The show, with his sharp eye for talent, became the cornerstone of his entertainment empire. He acted as independent producer-host-salesman to bring "Soul Train" into partnership with Tribune Entertainment Co., which became the show's distributor in the 1980s.
The show chugged gradually onto TV screens nationwide: Only a handful of stations initially were receptive. Johnson Products Co., maker of Afro Sheen and other hair-care goods, was its major sponsor and the first black-owned company to sponsor a national weekly TV show. Years later, major advertisers including Coca-Cola and McDonald's joined.
"Soul Train" aired nationally from 1971 to 2006. Asked why it endured, he told The New York Times in 1995: "There is an inner craving among us all, within us all, for television that we can personally connect to." He stepped down as host in 1993, and sold it to MadVision Entertainment in 2008.
"Don Cornelius was a pioneer & a trailblazer," Earvin "Magic" Johnson wrote on Twitter. "He was the first African-American to create, produce, host & more importantly OWN his own show."
Though "Soul Train" became one of the longest-running syndicated shows in TV history, its power began to wane in the 1980s and '90s as American pop culture began folding in black culture instead of keeping it segregated.
By that time, there were more options for black artists to appear on mainstream shows. And on shows like "American Bandstand," blacks could be seen dancing along with whites.
But even when Michael Jackson became the King of Pop, there was still a need to highlight the achievements of African-Americans that were still marginalized at mainstream events. So Cornelius created the "Soul Train Awards," which would become a key honor for musicians. The series also spawned the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards and the Soul Train Christmas Starfest.
Along the way, however, Cornelius became estranged from a changing music scene that clashed with his relatively conservative taste. But while he suggested violently or sexually explicit gangsta rap should be labeled "X-rated," Cornelius said the focus should be on eliminating poverty and violence from low-income black communities.
DJ Scratch, the DJ from the rap act EPMD, tweeted on Wednesday that Cornelius "100% didn't like Hip Hop. But he realized that it was what the youth wanted. So again, I thank you Don."
Cornelius' world grew dark in recent years as he faced fallout from a divorce and other pressures. In 2009, he was sentenced to three years' probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor spousal battery and, in his divorce case that year, he also mentioned having significant health problems.
He has two children, Anthony and Raymond, with his first wife, Delores Harrison.
Cornelius, who was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in 1995 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, said in 2006 he remained grateful to the musicians who made "Soul Train" the destination for the best and latest in black music.
"As long as the music stayed hot and important and good, that there would always be a reason for 'Soul Train,'" he said.
Associated Press writers Nekesa Moody, Frazier Moore, Mesfin Fekadu and David Bauder in New York and Robert Jablon, Jeff Wilson, Anthony McCartney and Sandy Cohen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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