Don Cornelius: A Soul Revolutionary (Sept 27, 1936 – Feb 1, 2012)

The soul sonic force known as Don Cornelius passed away on the morning of February 1 in Sherman Oaks, CA at 4am from a self-inflicted gunshot.

The loss of Cornelius sent the world into shellshock this morning and it continues the tragic trend of the Soul community losing our legends at a crippling rate.

His transcendent impact on Black culture and the world at large throughout the 1970s and 1980s was immeasurable. To call him simply a luminary does a great disservice to his contributions. He was a trendsetter, icon, and a barrier breaker.

His illustrious vision to give Black people a platform and voice moved a generation to embrace each other. He gave the society at large a vast window to the cultural expressions of a post Civil Rights era where creativity and expansion were at the forefront. He single-handedly made history and restored pride to a culture that had been fighting for decades. His deep, baritone voice sent reverberations through your TV screens and hearts every Saturday morning for 22 years.

Donald Cortez Cornelius was born on September 27, 1936 in Chicago, Illinois. He began his professional career as an insurance salesman, but in 1966 he pursued his dreams of becoming a broadcaster and he quickly changed professions.

He parlayed a career as a backup disc jockey and a news reader at the legendary Chicago radio station, WVON. By the late 1960s, Cornelius made a permanent move to television. He became a full fledged journalist inspired by the Civil Rights Movement on the famous WCIU television station. This inspiration led him to the notion of creating a television venue for Soul music.

Following up on his intuition, he began to construct a blueprint to change the course of television history by developing the hippest trip in America. Taking $400 of his own money, Cornelius recorded the pilot for Soul Train. Yearning to create a visual space that would encapsulate African-American youth and the plethora of talented Black recording artists, Cornelius would usher in the 1970s by building on the format of the popular television show, American Bandstand.

Cornelius spent years developing his brand by promoting local talent shows at area high schools in the Chicago area. He referred to his shows as “The Soul Train.” Due to his diligence, he managed to secure a sponsorship deal with Sears, Roebuck, and Co. On August 17, 1970, the inaugural episode of Soul Train was launched into the atmosphere.

His shows were broadcasted weekly on WCIU and it garnered quite a following amongst the faithful in the city of Chicago. A year later, the show spread like wildfire into 24 different media markets receiving backing from the Johnson Products Company and a dynasty was born.

Cornelius was revolutionary in becoming one of the first Blacks to completely own his own production company, Don Cornelius Productions, developing an hour long TV show featuring Black advertisements and commercials geared to Black households, and giving birth to a new age renaissance where Black became the thing to be.

Soul Train evolved from a daily TV show to a cultural movement. Color lines became blurred once the show was broadcasted into the suburbs and later internationally. For 22 years, the train and Cornelius influence weaved in and out of our stream of consciousness while leaving an indelible mark on our respective souls.

Expanding on his brand, Cornelius devised two trademark programs the Soul Train Music Awards in 1987 and the Lady of Soul Awards in 1995. Feeling like the show needed a fresh face; Cornelius reassigned his hosting duties to a younger slew of hosts in 1993.

As the show’s influence waned, the brand still had viability in pop culture. By the millennium, Soul Train was being viewed in 105 different cities worldwide. As the last live show aired in 2006, it made television history by being the longest first-run syndicated television show with over 1,100 episodes and 35 years of high quality programming.

In recent years, Cornelius has battled domestic violence charges and a bitter divorce as well as various health issues ranging from a stroke to several ailments resulting in brain surgery. As recently as 2010, he was in talks with movie production companies about producing a Soul Train movie. In the same year, VH1 released the critically acclaimed documentary, Soul Train: Hippest Trip in America.

Soul Train allowed the creative freedom for Black youths to exude their youthful exuberance to the multitude of hit records that would be performed or played in-studio. The trademark Soul Train line was borne out of their collective energies, and the Soul Train Scramble Board reiterated the importance of Black history and culture. Both became one of the many lasting institutions from a franchise that unquestionably transformed American popular culture.

Soul Train became the source of groundbreaking trends from dance to fashion, as a range of incomparable artists both Black and White graced the Soul Train stage and often left it with a larger listening audience, proving the authenticity and grand influence of the show.

The true mark of a genius is the lives he touched and the legacy he left behind.

Thank you, Mr. Cornelius for your extraordinary vision and all of us hope you’ve now found peace, love, and soul.

Watch below as The Roots drummer ?uestlove speaks on the significance Soul Train had on his life and also on black culture:

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