“The Hippest Trip in America” Chronicles the 1,117-Episode Run of “Soul Train”

The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style by Nelson George (William Morrow)
The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style
by Nelson George (William Morrow)

In a publishing marketplace where 700 pages of text are not enough to encompass a movie star’s life or a presidential administration, The Hippest Trip in America manages, semi-miraculously, to compress more than 30 years of rapier-keen social history and street-savvy cultural criticism within 230-odd pages.

The “trip” chronicled in those pages by journalist-filmmaker Nelson George is the 1,117-episode run of Soul Train, the syndicated TV dance-and-music series. Its nationwide premiere in 1971 was perhaps the most auspicious signpost of a decade in which African-American culture, freed during the previous decade from the social and legal constraints of racial segregation, leapt to the forefront of mainstream pop as never before…and, some might argue, never since.

Soul Train, which ascended from humble beginnings as a local after-school program in Chicago to a phenomenon of national, if not global proportions, was in retrospect the cornerstone of this transformative era, setting the decade’s agenda for music, dance and fashion. I can actually hear many of you giggling at that last one. But, like it or not, many young people, not all of them black, took their dress-for-success cues from mile-high Afros, platform shoes, bell-bottoms and ruffled shirts worn by Soul Train‘s legendary cadre of dancers.

And because dancing, as George writes, “was the alpha and omega of the Soul Train story,” his book allows as much room for those dancers’ reminiscences as the show’s “dance line” gave for their “booty-shaking” inventiveness. The witnesses include “Boogaloo Sam” Solomon, who created the influential dance move “popping,” described by Solomon as a “flexing of the muscles to the beat”; Tyrone Proctor, an exponent of “waackng,” meaning, mostly, a flamboyant deployment of arms and hands, moving through space “like summer fans in church ladies’ hands” (George often writes as well as these folks could dance); Cheryl Song, whom longtime Train watchers remember as “The Asian Girl with the Long Hair”; and Rosie Ruiz, the Brooklyn-bred fireball who parlayed her swashbuckling dance style into a post-Train career as choreographer and movie actress.

Occupying the center of this account, as he did on the show for decades, is Don Cornelius, the dapper, baritone-voiced impresario, producer and founder of Soul Train. George gives Cornelius all the credit he deserves for recognizing, and then seizing, the opportunity for presenting a regularly scheduled showcase for African-American musical and terpsichorean talent.

Click here to read more.

Gene Seymour

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