What could be better suited to a large, shiny, coffee-table book than Soul Train?
Everything about the old TV show feels tailor-made for the coffee-table format: gleaming grooves, stunning dance moves, amazing outfits, beautiful—or, at the very least, sweaty—stars.
So now we have such a book, with prose handled by The Roots’ drummer Questlove, a well-known soul aficionado…and Soul Train devotee. For parents out there: Questlove says Soul Train was the only show his parents allowed him to watch as a child “except Sesame Street.” Look how well he’s doing for himself.
The only thing this book lacks? A pair of speakers—or better yet, speakers connected to a video screen. Presumably, that deficiency will be remedied when the Soul Train Deluxe edition comes out some decades from now.
Don Cornelius, visionary host, originally worked as a back-up radio DJ and news-reader in Chicago. On the side, he put together concerts that brought local musical groups into one high school, then on to another school, then to a next, in a series. It “felt like a train” said Cornelius, and just like all trains, it cost too much.
Cornelius adapted, creating a TV show instead, with dancing teenagers. What started “small,” “no frills,” and “black and white,” soon developed into a five-day-a-week live show syndicated in eight large cities. “Fourteen months after the first local airing,” Soul Train aired nationally Oct. 2, 1971, and eventually moved from Chicago to star central: Los Angeles.
Casual dabblers in Soul Train likely know it best from the show’s first decade, when it brought on most of the big names in soul and funk—Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, James Brown, the Jackson 5—and explicitly endorsed products for African Americans during advertisement segments. Soul Train represented “[t]he first time that many people had ever seen Black Americans at the center of an entertainment television show,” writes Questlove. It also provided “some of the first opportunities to buy television advertising and create ads targeting the African American audience.”
Music, culture, technology, fashion and dance moves changed greatly between Soul Train’s syndicated debut in 1971 and its final episode in 2006. The show changed alongside them.
Disco arrived on Soul Train at the end of the ‘70s, and neither Don C. nor Questlove approved. For Questlove, the show really hit its stride post-disco, from 1984 to 1988. (Sadly, Cornelius killed himself in 2012; we’ll never know his favorite seasons.) This period coincided with ‘80s pop domination by Prince—or his affiliates the Time, Jesse Johnson, Sheila E, and Vanity 6—and the Jacksons, Michael plus Janet. It also happens to be when hip-hop began its own rise to the top. These two trends excited the heck out of Questlove…though Cornelius generally found them baffling, if not off-putting (aside from the members of the Jackson family, whom he adored).
During these years, Soul Train also transformed from a show primarily focused on black music and a black audience to something broader. Cornelius brought in all kinds of synth-driven pop—the Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, a-ha, and a number of white American acts with varying degrees of R&B influence: Hall & Oates, the Doobie Brothers, the Eagles’ Don Henley. Advertisements became more homogenized. Scantily clad female dancers got more air time.
Moving into the ‘90s, the show functioned as “a utopian clubhouse for every ethnic group with a common love of rhythmic expression.” It featured performances from Babyface and Teddy Riley, two of the more successful figures in R&B’s last 20 years, plus more and more rappers, and future pop stars: Usher, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey.
Cornelius stepped down from his role as guide on the “hippest trip in America” in 1993, and though the show kept going, history finds Soul Train and Don C. inextricably intertwined. For the purposes of this book, one does not proceed without the other.
Soul Train DVDs ought to be part of any collection. Books like this should too. The show had a lot of style, but it’s crucial to remember that it had even more substance, executing a radical agenda simply by carving out space on TV for African Americans.
Cornelius’ efforts didn’t fix the disparity in television representation, of course. Back in January, The New York Times reported that the actress Kerry Washington, from the show Scandal, “became the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years.” The one before Washington? “Teresa Graves,” writes Questlove, an “undercover cop in Get Christie Love!, which had its debut in 1974,” just three years after Soul Train went national. This book points to battles still being fought.
Like all good history, Soul Train shows us not just how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go.
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today, and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and can be found at signothetimesblog.