The African-American entrepreneur and icon responsible for the first successful syndicated television entertainment program aimed at black audiences, Don Cornelius created "Soul Train" (WCIU, 1970; syndicated 1971-2006) in order to fill a void in the Chicago TV market. The tall, handsome former disk jockey with the bass-heavy voice displayed considerable savvy and innovation in the development of his show, which found an audience in short order and outgrew its humble origins. Taking "Soul Train" to the West Coast, Cornelius became the first black owner of a syndicated television program and provided an accessible and entertaining showcase for black culture and pride. As the show's profile grew, major talents like The Jackson 5, James Brown, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin all made appearances, and "Soul Train" became an important cultural force in setting dance and style trends. With "Soul Train," Cornelius created a program that was not only an important and positive cultural influence for black youth, but also a television juggernaut, setting a first run syndication record with its remarkable 35 seasons on air.
Donald Cortez Cornelius was born in Chicago, IL on Sept. 27, 1936. After trying his hand at insurance sales and other jobs that brought him little success, Cornelius was employed as a police officer for the City of Chicago. During a routine traffic stop in 1966, he met Roy Wood, the news director for the African-American radio station WVON (VON standing for "Voice of the Negro"). Struck by Cornelius' incredibly deep vocal tone and unique manner of speaking, Wood convinced him to come to the station for an audition, which Cornelius aced. Offered a position with WVON, Cornelius enrolled in a three-month broadcasting course and began at the station as a newsreader. He also substituted for vacationing disk jockeys and eventually became a DJ himself, winning accolades for his work in that capacity and as a musical director.
Cornelius also founded the first African-American radio union, and by 1968, was also working a second job as a sports reporter on TV station WCIU's show "A Black's View of the News." Concurrently, Cornelius had also created an entertainment show featuring musicians and dancers that he presented at Chicago and area high schools under the name "Soul Train." Chicago had a substantial African-American population by the late 1960s, but no local television station offered anything reflecting the local citizenry that had met with any genuine success. Cornelius convinced his bosses at WCIU to let him try his hand at an entertainment program that met those parameters and spent $400 of his own money to produce a pilot. He received the go ahead, and with backing from the unlikely combination of Motown and Sears-Roebuck, came up with enough money to pay for 13 episodes of "Soul Train" (WCIU, 1970; syndicated 1971-2006).
Patterned in part after Dick Clark's popular "American Bandstand" (WFIL/ABC/USA Network, 1952-1989) and the standard radio show format Cornelius had utilized during his days behind a microphone at WVON, the show was an immediate success. With his incredible basso voice, Cornelius handled the hosting duties himself and brought on popular acts like Curtis Mayfield and B.B. King. The program's set was so small, there was hardly any room for the dancers, and the budget was so low that black and white cameras were used. None of the early "Soul Train" episodes could be repeated because it went out live with no video recording. None of that mattered, however, as Cornelius' tiny enterprise would soon move beyond these limitations. Retaining ownership of the "Soul Train" name and concept, Cornelius saw an opportunity to go national and watched as gradually the program was picked up in different cities.
Now situated in Hollywood and sporting substantially improved production values in bright color, the program's profile continued to increase, with the wild and colorful dancers, who appeared week after week in the "Soul Train Line" creating new trends in dancing (with their "pop" and "lock" styles and variations like the "Robot" being especially popular) as well as in fashion. These enthusiastic young people ended up being as much a part of the program's ratings success as the guest artists. Cornelius also bucked the lip sync trend of the day by having performers actually singing and playing their hits live on occasion.
As the program entered more and more markets, Cornelius was able to book major stars like Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, with "Soul Train" now clearly the major venue for the promotion of African-American artists. It was also attracting a growing white audience and Cornelius capitalized by inviting Caucasian stars like David Bowie, Elton John, and Gino Vannelli onto their stage. Cornelius' influence on pop culture by that time was such that Dick Clark even tried to compete with his own creation, "Soul Unlimited" (ABC, 1973), which blatantly imitated "Soul Train" and died a quick death after Cornelius and the Rev. Jesse Jackson vehemently dismissed it as a cynical attempt to co-opt an important example of black culture. There was truth in their claim, as Cornelius' brain child had become a major source of black pride and Cornelius was careful to keep the program evolving, allowing it to both start styles and weather musical changes, like the arrival of disco and hip hop. Later on, it would also hold its own against monolithic network competitors MTV and BET.
Cornelius further cross-promoted the show when he started the Grammy-style "Soul Train Music Awards" in 1985 and the "Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards" a decade later. However, an attempt to cross further into the entertainment world with the "Soul Train Comedy Awards" (syndicated, 1993) failed to produce a third annual program. In 1993, Cornelius relinquished his "Soul Train" hosting duties after more than 20 years and around 500 episodes, feeling that the program needed a more youthful host. The emergence of hip hop, a musical style he was smart enough to exploit as a businessman but one he never really cared for, also played a factor in his decision. In the wake of declining ratings, "Soul Train" finished its 35-year run in 2006 and Cornelius sold the program and its impressive archive of episodes to MadVision Entertainment two years later. In addition to the status he attained as the longest serving "Soul Train" host, Cornelius was also in a handful of movies, appearing as himself in the Tamara Dobson actioner "Cleopatra Jones" (1973), Fred Williamson's "No Way Back" (1976), the mob movie send-up "Jane Austin's Mafia!" (1998), and Robert Townsend's mockumentary "Jackie's Back!" (1999). He also gave memorable comic turns as a larger-than-life concert promoter in "Roadie" (1980) and crooked record producer Mo Fuzz in the music industry satire "Tapeheads" (1988).
Cornelius was largely out of the limelight in his later years, but briefly returned to the headlines in 2008. A week after his second wife Viktoria Chapman had a restraining order filed against him, Cornelius was arrested in October of that year on suspicion of domestic violence. He was subsequently charged with three counts of spousal battery, one count of dissuading a witness from making a police report and one count of assault with a deadly weapon. Cornelius was given a three-year probation and ordered to attend a course on domestic violence. Knowing he was suffering from health issues, including a condition that required brain surgery, Cornelius worked diligently to quicken his divorce from Chapman, which was granted in 2010. Sadly, on Feb. 1, 2012, Cornelius was found dead from a reported self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in his Sherman Oaks, CA apartment. He was 75 years old.
By John Charles
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Location Manager (Feature Film)
Assistant Location Manager (Feature Film)
Location Scout (Feature Film)
Location Manager (Special)
Special Thanks (Special)
Created music and dance program "Soul Train" in Chicago on WCIU-TV; also served as its writer, producer and host
"Soul Train" broadcast nationally and became one of the longest-running syndicated shows in television history
Made a cameo (as himself) in "Cleopatra Jones"
Made film acting debut in crime drama "No Way Back"
Landed a featured role in the musical comedy "Roadie," starring Meat Loaf
Executive produced The 1st Annual Soul Train Music Awards
Cast as Mo Fuzz opposite John Cusack and Tim Robbins in "Tapeheads"
Guest starred on NBC's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"
Sold "Soul Train" to MadVision Entertainment
Featured on the "VH1 Rock Docs" special "Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America"