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The Untold History of Soul Train

The groundbreaking song-and-dance show "Soul Train" is chugging toward Broadway.

It’s been more than three years since the passing of Soul Train founder Don Cornelius, but his impact on the music industry lives on. Ever wonder how his legendary program came to be?

JET spoke to author Ericka Blount Danois about her recent book, Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show.

What inspired you to write about Soul Train?

Ericka Blount Danois: I grew up in a musical household, surrounded by my father’s extensive record collection and books. My dad worked at a record store and eventually became a disc jockey. Growing up, tuning in to Soul Train meant everything on Saturday mornings. We stopped whatever we were doing to watch it. For a lot of us, it was the only opportunity to see our favorite artists perform. As an adult, I wondered what happened to some of my favorite dancers. I wrote a few “Where Are They Now?” pieces about dancers Cheryl Song and Shabba Doo. Then, I started finding out more information about the program itself: that Don Cornelius owned the show, he invited personalities such as Richard Pryor to guest host, stars were made on the show, and more. Also, I found out about all the business opportunities that grew out of the show. Don Cornelius started a Soul Train dance studio, a Soul Train nightclub and a Soul Train record label. He was light-years ahead of his time, post-segregation. I thought the history was fascinating and needed to be documented.

How did you go about collecting the information you needed for such a comprehensive book?

EBD: I started doing the research in 2009 and the book was published four years later. The process entailed watching hours and hours of Soul Train episodes, researching everything about Soul Train and its offshoots and interviewing over 200 people about Soul Train: artists, musicians, Don Cornelius’ family, people who worked on the show, dancers, etc. The hard part was creating and organizing the narrative. I wanted to write it as a narrative, rather than as an academic analysis, because it was a great story.

What did you most enjoy about writing it?

EBD: Interviewing some of my favorite artists: Charlie Wilson, Bobby Womack, etc. It was a pleasure to get their hilarious behind-the-scenes stories. I enjoyed going back in time by watching the episodes—just amazing artistry on all levels. I also liked learning more about some of the folks in the background. Like the artist Floyd Norman, who, back in the ’70s, drew the Soul Train intro. Don Cornelius made sure to employ Black talent on every aspect of the show.

Which interview was your favorite?
EBD: I think interviewing dancer/choreographer Damita Jo Freeman may have been my favorite because she had so many anecdotes—stories about James Brown when she toured with him, soul singer Joe Tex, and working with Leonard Bernstein, Whitney Houston and Cher. She is really one of the most amazing unsung talents.

Did you discover anything eye-opening through your research?

EBD: Absolutely. As a kid growing up on the East Coast, I watched Soul Train as a fan. As an adult researching a book, I watched it with an eye for detail and with a curiosity for how Don Cornelius pulled this off. I found out so many amazing things about him as a person working in Hollywood: his attempts at various businesses, his struggles with addiction and his untimely passing. I interviewed the detective who came to the scene of his death and who’d actually covered Michael Jackson’s death. It was very painful to hear those details. But what I found most interesting were the stories of the Soul Train dancers. These were regular kids from humble beginnings who really became the backbone of the program. Artists came on the show and would be thrilled to meet the dancers. James Brown famously brought Damita Jo Freeman onstage. I spent a lot of time with Damita, who is a classically trained ballerina. If you mention Soul Train to anyone, everyone has his or her favorite dancer. The dancers became the real stars of the show.

What will readers learn about Don Cornelius that they might not already know?

EBD: Many things. I can’t give away all the details, but one of the most surprising things that I learned was that he actually sang on some of those early Soul Train albums. Readers will also get more insight into his untimely death.

Why do you think Soul Train became so impactful?

EBD: The ’70s era of Soul Train documented the growth of Black political and economic power, a shift in the aesthetics of what Black beauty looked like, Black artistry and political power in lyrics, Black expression in dance, fashion and music. For the first time, we were seeing ourselves on a national stage in every facet of our lives: politicians, teenagers, radio hosts, actors, comedians, musicians and singers. And it was unapologetically Black and undiluted. It’s hard to find that nowadays. Not to mention, the music was just the best there is. The show, the music, the fashion, the dancing, the politics, the conversations between the teens and the artists—all of it, is timeless. It’s amazing to think that the show lasted from 1971 to 2006. It was the longest-running, first-run syndicated show in history.

Visit erickablount.com for more information about the writer of Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show.