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âSoul Trainâ: The Hippest Trip

Last February, when the deep-voiced former Soul Train host and creator Donald Cortez Cornelius went to that great announcing gig in the sky, he left behind an amazing legacy. Certainly, whether Black, White or other, many folks of a certain age grew up with his hip television program beaming into their lives every Saturday morning.

Initially inspired by American Bandstand (created by Cornelius’s lifetime rival, Dick Clark), Soul Train was a televisual transporter machine into the land of hot grooves and cool moves. Beginning as a local Chicago-based show in 1970, whose very first guests included the Chi-Lites and the Emotions, within a matter of months (thanks to the advertising investment of the Johnson Products Company), the program was on its way. On October 2, 1971, Soul Train was propelled into syndication in seven markets and continued to grow like a wild Afro.

For the next 35 years, Soul Train guided us towards the best in Black music, fashions, language and hair products.

As a child of the 1970s—which for many constitutes as Soul Train’s golden era—I can remember many winter mornings when all I needed for comfort was a big bowl of oatmeal and the program’s animated train boogying down the track. As the soulful theme song “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” blared, I crept closer to the glowing television so I could mentally record the entire experience.

Although I read TV Guide as though it was the Bible, I usually skipped the Soul Train entry so I could be surprised when the musical guests were named. From Gladys Knight and the Pips to the Jackson 5, Al Green to Barry White, Curtis Mayfield to David Bowie, everybody who was anybody (as well as a few who would remain nobodies) took the time to appear on the show and lip-synch their hits. And the studio audience of teenage dancers always did their thing.

Yet in reality, while Soul Train gave exposure to wonderful musical acts, it was primarily a dance show where sharply dressed youngsters named Damita Jo Freeman, Shabba Doo, Jody Watley, Fred “Rerun” Berry, Rosie Perez and Cheryl Song introduced the world to their often crazy, sometimes subtle, but always innovative steps. Although Don only paid them in KFC lunches (literally), everyone, including the show’s creator, knew how important they were to Soul Train.

Less than a year after Cornelius’s death from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head following years of medical problems and physical pain, two powerhouse books documenting the long-running program have just been released. But instead of competing with one another like the dancers on the show, Love, Peace and Soul by Ericka Blount Danois and Soul Train: The Music, Dance and Style of a Generation by the Roots’ drummer Questlove serve as the perfect companion pieces.

‘The Hippest Trip in America’ doc

‘The Hippest Trip in America’ doc

While Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s book is primarily a pictorial journey, a lush coffee-table book filled beautiful photographs and his commentaries and opinions, Danois’s volume takes a deeper, more journalistic approach to Soul Train. Danois detours from the tracks more than a few times to take the reader deeper into the side stories, back-stories and wild stories of Don Cornelius’s business dealings, various relationships, and the mechanics that steadily propelled the train for over three decades. 

Without a doubt, Questlove’s book is as ambitious as it is beautiful, but it stays firmly rooted within the perimeters of the show. “I’m possibly one of the few people with a PhD. in Soul Trainology who could do a book like this,” Questlove tells me via cell phone. Having just left an early rehearsal at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, he’s driving through midtown traffic.

“I was allowed into the Soul Train vaults and practically watched 600 episodes about four times each.” A fan of the show since he was a 2-year-old, years later the Philadelphia native used to buy bootleg VHS copies of the show whenever he toured Japan.

“Before the age of YouTube, I definitely knew I was one of those rare people who had about 400 to 500 episodes,” he says. “There was always footage of the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Beatles, but when you wanted to watch Rufus and Chaka Khan in those days, it was almost impossible to find that stuff.

“I was also using those episodes as a way of educating my crew. I showed them to Jill Scott, D’Angelo, Bilal, Erykah [Badu]. Me and the Soulquarian crew were inspired by what we saw. It is the perfect tutorial for people who are into fashion, movement and music.”

Although Questlove has many favorite episodes, from watching Al Green’s “holy ghost” moments to seeing hometown genius Patti LaBelle performing, he also cites the appearances of the Jackson 5 as the most memorable. “A lot of people speak on Michael Jackson prowess and the magic and the doors opening for him when he did the