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Gone But Not Forgotten: Don Cornelius

WDAS remembers the creator and host of the highly influential, legendary "Soul Train", Don Cornelius

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    Donald Cortez "Don" Cornelius was born in Chicago's South Side on September 27, 1936.
    Photo: Billboard Magazine
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    As writer, producer, and host of "Soul Train" from 1971-1993, Cornelius was instrumental in offering wider exposure to countless black musicians including icons such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Michael Jackson, as well as creating opportunities for many talented dancers that later became household names.
    Photos: Time Magazine and YouTube
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    Cornelius said, "We had a show that kids gravitated to", and Spike Lee described the program as an "urban music time capsule".
    Photo: Billboard Magazine
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    Just a drop in the bucket... A couple more artists that appeared on "Soul Train" multiple times: Philly's own O'Jays...
    Photo: Billboard Magazine
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    ... and Sly & The Family Stone...
    Photo: Billboard Magazine
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    ... and Diana Ross
    Photo: Everett Collection
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    Stevie Wonder's "Soul Train" performances were epic.
    Photo: Billboard Magazine
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    One of many appearances by the Queen of Soul on "Soul Train"
    Photo: Everett Collection
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    The soul on "Soul Train" wasn't defined by the color of a performer's skin. Genres of music and the races of artists were integrated - as long as there was an emphasis on soul jams the audience could move to. Here, Don Cornelius is pictured with Meat Loaf. White artists booked on "Soul Train" were sometimes groundbreaking, sometimes questionable, or sometimes simply surprising, but they always rose above the barriers of race - Elton John, David Bowie, Hall & Oates, Christina Aguilera, the Beastie Boys, Duran Duran, even the lite jazz of Kenny G, the soft rock of Captain & Tennille and Don Henley, the novelty disco of Rick Dees and the Village People, and the blue eyed soul of Michael McDonald.
    Photo: Everett Collection
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    But the white artist who performed on "Soul Train" the most was "Lady T" herself, Teena Marie.
    Photo: WireImage
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    In the years leading up to "Soul Train", Don Cornelius joined the Marines and served in Korea. He then sold tires and insurance as well as spent some time as a Chicago police officer.
    Photo: Everett Collection
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    He quit his day job to take a three-month broadcasting course in 1966, despite being married with two sons and having only $400 in his bank account.
    Photo: Everett Collection
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    That same year Don Cornelius landed a job as an announcer, news reporter and disc jockey on Chicago radio station WVON.
    Photo: Flickr Creative Commons
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    Don Cornelius joined Chicago's WCIU-TV in 1967 and hosted a news program called "A Black's View of the News". Originally a journalist inspired by the civil rights movement, Cornelius recognized that in the late 1960s there was no television venue in the United States for soul music.
    Photos: WCIU
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    Don Cornelius, as a young journalist, covering Martin Luther King, Jr.
    Photo: Tribune Entertainment
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    In 1970, Don Cornelius launched "Soul Train" on WCIU-TV as a daily local show. The first episode of the program featured Jerry Butler, The Chi-Lites, and The Emotions as guests.
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    Cornelius and Soul Train's syndicator targeted 24 markets outside of Chicago to carry the show, but stations in only seven other cities - Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Francisco - purchased the program, which began airing on a weekly basis on October 2, 1971.
    Photo: Billboard Magazine
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    By the end of the first season, "Soul Train" was on in the other seventeen markets. "Soul Train" then moved to Los Angeles the following year, where it remained for the duration of its run. Eddie Kendricks, Gladys Knight & the Pips (pictured), Bobby Hutton, and The Honey Cone were featured on the national debut episode.
    Photo: Billboard Magazine
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    Though Don Cornelius moved his operations west, "Soul Train" continued in Chicago as a local program. Cornelius hosted the local Chicago and Los Angeles-based national programs simultaneously, but soon focused his attention solely on the national edition. He continued to oversee production in Chicago, where Clinton Ghent hosted episodes on WCIU-TV until 1976.
    Photo: Everett Collection
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    Motown thanks Don Cornelius and "Soul Train" in a 1974 issue of Billboard Magazine.
    Photo: Billboard Magazine
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    Besides his smooth, deep voice and afro (which slowly shrunk over the years as hairstyle tastes changed), Cornelius was best known for the catchphrase that he used to close the show: "... and you can bet your last money, it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey! I'm Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!"
    Photo: Soul Train channel on YouTube
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    One regular feature on the show was the "Soul Train Scramble Board," where two dancers were given 60 seconds to unscramble a set of letters that formed the name of a notable person in African American history. Cornelius would openly admit after the series ended its run that the game was usually set up so everybody won in an effort not to cause embarrassment to the show or African Americans in general.
    Photo: Soul Train channel on YouTube
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    Another regular feature was the iconic "Soul Train Line," in which all the dancers formed two lines with a space in the middle for dancers to strut down and dance in consecutive order. Originally, this consisted of a couple - with men on one side and women on the other. In later years, men and women had their own individual lineups. Sometimes, new dance styles or moves were featured or introduced by particular dancers.
    Photo: Soul Train channel on YouTube
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    There was an in-studio group of dancers who danced along to the music as it was being performed. Rosie Perez, Carmen Electra, Nick Cannon, MC Hammer, Jermaine Stewart, Fred "Rerun" Berry (pictured), Pebbles, and NFL legend Walter Payton were among those who got noticed dancing on the program over the years.
    Photo: Soul Train channel on YouTube
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    Fred "Rerun" Berry of the influential dance troupe The Lockers was also a "Soul Train" dancer. Berry was featured in the program's signature line dance segment doing the memorable early 70s dance step "the slo-mo." Fred Berry appeared with The Lockers on the third episode of the first season of "Saturday Night Live". He went on to star in the 70s sitcom "What's Happening!!"
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    Oscar-nominated actress Rosie Perez got her start on "Soul Train" too. She later choreographed music videos by Janet Jackson, Bobby Brown, Diana Ross, and LL Cool J. Perez was spotted in a dance club by Spike Lee in 1988, who hired her for her first major acting role in Do the Right Thing. Rosie was also the choreographer for the "In Living Color" dancers, the Fly Girls.
    Photo: YouTube
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    The Soul Train dancers thank Don Cornelius on the 4th anniversary of the show's national syndication in an advertisement taken out in Billboard Magazine.
    Photo: Billboard Magazine
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    Advertisement run in Billboard Magazine by Buddah and Curtis Mayfield's label Curtom Records honoring Don Cornelius on the 4th anniversary of "Soul Train" airing nationally.
    Photo: Billboard Magazine
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    Two former "Soul Train" dancers, Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, enjoyed years of success as members of Shalamar after they were chosen by "Soul Train" talent booker/record promoter Dick Griffey and Don Cornelius to replace the group's original session singers in 1978.
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    Jody Watley would later enjoy success as a solo artist after leaving Shalamar. She is shown here on a "Soul Train" episode from the late 80s being interviewed by Don Cornelius.
    Photo: Everett Collection
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    "Soul Train" used various original and current music for theme songs during its run, including:
    1971-73: "Soul Train (Hot Potato)" by King Curtis, later redone by the Rimshots as "Soul Train, Parts 1&2."
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    1973-75: "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)," composed by Gamble and Huff and recorded by Philadelphia soul studio group MFSB with vocals by the Three Degrees. Released as a single, this song became a pop and R&B radio hit in 1974 and the show's best-known theme.
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    During 1975-76 the theme was "Soul Train '75" by the Soul Train Gang, which was later released as a single for the newly formed Soul Train Records. Then from 1976 to 1978 the theme was "Soul Train '76 (Get on Board)," also by the Soul Train Gang.
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    1978-80: "Soul Train Theme '79," produced by the Hollywood Disco Jazz Band with vocals by the Waters
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    1980-83: "Up on Soul Train," first by the Waters and later by the Whispers, whose version appears in their 1980 album Imagination.
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    1983-87: "Soul Train's a Comin'" by R&B artist O'Bryan
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    1987-89: "TSOP '87," a remake of the original "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)," was composed and produced by George Duke. Then during 1989-93: "TSOP '89," a remixed version of "TSOP '87," also by George Duke, was used. Duke was later the music director of the annual "Soul Train Awards".
    Photo: Getty Images
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    1993-99: The theme was "Soul Train '93" (Know You Like to Dance)" by Naughty by Nature with a saxophone solo by Everette Harp. Finally, during 2000-06: "TSOP 2000," with a rap by Samson and music by Dr. Freeze, and again featuring an Everette Harp saxophone solo, was used as the theme. However, a portion of "Know You Like to Dance" was still used in the show's second-half opening segment during this period.
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    Advertisement run in Billboard Magazine by A&M Records thanking Don Cornelius for the effect "Soul Train" had on sales.
    Photo: Billboard Magazine
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    Dick Clark attempted to divert viewers from "Soul Train" with a similarly themed program called "Soul Unlimited", whose brief run on ABC in 1973 was not well received among its target audience, ostensibly due to its being created by a white man, and because of its alleged usage of deliberately racial overtones despite this fact. Don Cornelius entered into a dispute with Clark over this upstart program, and it was canceled within a few weeks.
    Photo: YouTube
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    Don Cornelius was relatively conservative in his musical tastes. In the 80s as the phenomenon of hip hop exploded, he admitted he was not a fan of the emerging genre, believing that it did not reflect positively on African American culture (one of his stated goals for the series).
    Photo: Everett Collection
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    Even though Cornelius would feature rap artists on "Soul Train" frequently during the 80s, he publicly would admit (to the artists' faces such as Kurtis Blow, pictured) that the genre was one that he did not understand.
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    As rap continued to evolve further toward the blunt, gritty realism of hardcore hip hop, Cornelius would admit to being really uncomfortable with groups such as Public Enemy. The show's disconnect with the taste of younger audiences led to a bit of decline in the popularity of "Soul Train" by the dawn of the 90s.
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    In 1987, "Soul Train" launched the Soul Train Music Awards, which honors the top performances in R&B, hip hop, and gospel (and, in its earlier years, jazz).
    Photo: Everett Collection
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    Boyz II Men at the 1995 Soul Train Awards.
    Photo: Getty Images
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    "Soul Train" later created two additional annual specials. The Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, first airing in 1995, celebrated top achievements by female performers. Shown here: Destiny's Child at the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards in 2001.
    Photo: Getty Images
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    The other spinoff special was the Soul Train Christmas Starfest, which premiered in 1998. It featured holiday music performed by a variety of R&B and gospel artists.
    Photo: Getty Images
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    As a nod to Soul Train's longevity, the show's opening sequence (during later seasons) contained a claim that it was the "longest-running first-run, nationally syndicated program in television history," with over 1,100 episodes produced from the show's debut through the 2005-06 season.
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    "Soul Train" will continue to hold this honor until at least 2016, if and when its nearest competitor, "Entertainment Tonight", completes its 35th season. (If "ET" does not complete a 35th season, "Wheel of Fortune" will pass "Soul Train" in 2018, assuming "Wheel" continues to air.)
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    Don Cornelius had a small number of film roles, most notably as record producer Moe Fuzz in 1988's MTV-parody Tapeheads with John Cusack and Tim Robbins.
    Photo: YouTube
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    Don Cornelius last appeared on television in the episode of the series "Unsung" spotlighting Full Force. This aired two days before Cornelius' death.
    Photo: Everett Collection
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    In the early-morning hours of February 1, 2012, officers found Don Cornelius dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. According to former "Soul Train" host, Shemar Moore, Cornelius may have been suffering from early onset of dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
    Photo: Splash News
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    An autopsy found that Don Cornelius had been suffering from seizures during the last 15 years of his life, a complication of brain surgery he underwent in 1982 to correct a congenital deformity. He admitted that he was never quite the same after that surgery, and it was a factor in his decision to retire from hosting "Soul Train" in 1993.
    Photo: Splash News
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    Recently it was reported that former "Soul Train" dancer Nick Cannon is working with NBC on a revival of the show.
    Photo: Getty Images
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    Following Don Cornelius' death, fans of "Soul Train" descended upon on Times Square in afro wigs and bell bottoms to get down in a giant "Soul Train" line as a way to pay tribute to the man who brought soul to the whole world.
    Photo: Getty Images
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    There was a similar tribute here in Philadelphia in front of the Art Museum.
    Photo: Flickr Creative Commons
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    We will never forget the influence of Don Cornelius' bold, innovative creation on music, fashion, dance and so much more. We wish him eternal love, peace and soul!
    Photo: Getty Images