If you really think about it, the star attraction on Soul Train through the years wasn’t the performers, and that’s certainly not a knock on The O’Jays, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and the others. Nor was it the show’s cool creator and longtime host, the debonair and deep-voiced Don Cornelius. It was the fashionable, creative dancers — and, deservedly, some of the most notable are given a considerable amount of ink in The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style (William Morrow).
At the heart of Nelson George’s new book are several “dancer profiles,” which turn out to be among the best and most enlightening segments. In many of these profiles, George breaks away from his narrative and lets the dancer take the lead for uninterrupted (and sometimes extended) passages: In his own words, Tyrone Proctor talks about the arms-and-hands-driven dance style called waacking, while Reggie Thornton happily recalls having the opportunity to kiss Diana Ross. (If those dancer names don’t ring a bell, these should: Rosie Perez and Nick Cannon, whose Soul Train stories appear in the book’s latter half.)
Using interviews conducted for the 2010 VH1 documentary The Hippest Trip in America as a foundation for his book, George breezes through the history of Soul Train in 225-plus pages. Certain key topics — such as the show’s move from Chicago to Los Angeles, competition from Dick Clark’s Soul Unlimited, and the impact of disco and rap — could have benefited from more depth. Even the final years of Cornelius’ life, which included a divorce, being charged with spousal abuse and his declining physical and mental health, are covered in just a few pages. (In his introduction, George goes as far to say that he views this book “as a platform for further exploration.”)
Shortcomings aside, The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style is a good, quick read, providing a solid overview of the show, its major players and defining moments. But in the end, it magnifies the need for a detailed, extensive Cornelius biography. Here’s hoping George makes that his next book project.
— By Chris M. Junior