Don Cornelius, creator of the syndicated hit dance show “Soul Train” committed suicide in his Encino, Calif. home, the Associated Press confirmed Wednesday morning.
A family member arrived at Cornelius’ house at about 4 a.m. and found him with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, authorities said. He was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center where he was pronounced dead. He was 75.
In 1970, Cornelius, a Chicago disc jockey and radio reporter, debuted “Soul Train” an R&B-themed, youth-oriented dance show on WCIU and moved it to syndication the next year with stations in several cities picking it up. When the show moved to Los Angeles, it became a national, then international hit. The show ran in syndication for 35 years before it went off the air in 2006.
Cornelius ended his run as host of the show in 1993, but remained its executive producer, allowing a series of younger guest hosts to be in front of the camera. The Soul Train brand expanded as it had become more popular, including the Soul Train Music Awards, which honored R&B, jazz and gospel performers, and the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, focusing on female artists.
News of Cornelius death sent shockwaves through the entertainment community as “Soul Train” was seen as not just a television show, but as a cultural cornerstone. “Don was a visionary pioneer and a giant in our business,” music producer and impresario Quincy Jones told the AP. “Before MTV there was ‘Soul Train,’ that will be the great legacy of Don Cornelius. His contributions to television, music and our culture as a whole will never be matched. My heart goes out to Don’s family and loved ones.”
Magic Johnson, who serves as chairman of Soul Train Holdings, which now owns the show, called Cornelius “a pioneer, an innovator and a trailblazer” in a statement issued by the company.
“Every Saturday morning I looked forward to watching Soul Train, as did millions of other people. Soul Train taught the world how to dance! Don’s contribution to us all is immeasurable. He will truly be missed. I thank him for trusting me with his Soul Train brand and I will carry on his legacy through it,” Johnson said.
Cornelius, according to TMZ.com, underwent a bitter divorce in 2009 and told a Los Angeles judge that he was experiencing “significant health issues,” and wanted to “finalize this divorce” before he died.
The Los Angeles Times said there was no sign of foul play at the scene of Cornelius’ death, but are investigating. He told the paper in a 2010 interview that plans were being made for a biographical “Soul Train” movie.
“We’ve been in discussions with several people about getting a movie off the ground. It wouldn’t be the ‘Soul Train’ dance show, it would be more of a biographical look at the project,” he said.