By LYNN ELBER, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — "Soul Train" host Don Cornelius was the arbiter of cool, a brilliant TV showman who used his purring, baritone voice to seduce mainstream America into embracing black music and artists.
But the "love, peace, and SOUL!" he wished viewers as he closed each show for decades escaped him as his life descended into marital trouble, illness and, finally, a fatal self-inflicted gunshot wound on Wednesday.
Police said they went to his Mulholland Drive home around 4 a.m. after receiving a call from one of his sons, who became concerned after being contacted by his father. Cornelius, 75, was found shot and was pronounced dead an hour later at a nearby hospital.
Authorities ruled out foul play, but have not found a suicide note and are talking to relatives about his mental state.
To music-hungry viewers, he was a smooth, sharp-dressed man who got them dancing to the hottest tracks going. The pop world's biggest stars recalled him as much more: A cultural groundbreaker who advanced African-American music and culture; a black entrepreneur who overcame racism by strength of will; a visionary who understood rap's emergence but criticized its rawness.
Aretha Franklin, an early "Soul Train" performer, called him "an American treasure."
"God bless him for the solid, good and wholesome foundation he provided for young adults worldwide," she said, "and the unity and brotherhood he singlehandedly brought about with his most memorable creation of 'Soul Train.'"
Donald Cortez Cornelius was born Sept. 27, 1936, in Chicago. After high school, he served as a Marine in Korea. Cornelius was working as an insurance salesman when he spent $400 on a broadcasting course and landed a part-time job in 1966 as announcer, newsman and DJ on WVON radio. That's where listeners first heard the distinctively measured and rich Cornelius rumble.
Cornelius began moonlighting at WCIU-TV when Roy Wood, his mentor at WVON, moved there, and won a job producing and hosting "A Black's View of the News." When the station wanted to expand its "ethnic" programming, he pitched a black music show, and "Soul Train" was born.
"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," then it was reasonable to try, he said.
"Soul Train," which began in 1970, followed some of the "Bandstand" format with its audience and young dancers. But that's where the comparisons stopped. Cornelius, the suave, ultra-cool emcee, made "Soul Train" appointment viewing.
"There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity," he said in 2006, then added: "I'm trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks, which they knew was for them."
Debra Lee, who is chairman and chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, was one of those youngsters who tuned in to the show. She said she would finish her chores early so she could check out the latest music, fashions and dance moves.
"His reach is just amazing, and personally he was such a charming man," she said, calling Cornelius a role model and "a great interviewer who knew how to connect to artists" and had "the best voice in the world."
With that voice, he helped bring the best R&B, soul and later hip-hop acts to TV. It was one of the first TV shows to showcase African-American artists including Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Barry White.
"You have to dream," Cornelius said in a 1995 interview. "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."
"Soul Train" had a whimsical cartoon train and whistle that opened each show. And Cornelius would close each show with his sign-off: "Love, peace, and SOUL!" drawing out the pronunciation of the last word with his deep voice.