Don Cornelius (AP Photo)
LOS ANGELES (AP) - "Soul Train" host Don Cornelius was the arbiter of cool, a brilliant TV showman who used his purring, baritone voice to seduce mainstream America into embracing black music and artists.
But the "love, peace, and SOUL!" he wished viewers as he closed each show for decades escaped him as his life descended into marital trouble, illness and, finally, a fatal self-inflicted gunshot wound on Wednesday.
Police said they went to his Mulholland Drive home around 4 a.m. after receiving a call from one of his sons, who became concerned after being contacted by his father. Cornelius, 75, was found shot and was pronounced dead an hour later at a nearby hospital.
Authorities ruled out foul play, but have not found a suicide note and are talking to relatives about his mental state.
To music-hungry viewers, he was a smooth, sharp-dressed man who got them dancing to the hottest tracks going. The pop world's biggest stars recalled him as much more: A cultural groundbreaker who advanced African-American music and culture; a black entrepreneur
who overcame racism by strength of will; a visionary who understood rap's emergence but criticized its rawness.
Aretha Franklin, an early "Soul Train" performer, called him "an American treasure."
"God bless him for the solid, good and wholesome foundation he provided for young adults worldwide," she said, "and the unity and brotherhood he singlehandedly brought about with his most memorable creation of 'Soul Train.'"
Donald Cortez Cornelius was born Sept. 27, 1936, in Chicago. After high school, he served as a Marine in Korea. Cornelius was working as an insurance salesman when he spent $400 on a broadcasting course and landed a part-time job in 1966 as announcer, newsman
and DJ on WVON radio. That's where listeners first heard the distinctively measured and rich Cornelius rumble.
Cornelius began moonlighting at WCIU-TV when Roy Wood, his mentor at WVON, moved there, and won a job producing and hosting "A Black's View of the News." When the station wanted to expand its "ethnic" programming, he pitched a black music show, and "Soul Train" was born.
"You want to do what you're capable of doing. If I saw (Dick Clark's) 'American Bandstand' and I saw dancing and I knew black kids can dance better; and I saw white artists and I knew black artists make better music; and if I saw a white host and I knew a black host could project a hipper line of speech, and I did know all these things," then it was reasonable to try, he said.
"Soul Train," which began in 1970, followed some of the "Bandstand" format with its audience and young dancers. But that's where the comparisons stopped. Cornelius, the suave, ultra-cool emcee, made "Soul Train" appointment viewing.
"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."
Debra Lee, who is chairman and chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, was one of those youngsters who tuned in to the show. She said she would finish her chores early so she could check out the latest music, fashions and dance moves.
"His reach is just amazing, and personally he was such a charming man," she said, calling Cornelius a role model and "a great interviewer who knew how to connect to artists" and had "the best voice in the world."
With that voice, he helped bring the best R&B, soul and later hip-hop acts to TV. It was one of the first TV shows to showcase African-American artists including Franklin, Marvin Gaye
and Barry White
"You have to dream," Cornelius said in a 1995 interview. "I dreamed everything. I used to introduce Marvin Gaye in my living room. So when the time came that I was going to really introduce guys like Marvin Gaye and Steve Wonder, I had done it before."
"Soul Train" had a whimsical cartoon train and whistle that opened each show. And Cornelius would close each show with his sign-off: "Love, peace, and SOUL!" drawing out the pronunciation of the last word with his deep voice.
The show, with his sharp eye for talent, became the cornerstone of his entertainment empire. He acted as independent producer-host-salesman to bring "Soul Train" into partnership with Tribune Entertainment Co., which became the show's distributor in the 1980s.
The show chugged gradually onto TV screens nationwide: Only a handful of stations initially were receptive. Johnson Products Co., maker of Afro Sheen and other hair-care goods, was its major sponsor and the first black-owned company to sponsor a national weekly TV show. Years later, major advertisers including Coca-Cola and McDonald's joined.
"Soul Train" aired nationally from 1971 to 2006. Asked why it endured, he told The New York Times in 1995: "There is an inner craving among us all, within us all, for television that we can personally connect to." He stepped down as host in 1993, and sold it to MadVision Entertainment in 2008.
"Don Cornelius was a pioneer & a trailblazer," Earvin "Magic" Johnson wrote on Twitter. "He was the first African-American to create, produce, host & more importantly OWN his own show."
Though "Soul Train" became one of the longest-running syndicated shows in TV history, its power began to wane in the 1980s and '90s as American pop culture began folding in black culture instead of keeping it segregated.
By that time, there were more options for black artists to appear on mainstream shows. And on shows like "American Bandstand," blacks could be seen dancing along with whites.
But even when Michael Jackson
became the King of Pop, there was still a need to highlight the achievements of African-Americans that were still marginalized at mainstream events. So Cornelius created the "Soul Train Awards," which would become a key honor for musicians. The series also spawned the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards and the Soul Train Christmas Starfest.
Along the way, however, Cornelius became estranged from a changing music scene that clashed with his relatively conservative taste. But while he suggested violently or sexually explicit gangsta rap should be labeled "X-rated," Cornelius said the focus should be on eliminating poverty and violence from low-income black communities.
DJ Scratch, the DJ from the rap act EPMD, tweeted on Wednesday that Cornelius "100% didn't like Hip Hop. But he realized that it was what the youth wanted. So again, I thank you Don."
Cornelius' world grew dark in recent years as he faced fallout from a divorce and other pressures. In 2009, he was sentenced to three years' probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor spousal battery and, in his divorce case that year, he also mentioned having significant health problems.
He has two children, Anthony and Raymond, with his first wife, Delores Harrison.
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.
"As long as the music stayed hot and important and good, that there would always be a reason for 'Soul Train,'" he said.
AP Television Writer
Associated Press writers Nekesa Moody, Frazier Moore, Mesfin Fekadu and David Bauder in New York and Robert Jablon, Jeff Wilson, Anthony McCartney and Sandy Cohen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.