Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style
By Nelson George
William Morrow. 239 pp. $27.99
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Reviewed by Dan DeLuca
In The Hippest Trip in America, Nelson George's pop-cultural history of the long-running African American dance music show Soul Train, there's a chapter called "TSOP."
It chronicles the connection between the program founded by super-suave host Don Cornelius, and Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Philadelphia International Records. That relationship resulted in the 1974 hit "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)," credited to MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother). "TSOP" served as the Soul Train theme for much of its 31/2-decade run.
George writes that "the music coming out of Philadelphia became as essential to the 1970s as the Godfather movies and the Watergate break-in."
True enough, though much the same could be said of Soul Train itself. The show, which started in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles, aired from 1971 to 2006. But the biggest impact made by Cornelius' brainchild - which was, in his own words, the creation of "a black American Bandstand" - was in the Me Decade.
It was in the pre-MTV '70s that R&B, funk, soul, and pop artists such as James Brown, Marvin Gaye, the O'Jays, Barry White, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, the Jackson 5, and Gladys Knight & the Pips found a syndicated TV home on Soul Train.
Usually lip-synching on the half-hour dance party presided over by the cool, classy, and immaculately turned out Cornelius, African American artists - and trendsetting dancers who moved to the music - gained national exposure and cultural clout via the show.
Cornelius was a visionary, a Korean War veteran turned radio announcer turned TV broadcaster who understood that though advertisers were targeting white teens through vehicles such as Bandstand, African Americans were left out of the equation. With Soul Train, Cornelius' "genius was seeing that the time was right for a more explicitly 'soul' - that, is black - show."
The show was a success from the start, with the 6-foot-4 Cornelius commanding respect in interviews, a man of few words who made them count, as in his phrase: "You can bet your last money, it's gonna be a stone gas, honey!"
Unpaid, and with no wardrobe allowance, many hustling Soul Train dancers nonetheless took advantage to build entertainment industry careers. Among the famous names who got their start dancing in the Soul Train line were singers Jody Watley and Nick Cannon, and actress Rosie Perez.
Chapters are devoted to dancers such as Nieci Payne, about whom the Commodores wrote "Brick House"; and Philadelphia native Tyrone Proctor, who grew up in West Oak Lane and brought the dance style known as waacking out of the gay subculture on Soul Train. George describes the dance: "Waacking isolated body parts . . . . Using them to move through space like summer fans in church ladies' hands, with great speed and an exaggerated femininity, elbow bent and arms twirling."
The Hippest Trip in America shares a title with a 2010 VH1 documentary for which many of its interviews were originally conducted. The film was made two years before Cornelius shot himself to death at age 75 in 2012.
George, a longtime music-business authority who's also a filmmaker, does an excellent job recounting the history of black music and pop culture in the Soul Train era. He includes chapters about fashion, Cornelius' conflict with Dick Clark, and white guest stars, including afroed singer Gino Vannelli, who was "the Jackie Robinson of white singers when it comes to Soul Train."
Soul Train survived until the mid-1990s despite many challenges.
The rise of MTV, after early resistance, made crossover to white audiences possible for black artists. Many major acts - such as Prince, who did not appear on the show until 1994 - avoided Soul Train because they didn't want to be seen as catering to black audiences. And hip-hop - particularly gangsta rap - was never a comfortable fit for the old-school Cornelius.
Another Philadelphia connection in Hippest Trip is a chapter titled "Ahmir Thompson: Soul Train fanatic," in which superfan and Roots drummer Questlove shares his thoughts. Questlove's own coffee-table book, the picture-packed Soul Train: The Music, Dance & Style of a Generation, came out last year.
George opens and closes with the memorials for Cornelius in February 2012. Fans donned afro wigs and platform shoes in cities across the country.
In Manhattan, not too many celebrants showed, but "what the New York gathering lacked in numbers it made up for in enthusiasm," George writes. A far bigger bash was thrown outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where a Guinness Book of World Records mark was set for the world's longest Soul Train line.
Popular YouTube clips for the show have given Soul Train a second life. In addition to George's and Questlove's books, a third by Ericka Blount Danois, Love, Peace, and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America's Favorite Dance Show Soul Train: Classic Moments, came out last year. A Soul Train cruise featuring acts such Patti LaBelle and the Delfonics sails every winter. There is talk of reviving the show, with ex-dancer Cannon the most likely host. And in April, it was announced Soul Train would soon boogie to Broadway.