Don Cornelius Biography

Television Producer, Television Personality (1936–2012)
American television icon Don Cornelius created and hosted 'Soul Train,' which spent more than 30 years on the air.

Who Was Don Cornelius?

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.

Early Career

Born on September 27, 1936, in Chicago, Illinois, Don Cornelius became an American television icon as the creator and host of 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.

'Soul Train'

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 the 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, though 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. Dionne 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 stars like Michael Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Usher and Ciara appeared on the show, and more awards were added.

Changing the Show

When American Bandstand went off the air in 1989, Soul Train was still going strong. But Cornelius continuously looked for ways to freshen up the show. In 1993, he gave up his duties as host and brought in guest hosts. “I had come to believe ... that the era of the well-spoken, well-dressed Dick Clark, Don Cornelius-type in a suit and a tie was over ... I am just convinced that people want to see people on TV who are more like themselves,” he explained to The New York Times.

In 1995, Cornelius launched the Lady of Soul Awards. The first honorees were Debbie Allen, who received the Lena Horne Award for outstanding career achievements in the field of entertainment, and Salt-N-Pepa, who received the Aretha Franklin Award. Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige and Brandy performed during that first ceremony. Later on, both Brandy and Queen Latifah won the Aretha Franklin Award.

The Fate of Soul Train

Getting performers for the show, however, was sometimes a challenge for Cornelius. In 2001, he complained about MTV’s booking practices for its own award shows, which call for acts not to appear on competing programs within 30 days of the event. “It’s anti-competitive behavior that needs to be addressed at the Federal Trade Commission level,” he told the Los Angeles Times. He thought the tactic was especially egregious because of the cable music channel’s early history of not showing videos by African-American artists.

By 2005, Soul Train was being seen in 105 cities, reaching an estimated 85 percent of black households, according to the show’s website. In December 2007, however, the program lost its distributor when Tribune Entertainment closed that division in its company.

Cornelius' Final Years

After the end of Soul Train, Cornelius told the Los Angeles Times that he was in discussions to create a movie based on the famous franchise. "It wouldn't be the Soul Train dance show, it would be more of a biographical look at the project," he said. "It's going to be about some of the things that really happened on the show."

But life took a dark turn for Cornelius in 2008, when he was arrested and charged with spousal battery, dissuading a witness from making a police report and assault with a deadly weapon. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor domestic violence, and was sentenced to three years probation. 

The incident led to a bitter divorce battle between Cornelius and wife, Viktoria, in 2009. During their feuding, which lasted for over a year, Cornelius was also suffering from multiple health issues, including a stroke and several undisclosed ailments that required brain surgery.

The legal proceedings took an emotional toll on Cornelius, who stated within his divorce documentation: "I am 72 years old. I have significant health issues. I want to finalize this divorce before I die." Cornelius was granted his divorce in 2010, but the savvy businessman never quite recovered from the turmoil. 

On February 1, 2012, at approximately 4 a.m., police officials discovered Cornelius' body at his California home. He had suffered a gunshot wound to the head that officials later stated was self-inflicted. He was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead later that morning.

Legacy and 'American Soul'

Following his father's death, Anthony Cornelius launched The Don Cornelius Foundation, a nonprofit that supports programs to assist people contemplating suicide and those who lose loved ones to suicide.

Anthony later became an executive producer on American Soul, a 10-part series about his father's life and tribulations during the formative years of Soul Train, which debuted on BET in February 2019.

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