Thursday, February 02, 2012

Don Cornelius, 75, Founder of Soul Train, Dead of Apparent Suicide

Friend recalls Tuesday conversation with Cornelius: ‘He was very upbeat and even joking’

Feb 2, 2012 02:12AM

THE TRAIN HAS STOPPED: The news of “Soul Train” creator/host and former Chicagoan Don Cornelius’ death shocked the music industry and his fans.

THE 75-year-old Cornelius, whose legendary “Soul Train” dance show aired weekly for over 35 years, was found dead early Wednesday morning in his Sherman Oaks, Calif., home apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

MARV DYSON, director of operations at Kennedy King College’s WKKC-FM radio, was crushed after hearing about his dear friend’s death. Dyson told me he last spoke with Cornelius around noon Tuesday to inquire if he had gotten Grammy Awards tickets for Dyson’s son, Jordan, a USC student, and according to Dyson, “he was very upbeat and even joking on the phone.” “On Tuesday night, Don left me three different messages between 7 p.m. and 8:20 p.m. on voicemail saying he had secured the tickets,” said Dyson. “We were friends for over 40 years, and I will miss him.”

I CALLED THE REV. Jesse Jackson Wednesday, and he told me since hearing the tragic news, he is kicking off Black History Month by dedicating his Saturday morning Operation PUSH forum to celebrating Don’s life and legacy by having the “Don Cornelius & Soul Train Day.” The public is invited to come out and celebrate his life.

I asked him about his longtime friendship with Cornelius, whom he first met in 1964 when Cornelius was a street reporter for WVON radio. “I first met Don when he would cover Dr. Martin Luther King’s open housing rallies in Chicago, and he felt that black artists needed a TV audience and at that time you only had ‘American Bandstand’ out of Philly with Dick Clark way before BET and MTV,” Jackson said. “So Don started his ‘Soul Train’ weekly dance show on the 43rd floor of the Board of Trade building in the WCIU-TV studios, and it became extremely popular. George Johnson, former owner and founder of Johnson Products, became the exclusive and very first sponsor of ‘Soul Train’ with his Afro-Sheen commercials.”

“Don and I always competed to see who had the biggest natural, but he always won,” Jackson laughingly said. “And Aretha Franklin called me this morning to verify if the news was true. His show was a groundbreaking transformer in the music industry by providing access,” Jackson said.

THE DONS: I ALSO TALKED TO local TV producer Don Jackson of Central City Productions, who first met Cornelius when they both worked at WVON radio. Jackson helped Don launch the original “Soul Train Music Awards” show back in 1987.

“Stella, at that time, other major TV music awards shows objected to the need for a soul music awards show,” Jackson said. “And I was pleased to work with Don in launching the ‘Soul Train Music Awards’ and getting the Tribune Entertainment company to partner with us and air the show live and in primetime. The show was an instant hit in the ratings and lasted for 20 years ending in 2007.”

“I last saw him at the huge Chicago tribute last year in Millennium Park where my wife, Rose, and I spent two hours with him backstage in his dressing room, and he looked great and was joking, and reminiscing about the times we spent in starting the awards show,” Jackson said. “His Chicago nieces and nephews were also there, and he didn’t seem depressed or sad. His death was truly a shock and in passing, “We wish him LOVE, PEACE AND SOOOOOOOOOUL!”

Cornelius' legacy lives on in Chicago

February 2, 2012
by The Associated Press / DON BABWIN (Associated Press), KAREN HAWKINS (Associated Press)

(AP) -- When this proud city welcomed back hometown hero Don Cornelius last year, it wasn't just Chicago-style -- it was "Soul Train" style, complete with Afro wigs, bell bottoms and hip-shaking in the streets.

The 40th anniversary celebrations for "Soul Train" traced a remarkable journey for a former Chicago police officer who got his start in broadcasting when he pulled over a radio executive in a traffic stop and then had to build up his pioneering show one step at a time.

Cornelius, who became an icon defining black culture in America for decades, died at his California home Wednesday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 75.

While the South Side native and his show left Chicago decades ago for Los Angeles, his legacy has lived on here -- in the "Don Cornelius Way" street sign west of downtown, in the teens and performers who boogied onstage during the early days of "Soul Train" and in the audiences who were glued to their televisions every Saturday to see the newest dance moves and styles.

To television viewers -- especially those in Chicago -- Cornelius was the epitome of cool. An impeccably dressed cat whose voice was as smooth as his demeanor and who rubbed elbows with the biggest stars in music and the most promising up-and-comers.

Which is why Chicago Ald. Walter Burnett says it was so much fun to see Cornelius let his guard down last year when the city gave him an honorary street sign.

"Don was just in rare form," said Burnett, whose ward the sign is in. "He just wanted to talk and talk and talk. ... He broke down because he was with his friends."

The sign is outside the studios of WCIU-TV, where "Soul Train" got its start in 1970. It began as a local program and aired nationally from 1971 to 2006.

Cornelius came back to town last year for the sign's unveiling and for a 40th anniversary celebration of the show. An anniversary concert featured acts such as soul singer Jerry "Iceman" Butler, the Impressions and the Chi-Lites.

Butler recalled that Cornelius seemed particularly pleased to be back home in Chicago.

"In his introduction, he talked about how much Chicago meant to him and even though he was transplanted now to California, that this would still be home and the home of 'Soul Train,'" said Butler, now a Cook County Commissioner.

At the sign unveiling, Chicago was just as happy to see Cornelius, Burnett said.

"That was a wonderful day, it took people back, man, to the 'Soul Train' days," he said. "I came in my leather jacket, people came with their Afro wigs on and their bell bottoms, people were dancing in the crowd. It was packed. ... It was a beautiful thing."

Cornelius got his start in broadcasting while working as a Chicago police officer. He pulled over Roy Wood, then news director of black radio station WVON-AM, who "was amazed at this police officer's voice," said Melody Spann Cooper, current president of WVON. Wood offered Cornelius a job in the newsroom, and he said yes.

Cooper said that while Cornelius was from Chicago, his influence was national.

"He was the original social network," she said. "Before we had internet or Facebook, we all gathered around that television every Saturday to see what people were listening to, what we were dancing to.

"Don Cornelius helped shape black culture at a time coming out of the Civil Rights era, when America had not been exposed to the social side of who we were," she said.

But "Soul Train" didn't start out big, and Butler recalled getting a call to come over and perform on the show on the day it was to make its inaugural syndicated broadcast.

"I think Gladys Knight and the Pips were originally scheduled to come and do it and they got jammed up and couldn't come and I was the stand-in, so I went and did it," he said.

Though he appreciated being called, Butler suggested that it was Cornelius who was the more grateful one.

"Well, you know, this is going to sound arrogant but at the time I did 'Soul Train' I meant more to the show than he meant to me. He was dealing with a South Side perspective and I was dealing with a nationwide perspective."

But, he said, Cornelius' career took off as the significance of the show grew and grew.

"Over time, he became the show to be on if you wanted to be anybody in this business," said Butler.

Butler, who played with the likes of Otis Redding and was once a member of the Impressions, along with Curtis Mayfield, sang for Cornelius at the 40th anniversary show. Along with two original Impressions and the singer who replaced the late Mayfield, Butler performed his 1969 hit "Only The Strong Survive."

Butler recalled Cornelius walking a little slower, but otherwise seeming to be in good health and in good spirits.

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