I would strongly recommend that you watch VH1’s 2010 documentary on “Soul Train,” called “The Hippest Trip in America,” before reading the new book by Nelson George of the same title. George, a longtime pop music critic who has written histories of Motown and rhythm ‘n’ blues, does his best to convey through words the dance moves made famous by the program—waacking, popping, the boogaloo—but visualizing is not nearly as compelling as is actually seeing.
Unlike Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” which is known today for the many and varied acts that appeared on the show, from Danny and the Juniors to the Doors, “Soul Train” is recalled primarily for the extraordinary dances it introduced to America and Europe. “The dancing was the alpha and omega of the ‘Soul Train’ story,” writes George. “It is more important than (host) Don Cornelius’s slang, the scramble board, and even the stars who were gracing its stage.”
Young black viewers around the country—and more than a few Asians, Latinos, and Anglos—would watch the show in their bedrooms and living rooms, position themselves near a full-length mirror, and studiously attempt to recreate the latest twists, turns, stops, and starts displayed by the ultra-cool and confident dancers on the glittering set. The “Soul Train line” became one of the only widely adapted dance rituals in the history of American pop culture. I distinctly recall being part of them at more than one workplace holiday party in the late 1970s.
Debuting in October 1971, the middle of the funk era, and ending in 2006, when hip-hop was well into its second decade, “Soul Train” functioned as a kind of Broadway west for hundreds if not thousands of ambitious, good-looking, skilled young dancers, the vast majority of them black. The hopefuls would line up at the program’s Los Angeles studio with the intention of somehow, some way catching the attention of the talent scouts looking for that thing.
As George points out, a number of the male dancers were gay, but no one cared, least of all Don Cornelius. What counted was whether you were good, and even more important, original.
Ethnicity and race, however, were another matter. Anyone who watched “Soul Train” in the 1980s will recall Cheryl Song, the Asian dancer with hair that extended south to her thighs. Song was a novelty, not as much for her look as for her heritage. Everyone else on the dance floor was black.
In one of many interviews with Cornelius, who took his own life in 2012, George asked the delicate question about the dearth of white dancers on the program. Without any apparent irony, the former host said that in most cases, they just didn’t have the rhythm. He attributes the deficiency to nurture, not nature.
In the black community, explained Cornelius, “You start dancing as a toddler, and you learn that you must keep time with the music or else your parents will challenge you to do so. A lot of white people don’t get that kind of coaching.” So much for lessons in ballet and ballroom dancing.
George’s breezy book, which can be read in two sittings, is at its best when it stays close to the dance floor. Several of the dancers tell their own stories, in fascinating three- and four-page transcribed interviews. The dancers’ determination to get on the program, and what they experienced once they achieved that goal, is both a familiar and unusual twist on the idea of making it in show business.
Otherwise, George tries gamely to validate the claim of the book’s title. A case can certainly be made that through most of the 1970s, “Soul Train” was, in fact, the “Hippest Trip in America.” The show booked the top funk acts of the time—smooth, smartly-attired vocal groups along with 1960s favorites such as the Temptations, who were not yet finished making excellent records. David Bowie and Elton John also performed on “Soul Train” in the mid-1970s, early exceptions that music fans still recall to the “black-only” rule covering invited artists.
But the arrival of disco in 1975 represented a challenge, in terms of music, style, and the composition of the audience. Disco got more white people onto the dance floor than “Soul Train” ever had. African American disco artists such as Donna Summer were more popular with white than black record buyers. And whatever you think of disco fashion, it wasn’t what the kids were wearing on “Soul Train,” at least initially.
But the far more serious threat came from rap and hip-hop. In the beginning, Cornelius, who also created and produced “Soul Train,” had no more reason than did just about anyone else in America to believe that either genre had staying power.
To his ears, rap seemed repetitive, and, more important, anti-musical. Who would buy records of a performer mouthing nonsense lyrics to a canned beat lifted from some popular r’n’b song? Even worse, rappers reveled in their lowbrow fashion sense.
George includes two choice anecdotes in the book of Cornelius booking rap/hip-hop pioneers Kurtis Blow and the Sugarhill Gang on the program in 1980 and then essentially dismissing both acts during the post-performance interview. History has proven that the host swung and missed on this one.
It surprised me to learn that “Soul Train” had actually remained on the air until 2006. I would have assumed the program had ended a decade earlier.
Cornelius’s last years, which George wisely covers in a few pages, make for a sad tale. A tempestuous marriage to a much younger woman; charges of spousal abuse, to which Cornelius pleaded no contest; a bitter divorce; and a variety of mental and physical health issues. On February 2, 2012, Cornelius put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. He was 75.
A day later, “Soul Train” lovers in New York and other American cities bravely wore classic 1970s fashions in public and organized flash mobs in tribute to the show’s host and creator. As George, who attended the New York event, put it:
“Don Cornelius brought us joy, and it was with joy he was remembered.”