Today, the father of Soul Train, Don Cornelius, would have been 77 years old. A new voice out of school, Cornelius started his career by filling in for DJ’s on Chicago’s WVON radio. In 1968, he served as host of the sports program “A Black’s View of the News” on WCIU. The broadcasting entrepreneur started Soul Train with $400 of his own money. The pilot was named after an event Cornelius put together in 1969. Patterned after Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, Soul Train began on August 17, 1970 and lasted 30 years. Within one year of its first broadcast, Cornelius had teamed up with Johnson Products and Soul Train was syndicated in Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
Legendary artists like Gladys Knight and the Pips, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and the Jackson 5 were first seen in black households across the nation on Soul Train. Cornelius allowed the lineup of artists to be unique, including crossover artists like Duran Duran and David Bowie to perform on the black entertainment dance show.
By 1987, Cornelius’ empire was serving up a landmark awards show featuring the best acts in the business. The first awards show featured hosts Dionne Warwick and Luther Vandross with performances by Whitney Houston, LL Cool J and Run DMC.
In 1993, Cornelius began to bring in guest hosts for the show. The newer, younger contemporary artists were not fully understood by Cornelius so he brought in fresh faces to introduce the new styles of dance and music.
By 2005, viewership of Soul Train was up to 105 markets. But due to business climate changes, the show lost its distributor in 2007.
Although Cornelius had planned for a biographical film on the show’s conception, tragedy struck in 2008 with a bitter divorce battle between he and then wife Viktoria, a criminal case which landed him three years probation, and severe illness. Cornelius suffered a stroke, which led to brain surgery.
Don Cornelius’ life ended tragically on February 1, 2012 after a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
His legacy lives on, however, through the syndication of previous episodes of Soul Train, and a recently released documentary featuring the creation of the long-time fan favorite television show and the lives of the Soul Train dancers.