Don Cornelius brought ‘love, peace and soul’ to the world

Photograph: Courtesy of Soul Train Holdings LLC

Don Cornelius was remembered Wednesday as a genuine Chicago original whose iconic dance show Soul Train advanced race relations and changed popular music, fashion and entertainment forever.

Tributes from around the world lauded the groundbreaking producer and legendary host who was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Los Angeles home. He was 75.

Old friend and longtime radio executive Marv Dyson may have been the last Chicagoan to hear from Cornelius. “I just spoke with him yesterday, and he left three voice-mail messages on my machine yesterday,” Dyson told the Tribune's Steve Johnson. "He sounded very up and into his career. That’s why it was hard to understand why he would kill himself.”

Nowhere was his influence greater than in his hometown, where Cornelius began his broadcasting career and created the program that would become one of the longest running and most successful in first-run syndication history.
“Don Cornelius was once a young man with a dream,” said Bruce DuMont, founder and president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications. “A Chicago insurance salesman who really wanted to be on the air, Cornelius followed his dream to WVON Radio and then to WCIU television . . . A pioneering producer/talent and packager of Soul Train, Cornelius saw a niche that was not filled — and he filled it. In doing so, he became an icon who helped launch or boost scores of music careers.”

In 1969, his first job at WCIU-Channel 26 was on A Black’s View of the News, anchored by WVON news director Roy Wood, who had hired Cornelius earlier at the radio station. “Don did the sports every night,” recalled the show’s first producer, Tom Weinberg, founder of the Media Burn Independent Video Archive. “We both learned plenty — some about TV, but more about life, race and doing business. I had a lot of respect for his abilities and for the major influence [he had] on our culture.”

Television at that time did not reflect the world Cornelius knew as a Bronzeville native. “I saw the general-market world, the white world,” he told Time Out Chicago’s Jake Malooley in a rare interview last August. “I felt that it was my mission to see to it that black talent had an opportunity to get national television exposure. We wanted to make each show evolve into a shocking moment.”

With backing from Sears, Cornelius convinced Weigel Broadcasting boss Howard Shapiro to air his showcase for R&B artists and teen dancers live from Channel 26’s studio on the 43rd floor of the Board of Trade. Soul Train debuted locally on August 17, 1970, and entered national syndication the following year.

Soul Train wasn’t just a launch pad for the artists that appeared on it, it was a platform for its dancers: here, every week on syndicated TV, were (largely though not exclusively) young African Americans, appearing not as a threat or shorthand for a social problem, but showing off awesome moves and celebrating the music they loved,” Time magazine observed. “It was about putting black culture and black history on the agenda, back in the early 1970s, when simply having a TV show wish its audience ‘love, peace and soul’ was a statement and — in the show’s good-time way — a challenge.”

Weigel Broadcasting will honor Cornelius with a look back on his start at Channel 26 and his rise to national fame on You & Me This Morning, hosted by Jeanne Sparrow and Melissa Forman, starting at 6am Thursday.

The U also will simulcast Bounce TV Remembers Don Cornelius, a seven-hour Soul Train marathon, starting at 6pm Saturday. Hosted by Chilli, a member of the musical group TLC, the episodes will feature Gladys Knight and The Pips, Al Green, The Commodores, Kool and the Gang, Janet Jackson, En Vogue, as well as Cornelius’ last  appearance as host in 1993.

Plans for a public memorial at the Museum of Broadcast Communications are pending.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)