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American television icon Don Cornelius created and hosted Soul Train, which spent more than 30 years on the air.
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Don Cornelius, born September 27, 1936, started out in the insurance business before going to broadcasting school in 1966. He worked as a substitute radio DJ and on TV's A Black's View of the News before pitching his idea for a music television program aimed at young African Americans. Soul Train, inspired by American Bandstand, quickly became popular, and spent more than 30 years on the air.
Born on September 27, 1936, in Chicago, Illinois, Don Cornelius is an American television icon, having created Soul Train, a music show made for African-Americans by African-Americans, which spent more than 30 years on the air. A natural salesman, Cornelius started out in the insurance business in the 1950s. He went to broadcasting school in 1966, looking to break into the field. To realize his dream, he worked as a substitute DJ, filling in for other on-air personalities, and in the news department of WVON radio in Chicago.
Switching to television, Cornelius became a sports anchor and the host of A Black’s View of the News on WCIU in 1968. He got to know the station owners, and pitched them his idea for a music television program. Using $400 of his own money, Cornelius created a pilot for Soul Train, which was named after a promotional event he put together in 1969. Inspired by American Bandstand, the show featured teenagers dancing to the latest soul and R&B music as well as a performance by a musical guest. “Almost all of what I learned about mounting and hosting a dance show I learned from Dick Clark,” Cornelius later told Advertising Age.
Premiering on August 17, 1970, Soul Train quickly became popular. It aired on Saturday mornings, attracting a lot of children and teenagers off from school. An early supporter, businessman George Johnson of the Johnson Products Company, helped Cornelius make Soul Train a national television program. It was syndicated in 1971, but it was initially difficult getting stations sign up for the show. In addition to Chicago, stations in Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco were among the first to air Soul Train.
With his deep voice and distinguished good looks, Cornelius was the ideal host. Over the years, he presented many famous performers to his television audience, including Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, Lou Rawls and Aretha Franklin, among others. The show was not always wedded to its soul and R&B focus. Rock acts, such as David Bowie, Robert Palmer, and Duran Duran, also made appearances on the show from time to time as did jazz and reggae stars.
In 1987, Cornelius started the Soul Train Music Awards. Dione Warwick and Luther Vandross served as hosts of the first ceremony, which honored Stevie Wonder with the Heritage Award for outstanding career achievements. Whitney Houston, LL Cool J, and Run DMC were among the night’s performers. Over the years, other music stars appeared on the show, including Michael Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Usher and Ciara, and more awards were added.
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