Guest Author: Ericka Blount Danois is the author of Love, Peace, and Soul. Below is a Q&A with JR Valrey in the San Francisco Bay View.
M.O.I. JR: What inspired you to write “Love, Peace, and Soul,” a book about the legendary show Soul Train? What was the process in you getting access to some of the archival footage and getting people to open up about their experiences?
Ericka Blount: There were a few reasons I decided to write the book. The first was really just that I was a fan as a kid. I grew up in a household where music was played all day long. My father worked at a record store and collected records and later worked at a bookstore, so we had plenty of books. Later he got a job as a stage hand and we sometimes got the chance to work the spotlight for concerts. I remember helping him work Parliament-Funkadelic.
Eventually he had his own show on WPFW where he played music from all genres every week. We always had a leg up on our peers musically. My family is from New York and my parents partied at the Garage in NY, so we would get the 12-inch dance records first. We heard early hip-hop records like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.
Soul Train was an extension of that musical landscape. Every Saturday my sister and I sat in front of the television and watched what we viewed as a concert and we mimicked dance moves. As a music and culture journalist as an adult, I wanted to find out what happened to the show. What happened to some of my favorite dancers?
That’s where I began, by finding some of those dancers – Damita Jo Freeman, Pat Davis, Cheryl Song. And then I discovered this rich history about the show, about Don Cornelius’ owning the show and it being the longest first-run show in history. And I wondered how he was able to do that as a Black man in Hollywood.
But I didn’t want to just tell the story about the show. I also wanted to contextualize it with the time period it was born and grew into. I find myself often trying to explain to my kids things that we were excited about as kids, like what a big deal it was to have Eddie Murphy saying some of the things he did on Saturday Night Live when I was growing up. But it’s difficult to explain that without having grown up in that time period.
So I chose to recreate the scenes in a narrative of what happened with Soul Train as it actually happened. I wanted to give it context with the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath, the Kerner Commission report, the conditions that created the birth of hip-hop, MTV, BET and all the other competitors Soul Train eventually faced. I very much wanted to make it a story – a behind-the-scenes juicy one at that – not just give a critical history of the show.
Getting people to open up was more difficult than I anticipated. About halfway through the research and interviewing, Don Cornelius committed suicide and people became very protective, which I can’t blame anyone for. But I was able to eventually get people to open up. Many of us are reluctant to give interviews because we have so often been misquoted or not treated fairly in the media. I understand that. So it usually takes a long time to build trust. But I am used to that as a journalist.
M.O.I. JR: How did you know what direction you wanted to take your book?
Ericka Blount: I knew that the music would guide the story. So I wanted to tell the story of the transformation of music through the show and American history. I started out in Chicago with Don Cornelius’ story and the live show and the rich music of Chicago as the backdrop – Chess Records, WVON, the Black deejay culture – and brought the journey all the way to 2006, soul, funk, disco, through shows like the hip-hop version of Soul Train, Graffiti Rock, until the end and the eventual decline of the show, the music, and eventually Don Cornelius.
M.O.I. JR: Early on, according to your book, there were two different versions of Soul Train, one in L.A. and one in Chicago. What role did they play in making Soul Train a national phenomenon?
Ericka Blount: Yes, the Chicago version preceded the national L.A. version. But eventually the national show and the local Chicago show were running concurrently for nearly six years with Don Cornelius going back and forth between the two shows. The Chicago version was black and white and on a local UHF station with a tiny set so small that kids would literally throw up because it would get so hot. It was modest, but it featured the best musicians in the business and some of the best dancers in the clubs in Chicago.
WVON radio, where Don Cornelius worked as a news reader and an occasional deejay, was probably the most important Black-oriented station at the time – both for the music and their Civil Rights activism. So he made the connections. On the local version, he gave a young Rev. Jesse Jackson a platform for Operation Breadbasket. Curtis Mayfield, Tyrone Davis, Jerry Butler, The Emotions performed regularly on the show.
There were local Black dance shows in almost every major city. But Cornelius created a pilot for his local show and shopped it nationally. The networks rejected it so he opted for syndication. In some markets Soul Train aired very late at night, which I didn’t know. They got a really well produced show at a cheap price.
To read the rest of the interview, go to the San Francisco Bay View!
Love, Peace, and Soul tells the story of the television phenomenon known as Soul Train, a show created in the land of bell bottoms, afros, and soul power; a show that became the touchstone of the Baby Boomer generation. Don Cornelius, host and owner of the show, was one of the coolest cats on television. With his platform shoes, wide neckties, and mellifluous voice, he showed the world just how corny American Bandstand was in comparison. In 2012, fans were shocked to hear one of the most powerful men in the music and television business took his own life.
Love, Peace, and Soul is a celebratory, behind-the-scenes collection of anecdotes, stories, and reflections, from the people who were there, about the host, the show, and the power of black music and dance on television.
Music and television connoisseurs will enjoy the history of not just Soul Train, but of other shows, including Shindig!, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, Hullabaloo, American Bandstand, and Graffiti Rock. Entrepreneurs will be interested in Cornelius’ humble beginnings with the local version of the show in Chicago, created with his own money. Fans will delight in the lively images and the quirky details. The first mass market book on Soul Train since Cornelius’s passing, this volume has something for everyone. Includes afterword by Gary Harris.