he did. All that considered, I find it sad and unfortunate that a man that brought so much joy and happiness through music to so many, was not able to provide the same level of fulfillment for himself.
The following is taken from the Associated Press/ LA:
Don Cornelius, creator of the long-running TV dance show “Soul Train,” shot himself to death Wednesday morning at his Los Angeles home, police said. He was 75. Officers responding to a report of a shooting found Cornelius at his Mulholland Drive home at around 4 a.m., police said. 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. “Soul Train” began in 1970 in Chicago on WCIU-TV as a local program and aired nationally from 1971 to 2006.
It introduced television audiences to such legendary artists as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Barry White and brought the best R&B, soul and later hip-hop acts to TV and had teenagers dance to them. It was one of the first shows to showcase African-Americans prominently, although the dance group was racially mixed. Cornelius was the first host and executive producer. “There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity,” he said in 2006, then added: “I’m trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks, which they knew was for them.” Cornelius, who was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in 1995 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, said in 2006 he remained grateful to the musicians who made “Soul Train” the destination for the best and latest in black music — end AP/LA
My classmate Sharon Bennett’s uncle Bobby Hutton appeared on the first national airing of the show in 1971.