The "Soul Train" host and impresario has died; initial reports indicated it was a suicide but now stories are backing away from that. The New York Times has a report here.
I remember watching his show faithfully in my younger years; it was a bracing alternative to the increasingly bland "American Bandstand," as well as the imprimatur for any artist wanting to establish black-music credibility; David Bowie in his "Young Americans"/"Station to Station" period was a guest. But Cornelius never quite reached the success level of Dick Clark, battling to get good clearances for his show; he complained more than once about lousy time slots in Cleveland, where his show would air at 2 a.m.
After the jump, I have posted a 1995 interview with Cornelius by Lynn Elber of the Associated Press, marking "Soul Train's" 25th anniversary.
Here's the story as it ran in the Akron Beacon Journal on Aug. 6, 1995.
Don Cornelius fondly calls it "that little dance show."
He's talking about Soul Train, the syndicated program he created, which is celebrating its 25th season this fall.
Soul Train, once dubbed the black American Bandstand, is clearly more than just a musical showcase. It brought a black presence to television at a time when such representation was rare.
The show, with the whimsical cartoon train and whistle that opens each edition and its sharp eye for talent, has become the cornerstone of a Cornelius entertainment empire.
Since he worked as producer-host-salesman to launch Soul Train as a local offering on Chicago's WCIU-TV, Cornelius has gone from independent producer to partnership with Tribune Entertainment Co., now the show's distributor. (It airs locally at 2 a.m. Sunday on WKYC, Channel 3.)
He joined this year with the likes of famed musician-producer Quincy Jones and TV host Geraldo Rivera in a Tribune-backed TV station ownership venture. Cornelius continues to expand black-oriented programming with a series of Soul Train award shows.
His latest effort, Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, airs in syndication tonight through Aug. 20 and salutes such performers as Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, En Vogue and Janet Jackson.
The ceremony's hosts are model-actress Tyra Banks, singer Gladys Knight and musician Brian McKnight.
Cornelius, to be inducted this fall into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, took time recently to reflect on his career, his role as a black entrepreneur and the philosophy that supports him.
"My thing is to always take it (an idea) as far as your ability allows you," he offers. "It's a modest, measured point of view that everyone would do well to practice."
And this: "You have to dream," Cornelius says. "I dreamed everything. I used to introduce Marvin Gaye in my living room. So when the time came that I was going to really introduce guys like Marvin Gaye and Steve Wonder, I had done it before."
On racism and coping with it: "Every day there is something I am entitled to that is not available to me because I'm black." But, he adds, "Why dwell ... I preach this within the company: Don't let 'em break your stride."
Finally this: "You gotta know when to take the shot and when to pass the ball off and say 'You all play with it awhile.' I have to, in all modesty, concede that when I was given the ball, I made the shot."
The ex-Marine started taking his shots in performing as a radio disc jockey at Chicago station WVON. That's where listeners first heard the distinctively measured and rich Cornelius rumble.
He later worked as a sportscaster and news announcer in TV (he was good, he says, but didn't have the "chops" of a Walter Cronkite) before he gave birth to Soul Train.
The impetus: He saw a void that needed to be filled, Cornelius said. And a goal he was confident of meeting.
"You want to do what you're capable of doing. If I saw (Dick Clark's) American Bandstand and I saw dancing and I knew black kids can dance better; and I saw white artists and I knew black artists make better music; and if I saw a white host and I knew a black host could project a hipper line of speech, and I did know all these things," he said, then it was reasonable to try.
Cornelius served as Soul Train host from 1970 to 1993. He now turns the job over to a different celebrity each week.
The Soul Train awards shows began, Cornelius says, because he saw another unfulfilled need.
"There'd been grumbling in the industry as far back as I could remember that people didn't like the way black music was treated in the established award shows," he said.
"Black music, as big and important as it was, was an afterthought at somebody else's party. So we said we'll make sure it has its own party" -- the Soul Train Music Awards.
"We're basically doing the same thing about women. They're just too important in this business to ignore," Cornelius said.
Despite his track record, the producer says it's an ongoing battle for minority programming to gain TV ground. Despite the large black populations of St. Louis and Cleveland, he says, Soul Train airs at obscure times.
"What is the programming you are providing blacks in this market that satisfies them to the extent you can put Soul Train on at 3 o'clock in the morning? Nobody can answer that."