Legendary ‘Soul Train’ Creator Don Cornelius Battled Demons in Final Years
The TV icon endured serious illnesses, business setbacks, and a nasty divorce before taking his own life. By Christine Pelisek and Allison Samuels.
Friends of Don Cornelius say the legendary creator of the long-running television show Soul Train was dealing with significant “demons,’’ and while they are saddened by his death, they say they aren’t surprised he took his own life with a gunshot to the head.
“Don was always a smart man, but in recent years he’d made a lot of poor choices in business and in his relationships with women,’’ said one friend of 30 years. “He was swayed by a few people to invest in projects that didn’t pan out and the last marriage in many ways destroyed his mind, heart and his soul. He was never the same after that marriage.’’
Some close to the smooth-voiced television host described a man hurt and distraught by bad business decisions, poor health, and an ugly divorce that took hundreds of thousands of dollars from his children and other family members.
Long-time friends such as Clarence Avant, the former chairman of Motown Records, said that no matter the reasons for his death, the music industry owes Cornelius a great debt. “His legacy to music, especially black music, will be forever cemented in history,” he said. “He was one of my dearest friends and I will miss him deeply.’’
Los Angeles police said they arrived at Cornelius’ Mulholland Drive home around 4 a.m. on February 1 after receiving a call from one of his sons, who became worried after Cornelius called him. “He and his son had a conversation earlier and the son came over and found his father in that state,” said Officer Sara Faden, of the Los Angeles Police Department. “It looks like the two of them had spoken within the hour.”
Cornelius, who was found on the floor, was rushed to Cedars Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 4:57 a.m. There was no suicide note. Police, who spent most of the day at the house talking to friends and family members, have ruled out foul play.
News of the music pioneer’s death prompted an outpouring from some of the pop world’s biggest stars. Aretha Franklin, who performed on Soul Train, released a statement calling Cornelius’ death “sad, stunning, and downright shocking … a huge and momentous loss to the African-American community and the world at large.” Smokey Robinson said Cornelius “brought exposure to black talent and a positive image to young black teenagers that had never been done before.”
Cornelius was born on Sept. 27, 1936, and grew up on Chicago’s South Side. He was a Chicago police officer in the mid-1960s, when he met radio personality Ed Cobb. Cobb liked his distinctive voice and Cornelius was soon hired as an announcer on WVON. In the early 70s, Cornelius became a household name after he launched Soul Train. The iconic dance show, which gave many African-Americans a forum to display their talents, became one of television’s longest-running syndicated programs. The suave Cornelius was known for the catchphrase that he used to end the show: “I’m Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul.”
The show made Cornelius a television icon, and featured top black artists including Gladys Knight, Lou Rawls, and Barry White. In 1987, Cornelius started the Soul Train Music Awards, which showcased performers such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Run DMC.
Director J. Kevin Swain said he met Cornelius in 1988, when Swain was a production coordinator on the Soul Train Music Awards. “Our roots are pretty deep,” he said. “He took me in and showed me the ropes. Don was very serious about his work, and if you didn’t pull your weight you would be out. He was a shrewd businessman.”
Cornelius gave up his hosting gig in 1993, and sold Soul Train to MadVision Entertainment in 2008.
But over the years he was plagued by a number of health issues. In 1982, he underwent a 21-hour operation to fix a congenital malformation in blood vessels in his brain. “You choose your brain surgeons for their stamina,” he later told the Washington Post. “You’re never quite the same afterward. Travel is always a real test.”
He also suffered a stroke in the last decade. His health was not the only thing to deteriorate. By the mid-2000s his personal life began to unravel. After a failed first marriage that produced two sons, Anthony and Raymond, Cornelius married a much younger Russian model named Viktoria Chapman in 2001. But, it wasn’t long before the relationship soured because they were from vastly different worlds, friends said.
Court records show that the couple separated in 2007. The following year, Cornelius was arrested for felony domestic violence following a fight at their home in the gated community of Sherman Oaks. Cornelius admitted in court records that he could not return to their house because he had a domestic violence restraining order against him. He said the order was placed on him because of a “physical confrontation that we had in December of 2008 which involved a series of four unwanted pepper spray attacks against me.”
“Although she instigated the confrontation by shouting insults and profanities very close to my face, and even though the incident itself involved mutual acts of aggression against Viktoria,” he said. “Her injuries were very apparent. My injuries were to my eyes and face and not apparent because of the darkness of my skin.”
In 2009, he pleaded no contest to one count of “corporal injury resulting in traumatic condition of a spouse,’’ and was put on probation for 36 months. His probation was scheduled to end at the end of this month.
In his declaration to end his five-year marriage, Cornelius seemed frustrated when he wrote: “I am 72-years-old. I have significant health issues. I want to finalize this divorce before I die.”
He complained to a judge that he was paying temporary spousal support that “far exceeds guideline levels.”
At the time of the divorce proceedings, Cornelius reported that his total assets included a number of properties in Chicago and Los Angeles, a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, two Rolls-Royce automobiles, and a 1992 Mercedes Benz SEL.
The divorce finally was settled in May of 2009. Cornelius was required to pay $10,000 a month in spousal support, and among other things buy his ex-wife a home not exceeding $1,095, 000, and pay college tuition fees for his adopted daughter, also named Viktoria.
“He didn’t want to give [his wife] a dime,’’ said a family member. “She caused him a lot of heartache and hadn’t been there for the majority of his success and hard work. But he had to and that burned through his skin. So many people told him not to marry her and he did. I think he was haunted by mistakes he could have avoided.’’
However, by 2010, things seemed to be picking up for the former host. He spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the release of a double-CD collection of Soul Train highlights, and announced he was developing a feature film inspired by the TV show for Warner Bros.
“It wouldn’t be the Soul Train dance show, it would be more of a biographical look at the project,” he said. “It’s going to be about some of the things that really happened on the show. I had a discussion with Eddie Murphy not long ago, and he liked the documentary so much that he suggested that he might want to do something in terms of the show’s relationship with James Brown — if not play him, then just do a kind of vignette.”
Last September, Cornelius was back in Chicago at a concert to honor the 40th anniversary of Soul Train. There, Cornelius was presented with an honorary street sign with his name and the Soul Train logo on it. “This is the biggest thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
That same night, Swain, who is now a Los Angeles-based director, screened his documentary, Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America.
“I had never seen him more happy and full of joy,” said Swain. “I felt like his love and respect particularly after the documentary. That meant the world to me. He was my hero. My life wouldn’t be what is if it wasn’t for Don Cornelius.”
Los Angeles Sentinel editor Danny Bakewell said he had lunch at Spago with Cornelius and his son, Anthony, in late December, and never suspected his longtime friend was struggling.
“We were talking about family and friends,” he said. “His granddaughter is a big-time volleyball player. It wasn’t about how terrible everything is. I didn’t get the impression he had any major health problems or concerns. He moved slower and talked slower but he was happy and alert.”
But, according to a family member, Cornelius had several cancer scares in recent months.
“He wasn’t a well man, but he was a true man’s man,” said a friend. “He didn’t like being sick and not being able to do for himself. His health had taken a downturn the last few months and he wouldn’t tell me what it was. He didn’t want to complain about his woes.’’
In the end, family members say, losing money to his ex-wife in his last divorce was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“He lost it over that situation and that marriage,’’ says a friend. “He’d been in poor health for years for several reasons but that marriage really took him down. It drained his energy and his way of thinking. He was sinking deeper and deeper into depression and there wasn’t much anyone could do. He wanted that marriage to work so badly and then it just fell apart and became very ugly along the way.’’
“He’d accomplished so much, and to have it fall apart like it did with so many negative stories about his actions in his marriage,” he added. “That stuff hurt him and he felt it hurt his reputation as a serious businessman who’d changed the music industry.”