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Entertainment Music & Nightlife Midnight Sun

Baltimore writer's research filled with 'Soul'

Some show up with pie or casserole, but Baltimore writer Ericka Blount Danois was told to bring her recently purchased "Best of Soul Train" DVDs to her family's Thanksgiving dinner in 2009.

When Todd Steven Burroughs, her Morgan State University teaching colleague at the time, also pressed to borrow the DVDs, Danois realized the influential variety show from the '70s still deeply resonated with her generation. Then the wheels began to turn.

"There weren't that many shows that showcased black culture in the way 'Soul Train' did, so it was a very big deal for us," said Danois, 42, who lives next to Belvedere Square. "I wanted to find out what happened to the show, what happened to those people, just out of curiosity."

After 18 months of developing a proposal, Danois set out to write her first book, "Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America's Favorite Dance Show 'Soul Train': Classic Moments." The book, released in August by Backbeat Books, was a personal project, she said.

"Every Saturday morning, my sister and I watched 'Soul Train.' If we were outside, everybody that lived in the neighborhood would go inside to watch," said Danois, who will discuss and sign copies of the book at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture this coming Saturday.

At the heart of the show was its charismatic founder and host, Don Cornelius. Danois planned to make him a significant source for her book, and in September 2011, she met Cornelius in Chicago to gauge the famously private figure's interest in participating. Danois left confident that Cornelius would talk, but the two never got the chance to meet again.

Less than five months later, Danois sat in her doctor's office as her phone repeatedly buzzed with message alerts. Worried it was an emergency, she finally picked it up to read what everyone was trying to tell her: Cornelius, at age 75, had been found dead in his Los Angeles home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

She compared her initial reaction — shock and disbelief — to how she felt when Michael Jackson died, Danois said.

"That was so unusual," said Danois, who grew up in Washington's Mount Pleasant. "I don't know too many iconic entrepreneurs to commit suicide at that late age."

Then the journalist inside Danois, who has written for The Baltimore Sun, The New York Times and Spin, began to panic.

"I thought, 'Oh, God, the project is over,' " she said.

But her nagging sense of curiosity surrounding the show and its many elements (What are the dancers doing now? Why did the show connect with viewers of all backgrounds? Who picked those hot pants?) led Danois to continue interviewing nearly everyone involved with the show except Cornelius.

She finished the nearly 250-page book by filling it with behind-the-scenes anecdotes and humorous facts not all "Soul Train" fans knew. For instance, Barry White's daughter considered Cornelius her uncle, and "After the Dance," Marvin Gaye's 1976 ballad, was about a tryst between a "Soul Train" dancer and the singer.

And then there were the dancers — the attractive and anonymous hip-movers many tuned in solely to see. Danois learned they considered it a privilege to appear on "Soul Train."

"One of them told me he would fly every other week from New Jersey to California to dance on the show, and they weren't getting paid," Danois said. "If you made it to 'Soul Train,' you had arrived, so to speak."

Danois is the mother of two young, music-loving daughters, and said part of the reason she wrote "Love, Peace, and Soul" was to thoroughly explain an important part of her childhood to them. While her daughters are more interested in Ariana Grande and Lorde, Danois has not given up hope they will one day fully appreciate "Soul Train" and the cultural impact it had all across the country.

"It was an experience for us as black kids growing up in the city. We came inside to watch that because we didn't have much else," she said. "It's just a part of American history in the way "[American] Bandstand" and the rest of those shows are."

If you go

Author Ericka Blount Danois will discuss and sign copies of "Love, Peace, and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America's Favorite Dance Show Soul Train: Classic Moments" at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15, at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. Program is included with museum admission. For more information, call 443-263-1800 or go to rflewismuseum.org.


Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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