TMZ and the L.A. Times have reported that Don Cornelius, host of the era-defining Soul Train TV program of the ’70s, has been found dead in his Los Angeles home. The cause of death was a gun wound, apparently self-inflicted. Cornelius had been suffering from health problems and had been going through a bitter divorce, telling an L.A. judge that he wanted to “finalize this divorce before I die.” He was 75 years old.
Cornelius grew up in Chicago, where he was inspired to launch Soul Train in the late ’60s, first as a traveling live show, then as a local broadcast, after noting the conspicuous absence of soul music on national television. The show, which featured a host of regular dancers getting down to the soul and funk hits of the day, including live performances from the era’s hottest artists, quickly became a hit, and by 1971, was being picked up for national syndication.
By the end of the decade, the show had become iconic for its fashion, its live performances, and its dancing, including the famous “Soul Train Line,” where the dancers would form two lines, for one or two performers to show their stuff while strutting down the middle. At the middle of it all was Cornelius with his signature glasses, a calm, sophisticated and impossibly cool presence, known for sign-off catchphrases like “And you can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey!” and “As always, we wish you love, peace and soul!”
Cornelius stopped hosting Soul Train in 1993, never having fully embraced hip-hop’s place in contemporary music, though he remained a creative force on the show behind the scenes until its cancellation in 2006 after an incredible 35-plus-year run (which allowed the show to boast of itself as the “longest-running, first-run, nationally syndicated program in television history”). The show lives on in the Soul Train Music Awards, handed out yearly since 1987, and Don Cornelius made his last public appearance at the 2009 BET Awards, handing out a lifetime achievement award to ’70s Philly soul and disco stalwarts the O’Jays.
Check out some classic Soul Train performances below—including a lovably awkward cameo from ’70s Japanese new wavers Yellow Magic Orchestra. “Don was a visionary pioneer and a giant in our business,” said legendary pop and soul producer Quincy Jones of his friend. “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.”