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‘Soul Train’ creator, South Side native Cornelius dead in suicide

Updated: March 3, 2012 11:32AM

If “Soul Train” was ‘the hippest trip in America,’ then Don Cornelius was the coolest cat in the country.

Mr. Cornelius, who brought the sass and sizzle of South Side soul and funk into the nation’s living rooms — not to mention African-American pride and style — is being remembered as an icon, visionary, and broadcast pioneer.

Fans from every generation of his half-century career were mourning Mr. Cornelius after Los Angeles police reported the 75-year-old shot himself to death Wednesday at his Mulholland Drive home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. In recent years he had health problems and a troubled marriage.

Mr. Cornelius, who grew up in Bronzeville, created “Soul Train” — the longest-running syndicated TV show in history with a life span of 35 ½ years-from a dream and force of will.

After his 1954 graduation from DuSable High School, Mr. Cornelius joined the Marines and served 18 months in Korea. He sold insurance, cars and tires for a time.

“He was working as a police officer and pulls somebody over who remarks about his voice, that he ought to go into radio,” said Chris Lehman, an associate professor at Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University, who wrote the book “A Critical History of Soul Train on Television.”

With only $400 in his bank account, he quit his day job to go to broadcasting school.

“He was a Chicago policeman for a while,” said deejay Herb Kent. Mr. Cornelius joined Kent, “the Cool Gent,” and other disc jockeys known as the “Good Guys” on the radio station WVON (Voice of the Negro). Mr. Cornelius announced the news.

“We taught him,” Kent said. “He asked me, ‘how do you do your hair?’ — because we all started wearing naturals. We told him how to do it, you had to put a little Afro Sheen in it; you need a pick.”

Mr. Cornelius successfully pitched his idea for “Soul Train” to WCIU-TV owner Howard Shapiro and George O’Hare, the ad manager at Sears, which sponsored the program. O’Hare knew it was a hit after just a few broadcasts, when he and Cornelius stopped at a bar.

“As soon as he walked in the door,” O’Hare recalled, “They said, “SOULLLL TRAINNNN”—the show’s drawn-out signature slogan.

It all began in 1970 in a bare-bones WCIU (Channel 26) studio at the Board of Trade. Kids raced from school to get in line for the chance to get picked to dance on the daily program.

The basso profundo-voiced Mr. Cornelius — resplendent in his Afro, jewelry and sharp velvet and leather suits — was the host in addition to being the creator and executive producer. He was suave and unflappable, intoning such Cornelius-isms as: “It’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey.”

The show had astonishingly rapid success after its start in August of 1970, said Bruce DuMont, founder of Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications. “Just a little over a year-and-a-half later, on October 2nd of 1971, he’s in syndication, and he was in Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston and Detroit,” DuMont said. “By the following year, in May of 1972, he had grown it to 25 markets.”

In 1971 — while the Chicago show was still going strong — Mr. Cornelius created a Los Angeles version that syndicated nationally on Saturdays. It gave priceless exposure to African-American acts that might have had to wait to get on talk shows or Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” Standouts included Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, Curtis Mayfield, Ike and Tina Turner and Stevie Wonder. He invited white artists with hits in the black community on the show, including David Bowie, Elton John and Gino Vannelli.

“He was indigenous to 70s music,” Kent said. Artists were thinking, “ ‘Let me write something that they’ll use on ‘Soul Train.’ ’’ The L.A. program also helped launch the careers of Soul Train dancers Jody Watley, who would become a chart-topping singer, and actress Rosie Perez.

The two shows aired simultaneously, with the Chicago version continuing until 1976, when it went into reruns. In 2006, the Los Angeles program started airing “Best of Soul Train” broadcasts.

It’s hard to overstate the cultural impact of “Soul Train,” a trendsetting kaleidoscope of funktastic bellbottoms, Afro puffs, platform shoes and the famous “Soul Train Line’’— where teens dueled for dance floor domination; some busting moves that included splits and back bends.

“Just the way it looks and sounds, I think it’s the best television show ever — the way the bodies are moving, the editing, the music,” said Jake Austen, editor of Roctober magazine.

It showed African-American teens people who resembled them. “If you looked at what television had to offer in the year 1970,” Lehman said, it was “a couple of high school African-American characters on ‘Room 222,’ and the counter cultural character Linc on the ‘Mod Squad.’ ” And it showed some white suburban kids killer dances they had never seen before.

It may have even helped teach some moves to the King of Pop, according to Lehman. “When Michael Jackson did ‘The Robot’ whenever he would perform the song ‘Dancing Machine,’ that was a dance he learned from ‘Soul Train’ dancers. He specifically sought them out so they could teach him,” said Lehman. “The [Soul Train] kids were doing the Robot in 1971, and ‘Dancing Machine’ doesn’t get released until 1973.”

The show bestowed the imprimatur of cool. Crescendo Ward told Lehman that being a Chicago Soul Train dancer saved him when he was jumped by gangbangers. “They proceed to try to rob him, and as they are, one of them recognizes him and says, ‘No, wait, that’s that Soul Train m-----------,’ ’’ Lehman said. “They not only give him his stuff back, but they give him subway fare home.”

Mr. Cornelius also created the “Soul Train Music Awards,” which would become a key honor for musicians.

Reputedly, he was not a huge fan of hip-hop. When Public Enemy performed a ferocious version of “Rebel without a Pause,” on the program in 1987, Mr. Cornelius said: “That was frightening.”

In 2009, he was sentenced to probation after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of spousal battery. In his divorce case — settled in 2010 — he said he had “significant health issues” and that he wanted to “finalize this divorce before I die.”

Last September he received a hero’s welcome in Chicago, when 15,000 people came to Millennium Park for the 40th anniversary “Soul Train” concert. Mr. Cornelius grew emotional at being presented with an honorary “Don Cornelius Way” street sign, saying: “This is the biggest thing that ever happened to me.”

Many fans recalled his signature sign-off.

“Love, peace and soul.”

Contributing: Dave Hoekstra

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