It has been more than two years since Don Cornelius, the voice and enigmatic founder of the musical tour de force Soul Train, died, and eight since original broadcasts of his beloved creation went off the air. But the legacy of the show and its influence on American culture continues in the Soul Train dances we see in music videos and anywhere people evoke Cornelius' signature line, "Love, Peace and Soul."
The revered music critic, writer and film producer Nelson George is one of the best-suited to tell Cornelius' story and that of the show intended to be the black answer to Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Other accounts of the Soul Train legacy have been written: In 2013, Roots drummer and DJ Questlove (neé Ahmir Khalib Thompson) published Soul Train: The Music, Dance and Style of a Generation, one attempt at codifying Cornelius' historical impact on popular musical and dance culture. But George, who released Finding the Funk, a 2013 documentary featuring Sly Stone, George Clinton and others talking about the evolution of funk, draws upon comprehensive material in The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style, including a rare Don Cornelius interview and archival VH1 footage fleshed out by pivotal Soul Train dancers.
Before Cornelius died by suicide in February 2012, he talked to several writers, including Nelson George, about writing an autobiography. George (Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson, 2010, etc.) says that Cornelius wanted to write his own book about Soul Train but it never happened, “which was a shame.” Other promising concepts for Cornelius after he sold Soul Train in the spring of 2008 included a possible movie and a television show, all of which "got lost in the Hollywood wilderness, a place where black-themed series in the twenty-first century were now as rare as they were pre–Diahann Carroll's Julia," George writes.
George says that utilizing the visual archives helped him structure the book with an emphasis on interactivity for readers. "I hope people can watch the book in a sense that it provides a framework for people to meet the dancers and then go online and dig for themselves to find out more," he adds. George’s collection of narratives reads like one collected by a master oral historian. He illuminates the early careers of well-known performers like Rosie Perez and Jody Watley alongside more obscure figures like Tyrone Proctor and Cheryl Song (the latter was generally known as the Asian girl with the long hair.)
"Some of these dancers were there through the 1990s and an amazing social history of Los Angeles comes out through these stories," George says. In its heyday, Soul Train looked like a Saturday day party, what with its Scramble board and Cornelius' curious absence of an interrogative demeanor with performers—he often failed to ask a single question of his guests. As cool and hip as Cornelius was on the screen, he distanced himself from the dancers more than most people might realize. "The dancers had a world of their own," George adds, noting that the same creativity that dancers displayed with their moves trickled down to their fashion sense. Many of the young dancers cobbled together secondhand clothes that were also quite influential at the time.
It was the dancing that made Soul Train what it became, George says, and that is how its legacy lives on. From Beyoncé videos to the choreography of dancers like Proctor, who teaches 30-year-old Soul Train dances around the world, "Soul Train dances are still in our global dance culture. And Soul Train popularized innovative dance styles," George says. Now, “the Internet is the new Soul Train."
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and journalist.