BET Chairman and CEO Debra Lee appeared on CNN Newsroom this afternoon to reflect on the life and legacy of Don Cornelius, creator and host of the long-running TV show Soul Train. Cornelius was found dead this morning in his Sherman Oaks, California, home having suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
"Don Cornelius was such a pioneer in the music business," Lee said. "He gave exposure to African-American artists in the '70s, '80s and '90s that was not available in other outlets on TV. Our African-American artists could not get on American Bandstand and when Don Cornelius started Soul Train in 1970 he provided an outlet for our artists."
"[Cornelius] was able to create this show at a time when advertisers weren't supporting Black programming, at a time when TV wasn't very supportive," she continued. "I mean, other than Soul Train, the only thing on TV at the time was a show called Julia, which starred Diahann Carroll. So he did so much to uplift our artists and give us exposure and to really make Black music the music of young America.… He also paved the way for BET to exist, for us to have a show like Video Soul and now 106 and Park. He paved the way for the BET Awards. So we owe so much to this great man and it's a sad day in the music industry and the Black business community to have to see his death happen like this."
Lee also shared a personal story of Don's influence over young culture.
"I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, and every Saturday morning I had to get my chores done so I could watch Soul Train and learn the latest dances, hear the latest music, see the latest fashion," she shared. "He really had such a connection to youth culture…and the Soul Train show is just a legacy that will be there for him always.…"
Gladys Knight, who performed on the pilot episode of the show also appeared on CNN Newsroom this morning to honor Cornelius. She spoke of how he "opened up so many avenues for African-American artists" and how he always "encouraged us to be ourselves. That's why you got to see us talk the way that we talk, and dance the way that we danced."
Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin expressed her reference and respect for Don Cornelius in a statement.
"Don Cornelius! It’s so shocking and stunning. God bless him. He created a solid and broad foundation for young adults and adults alike to socialize dance and have good clean fun. He united the young adult community single-handedly and globally. In [Soul Train's] inception a young progressive brother set the pace and worldwide standard for young aspiring African-American men and entrepreneurs in TV — out of Chicago. He transcended cultural barriers among young adults. They become one. Everybody loved Soul Train and appreciated Don!"
Cornelius was 75 years old.
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(Photos from left: Kevin Parry / Wire Image, Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup)