Written by Sombra Blanca
The comparisons to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand are inevitable. But Don Cornelius, the “conductor” of Soul Train, long surpassed his cracker counterpart, creating a showcase for black entertainers that would become the longest-running, first-run syndicated program in television history.
With more than 1,100 episodes between 1971 and 2006, where does one start to dig in and dig the sights and sounds of Soul Train? Time Life has done some of the work for you with an eight-volume best of set that is labeled “the hippest trip in America.” Or, as the show’s infamous animated opening declares, “60 non-stop minutes across the tracks of your mind into the exciting world of soul.”
Exciting, indeed, and the curators put together a well-rounded selection for Volume 1 (the only one viewed so far by this author, although I’m anxious to delve into the rest).
The best place to start with the first volume is the interview with the man himself, Mr. Cornelius, in the bonus features of the first of three discs. Cornelius tells of how he wanted to get away from insurance sales and the news business and work his way into music, and he even explains how the “train” concept came about. It’s a bit hard to believe his claim Soul Train did not emulate American Bandstand, but Cornelius settles the matter by contradicting himself soon after.
The interviews with Smokey Robinson, Jody Watley, Brian McKnight and others are pretty standard “I grew up on it, it paved the way for black entertainers, it was great” fare. The reason why Soul Train was such a success is the music, and Volumes 1-3 deliver some great, though occasionally fake, performances from shows between 1972 and 1991.
Personally, I thought the Isley Brothers, Sly & The Family Stone, and Soul Brother #1, James Brown, were the standouts. Ernie Isley has some wonderful guitar moments, even though his getup is stolen from Hendrix. (Ironic, since Hendrix got his start with the Isleys.) There’s also great call-and-response with Sly and the Godfather. Mr. Barry White – complete with the full Love Unlimited Orchestra – and Bill Withers also put in some strong performances that can’t be seen elsewhere.
All of the above stand out because they were actually live. For reasons that aren’t really explained, some of the performances had to be lip-synched, which is unfortunate. The result is studio versions of “Superfly” with Curtis Mayfield pretending, and three tracks from Marvin Gaye. At least Gaye still engaged the crowd, and manages to call out Cornelius on the fakery.
Also fun to see is the six-year difference between an Afro-Aretha Franklin in 1973, belting out the extra funky “Rock Steady,” and the toned-down Disco Aretha from ’79. But it the latter version, and her collaboration with Smokey Robinson, is one of the moments that make this best-of collection worth watching.
Aside from the musicians, there is, of course, the Soul Train dancers. If Time Life edited Soul Train shows from ’71 to 1976, with just the dancers, I’d be first in line. Beautiful afros and other natural hair styles, and the fashion is, to use a back-in-the-day term, really together. The dancers get just enough attention to round out the shows, including the occasional, and now famous, Soul Train line where couples dance down the human gauntlet to strut their moves and their threads. Their Q and A sessions with the musicians gives the young crowd a chance to ask questions Cornelius doesn’t try, such as why James Brown voted for Nixon and Marvin Gaye’s hobbies away from music. Thrown in for good measure in this collection are commercials from long-time sponsors Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen, which aren’t quite as funny as the Coming to America Soul Glo spot, but a nice piece of nostalgia nonetheless.
All in all, if you are a fan of soul, R&B and funk music, Time Life and Don Cornelius have put together a strong package important for music, history and television buffs. To paraphrase Mr. Cornelius’ signoff, “You can bet your last money it’s a stone gas.”