Dance Dance Revolution: Nelson George on 'Soul Train'

The author of a new book on the 1970s dance show weighs in on how 'Soul Train' changed America

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Soul Train
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For a generation of kids, Saturday morning at 11am was appointment-television time. You put away your cereal bowl and switched from cartoons or pro-wrestling to a channel a little further down the dial. After a minute or two, you'd finally see that signature animated train — a funky, pulsing engine grooving down inner-city elevated tracks (and later, around the world), puffing out rainbow-colored smoke. Then a high-pitched voice screamed out the words you'd waited all week to hear: "It's the Sooooouuullll Traaaaaiiiiiinnnn!"

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From 1971 to 1993, dapper host Don Cornelius would showcase lip-synced and live performances of musical artists ranging from basso-voiced R&B crooner Barry White to hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow, all of whom would come to define the ever-changing sound of Black America — and thus, by extension, all of America. (Cornelius would step down as host in '93 and serve as a behind-the-scenes facilitator for the show up until its cancellation in 2006.) But as cultural critic and author Nelson George points out in his new book, The Hippest Trip in America, the syndicated show did more than introduce TV audiences to the African-American soul, funk, disco and rap musicians of the day. The "Black American Bandstand" (a term Cornelius viewed as both an insult and a compliment) served as a global ambassador of black culture, style and dance, spreading the aesthetic and sensibility of Southern California's African-American community one TV set at a time.

Rolling Stone spoke to George about the legacy of the show, its enigmatic host, its influence on hip-hop and contemporary dance, and what Broadway's Soul Train musical needs if it wants to get it right.

What's your earliest memory of Soul Train?
As with a lot of folks, it was a big part of my Saturday-morning ritual — you know, the Underdog cartoons go off and Soul Train comes on! My sister and I watched it religiously. After it was on, you'd go to the playground on Saturdays, and you'd see all these kids trying to imitate the moves they'd see on the show. Later, when I got older, I'd go to house parties on Saturday night — and it all the people I used to see on the playground, now dressed like the Soul Train dancers but still trying to bust the same moves they saw earlier. [Laughs] So it's not like I have an early memory of Soul Train; it's some of my earliest memories, period.

For a lot of people, the show was both a cultural pacesetter and a window into a world they weren't seeing anywhere else. 
Exactly. You had this entire other world of black style and black music being beamed into houses every Saturday…for a lot of people, this was the first exposure to a large spectrum of black life. Even the commercials they would run made an impression: I know people who, when you bring up Soul Train, the first thing they mention are the Afro-Sheen commercials! [Laughs] It was an immersive experience. 

Keep in mind, it was a regional thing as well…all the colors and the style were very Southern California-based, so you'd see outfits that were much more flashy and flamboyant than you might see in the black communities of Chicago, or New York, or Philadelphia. So in the same way that dance styles like popping and locking, or waacking, traveled around the country because of the show, the same thing happened with fashion. One person wears something wild on the dance floor, and soon, you'd see it popping up everywhere.

People also forget that BET was not a national channel until the 1990s…it took them a while to become the powerhouse that they are today. So starting with the funk and soul era, through the rise of disco and Prince/Rick James Eighties, right up through the New Jack Swing era, Soul Train was were you found black culture on TV. You can chart urban fashion by watching the show.

The book project originated with a VH-1 documentary, right? 
Well, not quite. What happened was, VH-1 did the doc (also called The Hippest Trip in America) a few years ago, when Don was still alive. After Don died [in 2012], I was approached  by [the publisher] William Marrow about doing a book on Soul Train. I thought, Well, Don is the central storyteller here, and he's no longer around to say, this is how it happened. I have a good relationship with VH-1, though — I just worked on a documentary for them called Finding the Funk — so we made a deal where I could use the transcripts of the filmmakers' interviews with Don for the book. I had that as a backbone for my own research when I started talking to the dancers and people around the show.

As you were researching the book, what did you come across that surprised you? 
There was an era of Soul Train, roughly around 1982-1984, where Don was grappling with the impact of MTV, and he started having bands on the show that you would not have imagined would have appeared on Soul Train in a million years. I wasn't watching the show as much then, so a lot of the New Wave-y acts like Duran Duran that ended up playing the show…it was the first time I was seeing them. I'd dig into the archives and be like, "Wait, the Police were on Soul Train? Really? Oh yeah, there they are." [Laughs]

The other thing was that Soul Train was often referred to having a family atmosphere behind the scenes, and that Don was a very warm figure. What I ended up finding out, however, was that he was actually rather aloof. Very few of the dancers, even those who'd' been on the show for years, were close to him. Marco De Santiago, who was on the show from the late Seventies to the early Nineties, talked about having a very stand-offish relationship with him. He seemed to keep a sense of distance between himself and the people on the show, which felt a little shocking. He had a close circle of friends, just not a very wide circle of friends.

You mention in the book that you interviewed him a number of times in the 1980s…did he strike you as a little distant and aloof ?
Oh, I always felt like I was being sized up. I never felt like I was the one running the interview, let me just out it you that way. [Laughs

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He was close to some of the artists…
The older artists for sure, like Barry White and the O'Jays. There's a very clubby, chummy vibe in some of the interviews in the early Seventies. The younger artists…you can tell when you watch some of the later episodes, he's hasn't bothered to research who he's talking to. He doesn't care. He's just not feeling it. At all.

You can really sense this once Soul Train moves into the hip-hop era. The show supported hip-hop early on, bringing Kurtis Blow and the Sugarhill Gang on when rap was in its infancy, but….
Yeah, by the time we get to Snoop Dogg in the book, there's the sense that this is not his music. But look, people need to remember that Soul Train was really a daytime TV program. If you had N.W.A., Snoop and Tupac on his show, you're going to have nothing but a million bleeps. 

But I think it was more that the stuff they were talking about in those songs, the sensibility that was being put forth…it just didn't jibe with Don. I really do think that there's a correlation between him stepping down from hosting the show and the rise of this new music. He still ran the show, but clearly the idea of hosting a show and having to interview gangsta rappers was somewhat distasteful to him.

By this point, hip-hop had it's own Soul Train on MTV, minus the dancing.
Yo! MTV Raps, right. Also, there was The Arsenio Hall Show; Hall's first TV appearance, by the way, was on Soul Train. The whole notion of being the host of Black Hollywood, which Don represented for a long time, was something Arsenio used right from the beginning. So you have MTV siphoning off the hip-hop audience and Arsenio as the embodiment of this younger, hipper black culture…it's a case of the pioneer being lapped by those who he inspired.

Would you say the same thing happened with hip-hop and dance? The book talks about all these moves that became the foundation for breakdancing being worked out on Soul Train by various dancers in the Seventies.
There was a bit more give-and-take there. I think that hip-hop borrowed aspects of those dances the same way it borrowed other aspects of culture and made things it's own. I used to think hip-hop was a revolution; now I firmly believe it's an evolution. You can certainly see a lot of what would become the canon of hip-hop dance moves on those early- to mid-period episodes of Soul Train. But a lot of the moves specific to breakdancing, like headspinning…you don't really see kids doing that anymore. Moves like "the Robot" and moonwalking, they're still in circulation. 

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Its influence seems to be everywhere.
Questlove tells a story in the book about going to Japan with the Roots and being given a trunk full of Soul Train VHS tapes and DVDs. You can't see a new Soul Train every week on TV now, but the old clips that are floating out there have been watched hundreds of thousands of times by people. I was just talking to Tyrone Proctor, one of the original dancers, and he's flying to South Korea in May to teach a waacking class; he's traveling to Hong Kong and mainland China after that. It's a global phenomenon now.

Back in the 1970s — and even into the 1980s — you had to study those moves on the fly. It was one and done…maybe there would be a rerun maybe, but that was it. But the fact is, people now have the chance to share clips and really study them, and I genuinely think that's part of why the show has endured. Some of these dances go back close to 50 years now, and they're still being taught. People still want to learn how to pop and lock.

Do you think that's the real legacy of Soul Train will ultimately be: the dancing?
I think the musical performances are absolutely incredible…even though you had shows with artists singing and playing in this format, you'll find some amazing, once-in-a-lifetime live performances on this show that you will not find anywhere else. I mean, the Al Green performance of him doing "Sweet Sixteen?" It's phenomenal!

But if you're talking about leaving a footprint on contemporary global culture. yeah, for sure: It's the dancing. When I see guys like Lil Buck, this guy from Memphis who does a street dance called "jookin'," or the kids doing flexing out of New York, I see the influence of the Soul Train dancers. No question about it. 

You ask 10 people who the Gap Band is, maybe five of them will know. Ask them if they know what a Soul Train dance line is….
…they'll not only know what it is, they'll start doing it! [Laughs] Did you hear the news about the Broadway show?

I didn't.
The Rock of Ages producer [Matthew Weaver] just announced that he's going to make a Broadway musical based on Soul Train. I think it makes a lot of sense, actually. Not just because the nostalgia factor works for Broadway audiences —and let's face it, there will be a nostalgia factor with this — but because it will be a show about dance as much as the music. If they're smart, they'll end the show with everyone onstage doing a Soul Train dance line. 

They'd better make audience members sign insurance liability forms before they do that.
I think you're right. You're going to have a lot of old people up there trying to do fancy moves they really shouldn't be doing at their age.