Pop & Hiss

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Don Cornelius and the 'Soul Train' still grooving 40 years later

September 4, 2010 |  6:00 am

Approximately 35 years after their creative apogees, names like James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, Barry White and Aretha Franklin exist as almost afterthoughts. Their legendary status is so secure as to be taken for granted. Their catalogs will live on indefinitely, their songs are staples at celebrations of all types, and their merits have been rightfully memorialized in every arena imaginable.

Yet the most salient evidence of their genius always came live, with their awe-inspiring gifts capable of somehow simultaneously forcing you to both move and stop to take note of their talents. That's only one of many reasons to explain why "The Best of Soul Train" DVD set is essential -- a three-disc collection that captures the aforementioned artists, along with other Hall of Famers like The O'Jays, The Jackson 5 and The Commodores, in their afroed and sequined glory.

Though the long-running dance show based in Los Angeles often featured lip-synced performances, most of the ones collected by Time Life feature the artists letting loose in front of the live studio audience. The program was billed as "the hippest trip in the world," and it's tough to argue, what with the transportive nature of the shows capable of staggering even those who remember watching them when they first aired.

In its heyday, the program was essential viewing every Saturday afternoon, and afforded many of the generation's greatest soul and R&B acts their first national television exposure. Equally unforgettable was the velvet-voiced and effortlessly smooth host Don Cornelius. Next Wednesday, the Grammy Museum will host a 40th anniversary tribute to "Soul Train," featuring appearances from Cornelius, Smokey Robinson and Jody Watley. In advance of the evening, Cornelius spoke to Pop & Hiss.

How much of a role did you have in picking the performances that went into the DVD?

Not much. But both the team at Time Life and Mad Vision Entertainment had a good sense what I considered the most significant performances of the program: Smokey Robinson doing a duet with Aretha Franklin; James Brown performing with a live band and tons of energy. Some people weren't comfortable lip-synching, so we had to come up with another alternative.

What was it about the period that allowed for the music to continue to have such resonance today?

The '70s and '80s were just the period during which the best soul music was created and the best records were done. Whenever I walk into a store or any kind of environment, these kinds of songs from that period still play and I wonder if it's a "Soul Train" tape. Because during those two decades, we were on top of them all in one way or another, either presenting the guests or playing the records. We were just flat out in love with the music.

That was the period when soul music grew up. It was born in the '50s and '60s, but it became sophisticated during that era. Record stores were cropping up and Motown emerged to allow the music to cross over to the point where all cultures were listening to soul music. It was an incredible time. Chicago had Curtis Mayfield, the Chi-Lites; Philadelphia had Gamble and Huff; Memphis had Stax; Detroit had Motown; and all of that started to blossom in the 70s.

How did the program change when hip-hop became a force? Was it difficult to adjust?

I didn't get it immediately, but then in the relatively short time, I got it. I kept getting stopped wherever I went -- wherever black people were -- and they'd ask how come you're not playing this. It was always rap or hip-hop that the public was asking about, and eventually shortly after, we started to play it. The thing I liked the most about it, aside from the rhythm and the tightness of it, was the inclusiveness of it, in terms of people being able to participate in the industry without necessarily being trained. Prior to that, you had to be a trained this or a trained that in order to make it. Hip-hop gave everyone a chance.

Do you listen to much contemporary music today, and if so, what do you like?

Not much, but I still catch things now and then. It’s a different world now. I can watch the "Today Show" and "Good Morning America," and I can get to see major stars -- nothing really slips by. I turned on Letterman one night and Eminem and Jay-Z were performing together and they were so good. The acceptance of music on a total media basis is much more developed now, it's much more available. When we started, we were the only program that a certain genre of artist could get exposure on.

What have you been working on now?

We're looking to advance the "Soul Train" movie project. We've been in discussions with several people about getting a movie off the ground. It wouldn't be the "Soul Train" dance show, it would be more of a biographical look at the project. It's going to be about some of the things that really happened on the show. I had a discussion with Eddie Murphy not long ago, and he liked the documentary so much that he suggested that he might want to do something in terms of the show's relationship with James Brown -- if not play him, than just do a kind of vignette.

-- Jeff Weiss

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