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'Soul Train' Host Don Cornelius Dies in Apparent Suicide

AP | 2/1/2012, 1:10 p.m.

The show's highlight was a dance line. Teens strutted and pranced their way between two lines of dancers awaiting their turn to show off. Over time, the dance line worked its way into American culture and is now an integral part of wedding receptions and parties.

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.

"I figured as long as the music stayed hot and important and good, that there would always be a reason for Soul Train," Cornelius said.

The series spawned a franchise that includes the Soul Train Music Awards, the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards and the Soul Train Christmas Starfest.

Cornelius stepped down as Soul Train host in 1993. The awards returned to the air in 2009 after two-year hiatus. Last year's awards were held on Nov. 27 in Atlanta, with Earth Wind & Fire receiving the "Legend Award."

In his later years, Cornelius had a troubled marriage. In 2009, he was sentenced to three years' probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor spousal battery. In his divorce case that year, he also mentioned having significant health issues.

Cornelius conducted viewers on the "hippest trip in America" from more than two decades on Soul Train starting in 1970, and in the process shined a light on R&B stars that mostly performed in the shadows of the mainstream. At the same time, he invited the nation to multicultural, cross-generational dance party that was broadcasted into living rooms every Saturday morning.

With his smooth, resonate baritone, Cornelius introduced hundreds stars including Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, James Brown, Jerry Butler, Marvin Gaye, the O'Jays and Barry White to TV audience, while overseeing a colorful menagerie of partiers who influenced dance and fashion. It opened a window to African-American culture that had gotten scant media exposure until then.

"Back then there was no targeted television and I just had the sense that television shouldn't be that way," told USA TODAY in a rare interview in 2010 when the show's 40th anniversary was being celebrated by a VH1 documentary. "The primary mission of the show was to provide TV exposure for people who would not get it otherwise. People who didn't get invited to The Mike Douglas Show, or Carson. There was no ethnic television, just general market television which meant mostly white people."

Cornelius developed his brainchild while working as a journalist and DJ in Chicago. It started in 1970 as daily, after school dance show on WCIU-TV and it was supported by such local acts as Butler, Curtis Mayfield and the Chi-Lites. The show was sponsored by Johnson Products, makers of Afro Sheen and other hair products, and with owner George Johnson's help, Cornelius was able to move production to Los Angeles for the weekly syndicated show that premiered in 1971. Stations skeptical of an unproven, new show were won over by the fact that Knight agreed to do the pilot. Other artists were quick to jump on board.