Chicagoans – along with the rest of the nation – took time to remember Don Cornelius, the honey-voiced host of "Soul Train," after reports of his death surfaced Wednesday morning.
"Don Cornelius is a cultural artifact in America," said Che "Rhymefest" Smith, a Chicago-based musician and former aldermanic candidate. "He's also a pioneer of black television and the building of community through music."
Cornelius' impact, and the impact of "Soul Train," which got its start in a tiny WCIU studio in the Chicago Board of Trade building in 1970, was undeniable. The show featured groundbreaking elements for the time, young black men and women dancing and listening to performances of artists like Gladys Knight and Al Green. The line dance on "Soul Train" became a set piece, with celebrities like Nick Cannon, Rosie Perez and Walter Payton appearing. Cornelius, a former radio DJ, ended each broadcast with his signature line: "We wish you love, peace and soul."
News reports Wednesday said that Cornelius, 75, was found dead of an apparent suicide in L.A. The responses from celebrities and fans poured in.
Chicago artist Common tweeted: "A true pioneer and trailblazer to the biz! Thanks Don for everything!"
Also on Twitter, Smashing Pumpkins front man and Chicago native Billy Corgan said: "Sad to hear about the passing of Don Cornelius of Soul Train fame. Grateful to him that he turned me on to so much great music."
Cornelius' Chicago roots – which included his formative years living on the South Side and his later recognition with a street here named in his honor – prompted memories from local musicians, politicians and everyday fans.
"I was blessed to have known Don over the years, and he was an unceasing and tireless supporter of my work. But, more than all of this, Don was a personal friend," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. in a release to the media. "A part of my soul has traveled with him today. My love, thoughts and prayers are with his family."
Chicagoan Garrard McClendon, host of "Garrard McClendon Live" and a Chicago State University professor, said his memories of Cornelius and "Soul Train" were so rich he hardly knew where to begin memorializing them.
"Here's a small little local show in Chicago practically done in a studio the size of a small locker room," McClendon said. Cornelius "gets credit for mainstreaming soul music and soul music artists … I'm crying this morning. I'm like, no, this did not happen."
Rhymefest said he would go home and watch his rare DVDs of early "Soul Train" episodes in Cornelius's honor.
And Neal Sabin, president of content and networks at Weigel Broadcasting, which owns the network where "Soul Train" got its start, said WCIU plans to memorialize Cornelius with a marathon of vintage "Soul Train" episodes on Saturday night.
Sabin personally remembers watching the show growing up.
"My memories of the show are of a suburban white kid growing up in Skokie seeing a whole new world on television," he said. "It was a phenomenon."
ggarvey@Tribune.com | @gcgarvey