From 1971 to 2006, the tall, Chicago-born, baritone-voiced Don Cornelius was the lead conductor of Soul Train, an overground railroad where black America danced to R&B, soul, disco, jazz and rap and one nation under a groove ruled. The complex Cornelius didn’t get his full due in the wake of his tragic suicide in 2012; now, two new books address that oversight.
Cornelius’ incredible rise and tragic fall is compellingly and comprehensively chronicled in Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show: Soul Train: Classic Moments (Backbeat Books, $24.99) by Baltimore-based music journalist Ericka Blount Danois. The author traces how Cornelius went from being a Korean War veteran and Chicago cop to a radio DJ who started a TV dance show in 1970 that featured local black teens. He had the swerve and nerve to take that show to Los Angeles, where it morphed into an international phenomenon.“Soul Train came around at a time when America needed it the most,” Danois writes. “It exported great music around the world and the changed the culture.”
Danois takes a deep tour through Soul Train’s rich history, including the Soul Train Scramble Board and the still-iconic Soul Train Line, Cornelius’ at-the-piano interview with Aretha Franklin, Richard Pryor’s hosting of the show and a location shoot from Barry White’s two-and-a-half acre estate. Her book also looks at the intrigues of key members of the Soul Train gang: how dancers Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniels became the nucleus of the R&B group Shalamar; why Rosie Perez (of In Living Color and Do The Right Thing fame) scared Cornelius with her sexy, Nuyorican dances, and the arrival of the unforgettable Cheryl Song, the “fly Asian” with the flowing, thigh-length hair. Danois also sheds light on Cornelius’ turbulent private life, which included a rocky marriage to a Russian woman that—along with health problems—preceded his downfall.
If Danois’ work is the go-to tome on Soul Train from a journalistic perspective, then Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s beautiful, coffee-table book, Soul Train: The Music, Dance, and Style of a Generation (Harper Design, $45), published on the heels of his summer memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues, is the stunning and stirring visual counterpart to her work. Jammed packed with more than 350 photographs, this book from the Philly-born drummer, Roots co-founder and Late Night musical director, shows how Soul Train influenced young musicians like him—and not simply via its legendary theme song, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” by Sigma Sound stalwarts MFSB. For Questlove, Soul Train was, “a sibling, parent, a babysitter, a friend, a textbook, a newscast, a business school and a church,” he writes. Questlove gives some Delaware Valley dap to several Philly icons who appeared on the show, including Teddy Pendergrass, Boyz II Men, Patti Labelle, Hall & Oates and DJ Jazzy Jeff.
As adroit and on point as Questlove’s prose is, his is primarily a picture book, and there are plenty of visually stunning images that tell a thousand words. We see a silky-slim, flame-haired Franklin; the bell-bottomed, Afro-alpha male Isley Brothers doing their thing and a young Stevie Wonder effortlessly weaving masterful melodic ribbons from the sky. There’s also some soul-stirring moments where we see a young, shy, wide-nosed Michael Jackson with the Jackson Five, so seeminly full of life before his tragic nadir. But, all told, the colorful Soul Train dancers steal the show, with their arabesques, hip thrusts and Soul Train Line pimp walks, their disco hustles, mo’ perfect pelvic unions and straight-out slow drags frozen in time, yet wonderfully in time. From Damita Jo Freeman’s high kicks and Song’s Afro-Eurasian prances to Watley’s and Daniels’ pre-Shalamar sequences, it’s all here for the recollecting and celebrating.
Though more books on Soul Train will no doubt hit the marketplace—author/filmmaker Nelson George’s book is due out next year—these two offerings give us a firm grasp on the work and life of the genuine cultural hero whose vision and passion gave us love, peace and soul.