MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we're going to take a trip down memory lane or we should probably say down the soul train line.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")
MARTIN: Now for a lot of people, just hearing that theme song brings back powerful memories. But for others, know this - for more than three decades the TV show "Soul Train" served as a national showcase for black music and culture. It was the launch pad for stars like Jody Watley and Rosie Perez. And it became the longest-running show on television.
Behind it all was the impresario Don Cornelius, who became a legend not only for his on air cool, but his behind-the-scenes business savvy. When he died tragically in February 2012, flash mobs in major cities around the country dressed up in '70s attire to show off their moves in tribute to that legacy. Filmmaker and author Nelson George said modesty and good sense kept him off the soul train line that day, but he was there.
And that got him thinking that the legacy of "Soul Train" and Don Cornelius could stand to be better known. So he's written his latest book, it's called "The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style." Welcome, thanks so much for joining us once again.
NELSON GEORGE: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So how did the "Soul Train" bug grab you?
GEORGE: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York and my sister was a couple of years younger than me and a very big dancer. And on Saturday mornings, at 11 a.m. on the local New York station, "Soul Train" would come on. We'd sit in front of it, first in front of our - one of those black and white TVs and then a little mini color Trinitron - 'cause those things were tiny at the time - and we would watch the show and watch the moves and we would know that that afternoon and that night on the schoolyards and house parties people would try and do "Soul Train" moves.
They would attempt to get their hair the right way, the "Soul Train" dancers had the afros, and those crazy colors. I mean, one thing that you really saw when you saw "Soul Train" was vibrant - the set was vibrant, the colors of the dancers was quite dynamic, it was California-style brought into homes in New York, Detroit, Atlanta and affected everything. So "Soul Train" not only entertained us, but it was a guide for style, a guide for dancing and a guide to music. So it was a very 360 cultural experience.
MARTIN: It was just - it was appointment viewing. I bet you if you - if we called up right now five of your friends and five of my friends, we would all have a story about watching "Soul Train." Like, you either had to get your chores done so you could watch it or, you know, something of that sort.
GEORGE: I mean, it was a real glue. I mean, I think the thing about - one of the many things about "Soul Train" is that it solidified national black culture. When I say that, I mean to say there had never been a regular scheduled vehicle ever for black music, black style, black entertainment in TV, it had never been done. When it comes on 1971, we're still in - we're in black power era. We're in an era where we have black mayors finally getting to be black mayors in major cities. We still have the black power - the riots of the '60s are still very, very vivid in the minds of everyone.
So what "Soul Train" did was take black joy - the excitement, the vitality, the spirit of soul music, of black music, of funk, of the beginnings of disco - and put it here in a format for everyone could enjoy in their living room. It took the idea of blackness and took it away from the news as strife or as conflict and made it accessible not just to black people but also to white corporations because you began seeing slowly advertising on "Soul Train." I mean, the thing about "Soul Train" was that it wasn't just the dancers and the music was black, but you began seeing black commercials.
MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about Don Cornelius because - and I just - and I'm going to - I have got to play a clip of his very unique interviewing style in a minute. But tell us a little bit - how did he get to that - how did he come up with the idea?
GEORGE: Well, he was a - he's a Chicago boy, he always had a sense of cool. Chicago is one of those cities that always had a strong sense of self. He became a radio DJ, that voice of course, you know, deep voice he had made him a natural. Initially he did a lot of news reporting in Chicago because there was so much competition for jobs.
And he would do these parties, you know, for high school kids 'cause back in that era a lot of DJs, radio DJs would make extra money doing sock hops in those days. And he - because he was going all over town taking the train across Chicago, it became the soul train. And so when he got the idea of doing a local TV show, it became the "Soul Train."
MARTIN: I wanted to play a little bit of like - for people - like I say, if people remember the show, then you really don't need to - you can conjure up that voice I think instantaneously.
MARTIN: But for people who don't remember it just - we have to talk about the Don Cornelius cool. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")
DON CORNELIUS: I'm back with the Godfather, James Brown. And, James, it's been a most exciting experience so far and I know it's going to get heavier and heavy for the rest of the hour. And I just have to say that just watching you, you're still the baddest out here.
JAMES BROWN: Oh, my gosh. Thank you very much. I'm just trying to keep up with the "Soul Train" dancers. Nobody said nothing.
CORNELIUS: How about if for the "Soul Train" dancers.
CORNELIUS: James, if you had some advice for young people, what would you tell them?
BROWN: Well, I - first thing I'd say is get yourself together because before you can get anything else together, you got to get me, I, yourself. Hey, that's very short, but it's very direct.
MARTIN: It's just - he just sounds like an airline pilot, you know. I mean, he's got this like - he never breaks a sweat. I mean, it's just - that was of course Don Cornelius and the late, godfather of soul James Brown.
GEORGE: And that's him being very effusive.
MARTIN: Exactly. It's very exciting.
GEORGE: You know, because it's James Brown.
MARTIN: It's very exciting here. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with author and filmmaker Nelson George. We're talking about his latest book, "The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style." Talking a little bit about the dancers - one of the things that's starting to emerge is that you talked about cool, and cool and control seem to go together, right.
MARTIN: And we recently interviewed the dancer, choreographer, actress Rosie Perez, who talked about the kind of - what's the work I'm looking for - difficult, maybe a little bit volatile, relationship that she had with Don Cornelius as a dancer on the show. And I want to play a short clip from the conversation I had with her. It was after she just published her new memoir, "Handbook for an Unpredictable Life." And she talks about a confrontation she had with him about her dancing. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
ROSIE PEREZ: Don Cornelius was very angry and he kept wanting me to go down the soul train line just, you know, pumping my body, and I didn't want to. And it just got heated. Don got physical and I got physical back, and he's a very tall, strong man and the only way I could defend myself was to grab something and throw it at him.
And the only thing I could grab was the two-piece Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner that they provided us as payment. And a greasy chicken wing hit him in the forehead and I was mortified.
MARTIN: Well, I just - I have to ask you about that. I mean, did other dancers have these kinds of set-tos with him?
GEORGE: No, they didn't. Rosie's a special case, and also there's a context for that story. It's that Rosie had been asked to be part of sort a new vocal group that he was putting together along with two other dancers and she basically had refused. So there was a tension that led to that, it wasn't simply - he - I mean, he could make people dance again. He definitely allowed certain dancing and not other dances.
I mean, you know, even though it was sexy, it was never very - it was never nasty. And he was known for having singers, if they didn't lip sync properly, redo songs over again, right. But in terms of that confrontation with Rosie, that's - Rosie was one of his favorites for years until she had declined to be in this group with him, then their relationship soured and went really south as you - the chicken wing incident.
MARTIN: We can't leave this story without talking about his success as a business person, all right. And he owned the show.
MARTIN: And I don't know whether he was the first, but he was certainly one of the most successful. I mean, people still remember that Desi Arnaz was one of his great innovations, people think of him as "I Love Lucy," but his significant contribution was as an owner of that show. And so for him...
GEORGE: In the same way that Mike Douglas owned his show. Syndicated TV was, you know, it's sort of - people don't even really think about syndicated TV now because of cable's dominance, but that was the other way in. And if you were able to find a sponsor who would get you enough money to produce the content, there were enough independent TV stations around the country that were looking for shows that you could make that sale. And Don was able to do that.
It took him - I mean, the thing is - we point out in the book - it wasn't like immediately "Soul Train" went national. The initial, '71, it wasn't on everywhere in 1971, it took several years before it had truly national coverage, and even then in certain markets like Philadelphia, where Questlove talks about the fact it comes on almost at midnight for - you know, in its initial introduction for Philadelphia. So it was a slow rollout those first three years.
MARTIN: It's unfortunate though - I mean - and again it's hard to - after looking at all he accomplished, his end was a sad one, which you...
MARTIN: ...Don't shy away from in the book. Can you talk a little bit about that?
GEORGE: Well, you know, he shot himself, you know. And...
MARTIN: Well, not just that. I mean, that's sad in and of itself...
GEORGE: Yes, absolutely.
MARTIN: But he also had a very difficult end. At the end it seemed very lovely. I mean, he had married, you know, a younger woman, and you say in the book, well, that's Hollywood, nobody cares. But he'd married a much younger white woman, their relationship seemed very fractious.
MARTIN: They had a contentious divorce. And he took his own life. And - look, nobody knows why anybody really does anything, do they - but at the end of the day, do you just want to talk about - it seems particularly tragic that for somebody to have been so important and to have had such an important effect on - and to mean so much to so many people, that his end seemed very alone.
GEORGE: You know, it's interesting because Clarence Avant - who was one of his chief business advisors and partners from the beginning all the way through the sale of the company - had met with him maybe a week or so before Don's passing and he felt like, you know, Don was Don. And I do have a sense of isolation - he talks - Rosie talks about running into him and feeling like there's something wrong and they're having a conversation about it. No one I spoke to at least could say, oh, I saw it coming or I saw this coming. It was really surprising that he decided to end his life.
MARTIN: How do you want him to be remembered?
GEORGE: I mean, he's obviously the creator of one of the most important television shows in American history. And since TV is one of America's greatest innovations, he's one of the greatest America's sort of media presences we've ever had, black or white because the impact of "Soul Train" just rolls on.
MARTIN: Nelson George is an author and filmmaker. His latest book, "The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style," is available now. He was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York City. Nelson George, thanks so much for joining us.
GEORGE: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: And I think I'll let Don Cornelius sign off for us.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL TRAIN")
CORNELIUS: You come on and buggy with us next week on these same stations. And you can bet your last money it's all going to be a stone gas, honey. I'm Don Cornelius and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and...
AUDIENCE: Soul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.