Music impresario Don Cornelius, 75, whose groundbreaking “Soul Train” show exposed music acts like Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder to millions of TV viewers, took his own life Wednesday, Los Angeles officials said.
“The death was reported as a suicide, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head,” Los Angeles coroner’s assistant Chief Ed Winter said, after police confirmed Cornelius was found at his home in the Sherman Oaks area at about 4am and was later pronounced dead.
It was a tragic ending to a pioneering musical figure whose show, which launched in 1970 more than a decade before MTV, had a tremendous impact on American popular culture.
Cornelius created “Soul Train” in his native Chicago and soon moved it to Los Angeles.
It quickly become essential viewing for young Americans, particularly African-Americans, eager to see and hear black stars who often did not get exposure on mainstream — and largely white — radio or television.
It featured stars like James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Whitney Houston, and helped propel the careers of up-and-comers like Luther Vandross.
Several of the stars who appeared alongside Cornelius paid warm tribute to him on Wednesday, including friend and business partner Quincy Jones, himself a music icon who hailed Cornelius as “a visionary pioneer and a giant in our business.”
“His contributions to television, music and our culture as a whole will never be matched,” Jones said in a statement.
“Soul Train” emerged as a counterbalance to the more established music show “American Bandstand,” which while occasionally profiling black acts like rock pioneer Chuck Berry largely catered to white acts.
In a rare interview, Cornelius told the magazine TimeOut Chicago that when he turned on American radio in 1970, “I saw the general-market world, the white world.
“I felt that it was my mission to see to it that black talent had an opportunity to get national television exposure.”
One of the first star acts on his show was Gladys Knight & The Pips.
“He is really an unsung hero,” Knight told CNN on Wednesday, adding that Cornelius took “a giant step” to compete against “American Bandstand,” whose creator and host Dick Clark was already a titan in the industry.
Celebrity gossip website TMZ reported Wednesday that when Cornelius divorced his wife in 2009, he told a Los Angeles judge that he had “significant health issues” and wanted to “finalize this divorce before I die.”
“Soul Train” aired continuously until 2006, and the show made claims in later years that it was the longest-running nationally syndicated program in television history.