Cover to Cover…‘The Hippest Trip in America’

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They should have called you Super-Fly.

Yep, that’s what you were, dancing in front of your TV every Saturday, spinning on the carpet and waving your arms around until you got yelled at for “gonna break something.” But you were the flyest of fly. The only thing you were going to bust was a move, just like on Soul Train. And in “The Hippest Trip in America” by Nelson George, you’ll read about the iconic TV program that you never, ever missed.

Everyone knew that Don Cornelius had “ambition”: he was a car salesman, policeman, and insurance agent before his “foghorn voice” led him to radio in 1966. He made the transition to TV two years later, and he soon realized there was a need for a “black” TV show. He presented the idea, then found major corporate sponsorship, and on October 2, 1971, Soul Train appeared locally in Chicago.

The show was “’overnight hot’” but Cornelius knew there was more to this idea. With another sponsor on-board for a nation-wide launch, Cornelius pitched the show to the networks, but they turned it down. He decided to syndicate Soul Train and moved the show to Los Angeles.

Though the music was always the focus of Soul Train, Cornelius knew that the dancers (in particular, those in the Soul Train line) were what brought viewers back.

In L.A., scouts kept their eyes open for promising teens who could dance, often mining prospects from three main area clubs. Dancers performed for free and were fed chicken dinners, but the real appeal of being a Soul Train dancer was fame and the opportunity for a career in show biz. It seemed as though every regular viewer wanted to be a Soul Train regular, too.

But as much as Cornelius controlled his show (and, to a certain extent, his dancers), he couldn’t control what happened, culturally. Early-90s fashions confounded him, music videos concerned him, and gangsta rap made him uncomfortable. And so, though the show would continue for another 13 years, Cornelius announced in 1993 that he’d step down as Soul Train host—a move that arguably meant “the show was over.”

From its first pages and throughout, the word “joy” crops up often in “The Hippest Trip in America,” and for good reason: it was everywhere in the show and even more in this book.

I took great joy, in fact, in seeing how author Nelson George sent me to the internet. His descriptions of what happened through the years on Soul Train made me want to see, too, and there are plenty of clips online.
Get out your bell-bottoms and your best dancin’ shoes, have a good internet connection, and get ready.

(“The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style” by Nelson George, c.2014, William Morrow, $27.99/$34.99 Canada, 256 pages.)

 

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