At its artistic peak in the early '70s, "Soul Train" may have been the most aesthetically triumphant program in television history. With exquisite camera work showcasing the creative, kinetic energy of impossibly fashionable Los Angeles teenagers reacting to the most powerful music of the 20th century, it was a genuinely brilliant explosion of color, movement and sound.
Factor in the cultural importance of it being a black-owned independent production primarily sponsored by a black-owned business, and the long-running syndicated dance show is clearly a subject that should be appreciated not simply as a funky, campy slice of nostalgia, but as a milestone in American culture worthy of reverence, celebration and scholarly study.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
But the appreciation it deserves has been compromised by what's at the soul of "Soul Train." The show's black essence has complicated research, as marginalized populations rarely get the attention in mainstream media and the academy that they deserve, making the paper trail of press coverage and research frustratingly thin. Further muddying the path are traditions of shady music industry shenanigans, which make it hard to get forthright answers out of veterans of the rock 'n' soul trenches. (I've interviewed dozens of disc jockeys from the 1950s and '60s, and none admits knowing anything about payola.)
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to understanding the history of "Soul Train" is the wizard behind the magic, Don Cornelius. The drive, stubbornness and fire that allowed the Chicago radio newscaster to turn seemingly unrealistic ambitions into a powerful multimedia empire also made him, at times, suspicious, guarded, bitter, jealous and confrontational. His friends celebrate him as loyal and generous, but some colleagues and underlings (including many dancers on the show) found him distant and cold. That he spent his last years dealing with domestic unrest, illness and depression further complicated efforts to get the genuine "Soul Train" story out of the only man who truly knew it.
The new, gorgeous coffee table collection "Soul Train: The Music, Dance and Style of a Generation" avoids these roadblocks by ignoring them. Rather than presenting a much-needed comprehensive history, the book presents a much-deserved tribute. The hundreds of vivid, thrilling photographs of Cornelius, the dancers and scores of legendary performers successfully capture the joy, the absurdity, the majesty and the musicality of the show. Mostly previously unpublished (though Chicagoans will recognize many images from the exhibition that accompanied Millennium Park's 40th Anniversary "Soul Train" concert in 2011), the pictures are culled from the show's archives. The vibrant images, excellent printing and whimsical design are the visual equivalent of a 12-piece funk band hitting its groove.
The book is officially endorsed by the current owners of "Soul Train" (the afterword has its "Soul Train" CEO laying out the integrated media strategy for the show's planned revival), which compromises its value as a critical reflection on the show. It avoids any mention of unrest or imperfection in the "Soul Train" universe. But this is brilliantly handled by Questlove, leader of the Philadelphia hip-hop group The Roots and author of the book's text. Perhaps the most passionate fan of the show on earth, Questlove creates a shrine to a show he watched faithfully from infancy, a program that had deep meaning for his family, friends and community.
Combining the encyclopedic knowledge of a true geek and the passion of a religious zealot, Questlove is the perfect voice to give meaning to these still photos. One of the book's greatest strengths is its proud lack of objectivity, allowing the author to let passions gush as he reflects on Patti LaBelle's live vocals, Damita Jo Freeman's graceful funkiness, Stevie Wonder's improvisations, or the Fat Boys' ability to charm Cornelius. Focusing on personal reflections also allows Questlove to narrow the history of the show to just the years he's interested in, only briefly touching on the show's local roots in Chicago and ignoring the 13 seasons after Cornelius stopped hosting in 1993. He offers extensive, act-by-act coverage to all the rappers who graced the stage in the 1980s, providing a well-reasoned, almost convincing argument that the show's aesthetic peak was the mid-'80s rather than the early '70s (although his assertion that New Edition is in any way superior to the Jackson 5 is just crazy talk).
In "Love, Peace, and Soul," a book that's equally passionate about the show but that offers a broader view, Ericka Blount Danois takes on the challenge of documenting the complicated back story of "Soul Train." She wonderfully addresses some of the show's most important — and too often ignored — aspects.
Danois captures the voices and stories of the dancers, who were the heart of "Soul Train" but were rarely given a forum to tell their tales. Like Questlove, she does a nice job relating the importance of spectatorship to the show's legacy, opening with a vivid recounting of her family gathering around the clothes hanger-antenna-assisted TV to share the communal alchemy of watching vibrant black TV in the era before BET and TV One. She's a little too loose with some drug and sex anecdotes involving Cornelius (which are credible, but I'd be inclined to source salacious stories, rather than state them as facts). Yet Danois' writing is impressively sensitive and emotional in addressing the days leading up to, and the repercussions after, Cornelius' 2012 suicide.
But because this story is so important, some aspects of the book are frustrating. Since Danois demonstrates strong writing skills and a good researcher's work ethic (she contacted me repeatedly, checking on Chicago sources from "Soul Train" research I did for the Chicago Reader, and she thoroughly vetted a number of important figures), I'm almost angry at the publisher for allowing so many elements of this book to be subpar.
Obviously, in the current publishing economy, editors and fact-checkers cannot devote the hours they once did, but I expect more from Backbeat, an imprint of respected sheet music publisher Hal Leonard. The title, with its subtitle and sub-subtitle — "Love, Peace, and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America's Favorite Dance Show Soul Train: Classic Moments" — is absurd. "Classic Moments" would be an appropriate phrase on a best-of DVD, not a scholarly study. The book's bibliography lists interview subjects alphabetically by first names. It feels as if no one even looked over the proofs before publication.
There are so many tiny errors that a proofreader should have caught. Obviously "American Bandstand," that icon of the bobby-soxers era, did not first become a national program in 1967 (it was in 1957). Clearly the original "Soul Train" set was not actually 10 feet by 10 feet. While this may seem like nitpicking, the problem is that when Danois' original research delves into unexplored territory — like the extensive behind-the-scenes story of the "Soul Train"-sponsored act Shalamar, or Danois' fascinating exploration of the show's failed expansion with a record label, San Francisco nightclub and dance school — I want to be empowered and excited by these new revelations. But it's hard to accept them as facts when a few pages later the release date of "Thriller" is incorrect.
Perhaps a few confused dates and a hinky index shouldn't matter so much, but I am sensitive about "Soul Train" getting second-class citizen treatment because I treasure it so much as a Chicago-born (which Danois documents well), aesthetically magnificent, American original. In a funkier world there would be countless books, conferences and studies about "Soul Train." Until we live in that world, these two volumes, which share a sincerely passionate appreciation of the hippest trip in TV history, are a good start. Hopefully Questlove's book does well enough to liberate more rare images (and old episodes and perhaps even the promised reboot). And hopefully Danois' book does well enough to garner a second, amended edition — with at least one less subtitle.
Jake Austen is editor of Roctober magazine and co-author of "Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop." He lives in Chicago.
By Questlove, Harper Design, 288 pages, $45
"Love, Peace, and Soul"
By Ericka Blount Danois, Backbeat, 272 pages, $24.99Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun