Don Cornelius, creator and host of “Soul Train,” a milestone in television programming that introduced generations of viewers to new music and dance trends emerging from black America, died 2/1 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Thousand Oaks, CA home.
Police responded to a report of a shooting at Cornelius’s house at about 4 a.m., and he was pronounced dead at a hospital. Police ruled out foul play in the death and said a search of the house did not turn up a suicide note. Detectives were conducting interviews to learn more about Cornelius’s mental state.
In 2010, Cornelius has told the media the was working on a movie with other investors that would revolve around behind-the-scenes real stories of the show. Cornelius stopped hosting the show in 1993 and it went off the air in 2006.
“Soul Train,” which aired for more than 35 years, was the longest first-run syndicated television series in broadcast history. In addition to its cultural importance, it included regular appearances by such musical giants as Michael Jackson, James Brown and Aretha Franklin.
Recognizing that the major TV networks had virtually no programs geared toward black audiences in 1970, Cornelius designed “Soul Train” as what he called “a black ‘American Bandstand.’ ”
He drew dozens of star headliners the show, but his greater achievement might have been as a behind-the-scenes producer and businessman who helped persuade mainstream companies to spend advertising dollars on largely black audiences.
Cornelius later launched a record company and a series of awards shows and was recognized, along with Quincy Jones and Berry Gordy, as one of the most influential African Americans in the music business. Younger entertainment entrepreneurs including Debra Lee, chairman and CEO of Black Entertainment Television, and performer-producer Russell Simmons credited him as a major influence on their careers.
“Soul Train” first aired in Cornelius’s hometown of Chicago in 1970, then moved to LA a year later, when it was syndicated nationally.