‘Soul Train’ story told in new tome
BY BOB MEHR October 25, 2013 6:08PM
Ericka Blount Danois
Updated: November 27, 2013 6:08AM
Like most African-American kids of her generation, Ericka Blount Danois knew where she’d be on Saturdays: sitting in her Maryland home, transfixed in front of her television set, watching “Soul Train,” the dance show that doubled as a long-running showcase for African-American music, culture and style.
In August, Danois, a veteran pop-culture journalist, published a book chronicling the long history of the program, “Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show.”
“It’s funny: When I tell people about this book, they get so excited. They tell me how ‘Soul Train’ impacted them, and recall the Saturdays they spent watching,” says Danois. “I didn’t understand the extent of the show’s reach myself until I did the book and saw what it meant to so many people.”
The brainchild of radio deejay Don Cornelius, “Soul Train” would run for 35 years, first as a locally broadcast show out of Chicago, and later as a weekly nationally syndicated juggernaut that featured top artists from Aretha Franklin to Prince and a crew of young dancers who brought a new flair to television. Crucially, the show would both reflect and provide a cultural identity for African-Americans across several generations.
Cornelius was the program’s creative visionary as well as its on-screen star. His hip persona — his rolling bass voice, street-wise rap and “peace, love, soul” sign-off — would become iconic. “He was this enigmatic personality, cooler than cool, and people respected him,” says Danois. “He had a rapport with the artists beyond a typical host or interviewer. His clothes, the Afro — he was relatable. He dressed in the style the kids wore in the clubs and on the street. The force of his personality was what made ‘Soul Train.’”
Cornelius’ real genius was in providing a forum for African-American acts, tapping into an urban audience and marketplace that had all but been ignored by the networks. “People were able to see a variety of artists, from mid-tier acts to one-hit wonders to superstars, on this same platform,” says Danois. “That wasn’t really happening on any other show, whether it was Ed Sullivan or ‘American Bandstand,’ particularly when you’re talking about black artists. ‘Soul Train’ opened up those opportunities.”
As “Soul Train” grew, so did its power to make stars and reinvigorate fortunes. “Musically, the artists that appeared on the show, from rock and rollers like Chuck Berry to rappers like Kurtis Blow, it helped or elevated their careers,” says Danois. “When I interviewed Kurtis Blow, he said at the time he’d done some touring and was somewhat known, but that after appearing on ‘Soul Train,’ he was instantly a celebrity.”
Soon, the music industry at large began to see the value of the program’s reach. “So many diverse artists -- whether they were Latin performers or white pop artists the Captain & Tennille, Elton John or the Pet Shop Boys -- all appeared on ‘Soul Train,’ and they all say it widened their audience.”
The real stars of the show, however, were not Cornelius or the musicians, but the dancers who provided some the program’s most memorable moves and moments. “Among the fans, everyone would choose: ‘Oh, well, so-and-so is my favorite dancer.’ They were a huge part of the program, and they were just these regular kids themselves,” says Danois, who details the stories of future stars like Fred “Rerun” Berry and Adolfo “Shabba Doo” Quinones, who got their showbiz starts on “Soul Train.”
Through the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, “Soul Train” weathered numerous changes in musical trends -- from funk to disco to hip-hop -- and attempts by copycat shows to steal its audience. Still, the program managed to thrive, and even expand, creating the annual Soul Train Music Awards in 1987. The program survived into early ‘90s despite increasing competition from cable music channels and the general demise of the dance program format.
Cornelius elected to step down as host in 1993 -- feeling he didn’t want to grow old on the show — though he remained a force behind the scenes. The program would survive another 13 years with various hosts in his place.
“He said himself the show lasted so long because the music was great. As long as the music was good, the show would be something people would watch,” says Danois. “But by the end, the music industry had started to go in a different direction.” The program ceased production in 2006, and went off the air after 35 years and more than 1,100 episodes.
Danois was in the middle of researching the book in early 2012, when Cornelius — ailing and depressed from a long-term illness -- committed suicide at age 75.
His death caused Danois to re-examine the project. “It changed things in terms of the kinds of questions I was asking of people. And it brought out this other larger question for me: His goal was to bring this joy and entertainment to people every Saturday. In the end, you have to wonder what it was that he gave up to make that happen for everyone else.”
It appears there may be new chapters to the “Soul Train” story. Last year, sports legend/entertainment mogul Magic Johnson purchased “Soul Train” — including the rights to the name and its library of shows. Johnson has spoken publicly of his desire to spin the show’s story into a Broadway musical and film project. There’s also been talk of actor/comedian Nick Cannon developing a reboot of the program for NBC.
“The brand is still very viable,” says Danois. “I think ‘Soul Train’ is one of those things that’s going to always be a part of people’s consciousness.”
Scripps Howard News Service