UPDATE-Don Cornelius’ death earlier this morning by an apparent suicide gave Soul Train fans and celebrities everywhere a gasping jolt of disbelief and bewilderment. As the bleak news began to trickle throughout the airwaves and blogosphere, friends and fans share recollections of the man behind the music and the movement.
“Don Cornelius single handedly brought about a melding and unity of brother and sisterhood among young adults worldwide and globally with the unforgettable creation of Soul Train,” Aretha Franklin said in a statement. “It’s just so sad, stunning and downright shocking … a huge and momentous loss to the African-American community and the world at large.”
Don started as an insurance salesman to support his family, though he fared well, the arts was his persisting passion. He wanted to be an announcer. “People always talked about my voice,” he said in Billboard. “So, I took a broadcasting course as a lark.”
As fulfilling passion goes, he made the first step towards his dreams and the doors opened. He decidedly took reduced pay as an announcer with WVON in Chicago to ensure a path that could align him with his purpose.
“I started as a newsman, but I was also the overnight man,” he said. “I filled in as an all-around substitute at WVON. I felt I had to justify my job there…. It was a very black station. I was sitting in for DJs and news people, doing public affairs outside the station, doing the talk show, and doing commercials.”
The constant wear-and-tear took its toll, so he followed his mentor and began moonlighting at a small television station. Here is where Don initiated his Soul Train thoughts into motion. Management was attempting an ‘ethnic’ program because of the void and Don made the decision easier by pitching his show. And the rest is history—the first Soul Train premiered August 17, 1971.
Soul Train became the longest-running nationally syndicated show in history, airing from 1971 through 2006 becoming a staple in many Blacks homes, but more importantly breaking color barriers when it came to determining good music—not just acceptable music for Blacks. Cornelius held down the hosting duties for most of that run before stepping away in 1993. He remained as the program’s executive producer and expanded the brand into an annual awards show. The awards returned to the air in 2009 after a two-year hiatus.
“I have known him since I was 19 years old and James Brown had me speak on ‘Soul Train,'” Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement. “We have maintained a friendship for the last 38 years. He brought soul music and dance to the world in a way that it had never been shown and he was a cultural game changer on a global level. Had it not been for Don Cornelius we would not have ever transcended from the Chitlin circuit to become mainstream cultural trendsetters.”
Because he opened the flood gates for many Black celebrities to have a stage without scrutiny or adversity to perform on, many have released statements honoring his legacy.
Patti LaBelle said, “…simply a genius, and the contributions he made to music and our culture are second to none. I will always treasure the fond memories I have of working with Don over the years and being part of the history that he created through Soul train.”
Updated with more reactions:
Earvin Magic Johnson said, Don Cornelius was a pioneer & a trailblazer. He was the first African-American to create, produce, host & more importantly OWN his own show. Don’s contribution to us all is immeasurable. My condolences to his son & my good friend Tony Cornelius & the entire Cornelius family.
Shemar Moore added in a statement,
“My heart is heavy after hearing the news of Don’s passing.I can’t imagine what his son, Tony, and extended family must be feeling. I am truly sorry that such an iconic man has left us too soon.
The investigation into Don Cornelius death is ongoing. May he rest in peace.