Soul Train was the groundbreaking phenomenon that gave Black America a seat at the TV table. Long before The Jeffersons, Good Times, or What’s Happening?, (which would feature Train line dancer Fred Barry as “ReRun,”) the weekly show, which began in Chicago before moving to break big in LA, was appointment television for people of color in the Seventies.
For white kids from the suburbs, it was a totally different experience. It was a glimpse into a culture and style worlds away. It was, quite simply, like nothing I had ever seen growing up. It was hypnotic. The opening animation sequence was always a killer – especially following the Saturday morning barrage of cartoons, but for the most part, I mostly tuned in for the live (OK…lip-synched) performances.The afros and clothes were gravy. Indeed, I was shocked to learn that the show lasted until 2006; for me, that show is indelibly set in the Seventies.
That legendary show and it’s impact on America, music, dance and fashion is examined in Nelson George’s book The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style.
Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye all graced the stage, but it was the “Soul Train gang” — the audience of dancers — that were the real stars of the show, along, of course, with the distinctive-voiced host and creator, Don Cornelius. Those dancers —who would include in their ranks actress Rosie Perez, pop singer Jody and rapper/producer Nick Cannon — would vie for prime dance positions and the coveted “Soul Train line.” Look ‘em up on YouTube; you won’t be disappointed.
Although music plays a major role in George’s book isn’t a music book, per se. Rather, it examines how music played a “connector” role in black culture via Cornelius’ weekly presentation and it’s illuminating to hear how positively and deeply the show resonated with Black America. The “business” of the show is fascinating reading. George briefly touches on the producer’s relationship with Dick Clark and American Bandstand; in fact, I would like to have known more about this complicated relationship but it’s apparently a subject Cornelius kept a lid on. More notable is his mis-reading of hip-hop’s importance. While he would eventually come around, Don Cornelius was decidedly old-school and ruled the Soul Train roost almost as a parent would and the show was clearly a reflection, in part, of his taste in music. Oh. A Spoiler alert: Michael Jackson did not invent the "moon walk;" that was a "Train line" dancer and it was called "the backslide," kids!
As Nick Cannon observes in the book “I always see Soul Train as that destination for our culture. Whatever was going on in African-American culture you saw on Soul Train for many years...When aliens come in about two thousand years, and they want to see what was going down in black life, they could watch all episodes of Soul Train, and they’ll see on that show we all got down. Our fashion, the way we walk, the way we talk, the way we move, what type of music we listen to, what was going on in politics…
A fun, enjoyable and informative read, Cannon further sums up what “the hippest trip in America” was really all about: ”It was us having a good time and enjoying each other.”
Peace, love and soul...it’s definitely worth the trip.
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