Book Review - The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style (By Nelson George)

Book Review
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Throughout the course of R&B music history, few vehicles have had the kind of long-lasting impact as has Soul Train, the weekly dance and performance TV show founded by Don Cornelius in 1970. Begun as a local Chicago program filmed in a tiny studio, the series immediately established importance as a platform for black artists to showcase their popular songs to a viewing audience not fulfilled by the pop-centered priorities of American Bandstand. Within a year, the show went national. Soul Train would go on to a 35-year run that captivated fans through the eras of Philly soul, disco, synth-funk, new jack swing, hip-hop, and beyond.

Throughout the course of R&B music history, few vehicles have had the kind of long-lasting impact as has Soul Train, the weekly dance and performance TV show founded by Don Cornelius in 1970. Begun as a local Chicago program filmed in a tiny studio, the series immediately established importance as a platform for black artists to showcase their popular songs to a viewing audience not fulfilled by the pop-centered priorities of American Bandstand. Within a year, the show went national. Soul Train would go on to a 35-year run that captivated fans through the eras of Philly soul, disco, synth-funk, new jack swing, hip-hop, and beyond.

Award-winning author Nelson George's new book, The Hippest Trip in America, traces the development and cultural significance of Soul Train with input from artists who appeared on the show and many of its legendary dancers, as well as scholars and ardent fans. Looking at the series' history through a variety of lenses—backstage, business, political, and in the scope of popular music, the book succeeds in giving readers a well-balanced overview of the many components that have made it a timeless experience in the hearts and minds of more than a few generations. From African-American kids growing up in impoverished areas during the mid-'70s to famous Anglo superstars who wanted to be a part of this groundbreaking phenomenon, Hippest Trip effectively conveys why classic clips from the program (and even modern-day adaptations of Soul Train "lines") to this day enthrall music fans of all races and tastes—many of whom were born well after its prime.

One of the most appealing components of The Hippest Trip in America is its wealth of dancer profiles. Based on conversations with the people behind the bold moves and fashions that seemed to jump out of the screen, these sections are commendable in their candor and detail. From flashy '80s mainstay Louie "Ski" Carr to "waacking" trendsetter Tyrone Proctor and the ever-beautiful Rosie Perez, these sections provide detailed recollections of the hoops that a wealth of then-unknown, innately talented dancers had to go through to get on the show; what it was like on set with Cornelius overseeing each episode's direction; and the many cultural happenings (both in entertainment and street life) that played a part in making Soul Train a cutting-edge showcase during its prime. The only weak entry amongst these profiles is that of Nick Cannon, who arguably made much less impact during his time on the show, but gets twice the space of most others in the book (likely due to the fact that in 2013, he obtained rights to produce a new network version of Soul Train).

The Hippest Trip in America not only surveys the changing musical landscapes in which Soul Train weathered and prospered, but also ways in which Cornelius strived to keep it relevant amid transitional trends in television and media at large—such as the Soul Train Awards and the arrival of new hosts during the 1990s. This is a well-founded approach that results in some interesting observations of each decade's racial and demographical issues in relation to the show. However, some of the less often discussed components of Cornelius and the Train's history of interest to longtime fans are passed over. For instance, the successful UK spin-off, 620 Soul Train (hosted by legendary dancer Jeffrey Daniel), gets no mention whatsoever. Furthermore, while a few paragraphs acknowledge the success of singer-songwriter O'Bryan (composer of one of the show's most-loved theme songs, "Soul Train's A-Comin'") as part of Cornelius's Friendship Productions company, there is no discussion at all of Cornelius's own parallel career as a prolific songwriter.

Lifting a substantial amount of unused material from VH1's 2010 Rock Docs episode on Soul Train, George maintains a consistently informative yet entertaining tone throughout The Hippest Trip in America. Given the relevance of R&B and televised musical entertainment at large to its primary subject matter, there are a few surprising errors, such as an allusion to Johnny Kemp as Bobby Brown's replacement in New Edition and the failure to mention earlier African-American awards programs like the Black Gold Awards and The R&B Awards in the chapter about the Soul Train Awards. These hiccups and the aforementioned omissions might prove a tad disappointing to some serious students of the show. Overall, however, the colorful mixture of cultural commentary, dancer history, and behind-the-scenes stories make the book an engaging read for those wanting to understand more clearly why Soul Train is such a monumental part of popular-music history. Recommended.

by Justin Kantor

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