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Author talks about how 'Soul Train' chugged along for 35 years
Nelson George, 56, is author of the new book "The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style," a history and celebration of the groundbreaking, iconic American dance show.
Created and helmed by its enterprising impresario Don Cornelius, Soul Train -- the longest running syndicated program in TV history -- chugged on for 35 years, ending in 2006.
George, who lives in Fort Greene, has written more than 15 books, including "Blackface: Reflections on African Americans and the Movies" and "The Michael Jackson Story," and co-edited "The James Brown Reader: 50 Years of Writing About the Godfather of Soul."
He will be appearing at The Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration, 1368 Fulton St., with Soul Train Dancer Tyrone Proctor, after an introduction by actress, dancer and choreographer Rosie Perez, who got her professional start on "Soul Train," at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 26.
Q: Did you begin the book before or after Don Cornelius's suicide in 2012?
A: That's a weird story. Years ago, I was walking down DeKalb Avenue and got a phone call from Don Cornelius: He wanted to do a book. I didn't think it was right for me at that time and passed on the idea. I assumed Don would hire someone else and do it with another writer, but he didn't. I always found it odd he never did a book of his own. After he passed, I was approached by the publishers to do this one, but I felt bad -- I wish Don had written his own history and told his own story.
Q: Whose "Soul Train" story did you want to tell?
A: I wanted to accomplish two things: One was to collect and highlight the stories and names of as many dancers as I could. Rosie Perez, Louie "=Ski" Carr, Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, Tyrone Proctor. ... The dancers were the reason people tuned in! I also wanted to make the book a guide for people to use the Internet and find video clips of what I'm writing about. You don't have to rely on my descriptions: If I say someone appeared on show 35, you can go on the Internet and find that clip! If I say Al Green performed with his hand in a cast, you can go on line and find that. This is the first time I've ever written a book as an adjunct to the online experience.
Q: Is that why there aren't a lot of pictures?
A Questlove did a "Soul Train" book last year ("Soul Train: The Music, Dance, and Style of a Generation") that is a coffee table picture book. It didn't make sense to do another.
Q: Did dancers on the show get paid?
A No. They did not get paid. Dancers from the early days weren't in AFTRA or SAG. They didn't get health benefits and there is some level of resentment. But some, like Tyrone Proctor, continue to travel the world and teach dance and became stars as a result of the exposure they got on the show. There's an ambivalence (about that).
Q: Will "Soul Train" ever return to the air?
A: Nick Cannon and Questlove are really gung ho to bring it back and I assume something will happen in the next year or so. I'm not quite sure myself [who owns the rights to the show]. I think Magic [Johnson] divested. I'm not sure what group has controlling interest now because in just the last six months there's been another change. Last year Daft Punk had the album of the year and there were videos compiled to ("Get Lucky") with nothing but "Soul Train" clips: "Soul Train" is still very hip in 2014.
Q: Why is "Soul Train" so important?
A: "Soul Train" was the only black TV show period when it started. There were no national venues for black music -- BET didn't start until the 80s -- so it was the showcase for black talent. If you were a band, you couldn't get on "American Bandstand" unless you had a pop hit. There were so many bands that gained their national exposure on "Soul Train." If you were a young black person, "Soul Train" was the first time you saw your culture on TV in a celebratory mode. And the show created a lot of fans for black music -- people saw bumps in their record sales after going on the show.
Q: We have popular dance shows now, such as "Dancing With the Stars," but they don't seem to inspire people in movement or fashion the way "Soul Train" influenced youth culture.
A: "Soul Train" introduced new dances you never saw before! The bump, waacking (cq), locking, the Red Nose, and the hustle -- dances that didn't exist before. Recruiters found these dancers at L.A. clubs and "Soul Train" was an intro course -- in the clubs you got a graduate level course. "Soul Train" was a communal experience. What "Soul Train" did then the Internet does today. But it's a more niche world and harder for outsiders to access.
Q: I loved the anecdote in the book about how Cornelius got the rights to the show -- an amazingly lucrative asset -- because the TV station in Chicago never thought to ask him for them. Would that ever happen today?
A No! They didn't think there would be an audience for a black dance show. They thought, "We don't need to get involved in this guy's business because this is just not going to be that profitable."
Q: Yet, Cornelius lost a great opportunity for free promotion by refusing to let the words "Soul Train" be in the first disco hit, TSOP by MFSB with The Three Degrees that was the "Soul Train" theme!
A Don was very much about control. To him, that felt like he was losing control of the "Soul Train" brand. All his business decisions were driven by control. He wasn't very open and thought you protect your rights by holding them close.
Q: The anecdote you have in the book about James Brown meeting Cornelius and refusing to believe there were no white people somewhere telling him what to do is so poignant and telling.
A: Don worked very hard to get Brown on the show and Brown asked him who was backing him. He explains his story several different times but James Brown just couldn't believe a national TV show getting that kind of exposure was controlled by this relatively young black man: It was like science fiction! Lots of people were in disbelief, but James Brown was the only one would say it to his face. [The disbelief] irritated him.
Q: Why did the show move from Chicago to L.A. and not to NYC?
A: Don wanted to go some place warmer and Hollywood was really opening up to black culture and he thought L.A. would give him more exposure to talent.
Q: As successful and wealthy as he was, Cornelius seemed very sad and the end of his life, tortured by health problems and a difficult divorce.
A: Don was a very formidable man. He was not a warm and cuddly father figure. He had very clean lines of authority. [Dancer] Marco de Santiago talked about being intimidated by him. He was friends with Barry White and Marvin Gaye and the O'Jays were very good friends with him, but he didn't share a lot of his inner life with people. Don kept a very clean line of demarcation between him and the dancers.