Don Cornelius: Love, Peace and Soul
By Deardra Shuler
If we are given free will, then is it ours to judge why someone used their free will to take their life? Is it for us to judge another’s pain, whether physical, mental or emotional and determine what they must bear in order to submit to societal mores? We can only speculate regarding the whys and wherefores prompting Don Cornelius to shoot himself; taking his life at age 75, on the morning of February 1, 2012, at his home, located on Mulholland Drive, in Los Angeles County.
Chicago born, Don Cornelius, was a man unafraid to take a chance and follow his dream. In order to support his family, he tried several jobs. First he was a car salesman, then he sold insurance, a stint with the police department followed, until finally he took a broadcasting course, despite his limited funds. However, it was this course that put him in the position to utilize his deep voice. He became an announcer. Later he became a news reporter, and eventually a disc jockey. All roads led to television where he hosted a news program entitled A Black’s View of the News on station WCIU-TV.
While a journalist covering the civil rights movement of the late 1960s, Cornelius recognized the limitations black entertainers and black audiences experienced in television entertainment. It was then a seed was planted to bring soul music to the networks. Therefore, after pitching his idea of a music show featuring teenagers dancing to the latest soul and R&B music to his station manager, in 1970, Donald Cortez “Don” Cornelius launched the Soul Train program on WCIU-TV as a daily local show. In 1971, Soul Train went into national syndication after securing Johnson Products and Sears, Roebuck and Co., as sponsors, pulling in audiences of all hues. This, prompted Don to pack up and move himself, his family and his show to Los Angeles.
“Soul Train” became a phenomena, similar to American Bandstand, except it offered so much more, giving exposure to folks like
Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, James Brown and Michael Jackson, just to name a few. Not only were musicians given a platform but talented dancers were showcased. The Soul Train dance line became so famous it attracted both young and older viewers as well as music and dance enthusiasts. As Spike Lee once said, “Soul Train was an “urban music time capsule.”
Mr. Cornelius was able to branch out as a writer, producer, and host of Soul Train. Soul Train ran as a music variety show from 1971 to 2006. In 1987, the Soul Train creator started the Soul Train Music Awards. With over 1,100 episodes, Soul Train was the “longest-running, first-run, nationally syndicated program in television history. Viacom Centric Cable presently airs reruns of Soul Train.
In 1993, Cornelius ended his run as host, although he was still the creative force behind the scene. Then suddenly things went terribly wrong. In 2008, the Soul Train Music Awards ceremony was canceled due to the WGA strike. Don became burdened with lawsuits, an arrest for domestic violence against his Russian wife Viktoria Chapman wherein Don eventually pleaded no contest. Although divorced, it’s surmised Chapman may inherit much of Cornelius’s estate.
Eventually, all of Don Cornelius’s miseries started to take its toll and therefore came to a head. Thus, Don, weary and in ill health, got on the SOUL train, departing after having experienced a well-lived life. For Don, a private man, his life was occasionally a stone gas. However, in the end, Don Cornelius left the earth on his own terms, in his own way, wishing the world — love, peace and soul.