Don was born September 27, 1936, on the south side of Chicago, IL. He attended DuSable High School and after graduating in 1954 he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. After serving 18 months in Korea, Don would go back to Chicago and work various jobs to make ends meet. In 1966 with a few hundred dollars in his bank account and two sons to provide for Don decided to quit his day job and pursue television broadcasting. That same year he would land a job with WVON an announcer and news reporter.
The following year Don would join Chicago news WCIU-TV and host a program called A Blacks View of the News. In 1970 Don launched Soul Train which would gain national attention, moving the show to Los Angeles by 1971. Don had realized that there were no TV stations dedicated to soul music. Soul Train introduced a lot of African American musicians and dancers to the public and white America, showing blacks in a positive light. This was significant being that it was during the civil rights movement. Prior to Soul Train Soul Train is reportedly the longest running nationally syndicated program in American television history with over 1,100 episodes spanning from 1970 to 2006.
On February 1, 2012, Los Angeles officers responded to a report of a shooting and found Cornelius in his home with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead by the Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner, he was 75. According to former Soul Train host Shemar Moore, Cornelius may have been suffering from early onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and his health had been in decline. An autopsy found that Cornelius had been suffering from seizures during the last 15 years of his life, complications of a brain operation he underwent in 1982 to correct a congenital deformity in his cerebral arteries. He admitted that he was never quite the same after that surgery and it was a factor in his decision to retire from hosting Soul Train in 1993