Longtime music critic Nelson George was on hand April 3rd to talk about and sign his new book “The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style” at Los Angeles’ Eso Won bookstore in Leimert Park.
His guest was an original “Soul Train” dancer Marco De Santiago. The room was packed and every ear attentive to the behind-the-scene stories they came to tell. The interest was so high that once I got to the counter to buy my own copy, the books were sold out. Kudos to Eso Won owner James Fugate and his team for a well-coordinated event!
Among the things discussed were the little-known rivalry between American Bandstand’s host Dick Clark and “Soul Train” creator and host Don Cornelius; and the fact that many male celebrities came from near and far attracted by the sexy mini-skirted Soul Train dancers that the cameramen took license to reveal on national TV. For instance, Marvin Gaye met his second wife Janis on Soul Train which he sings about in his song “After The Dance.”
Also discussed was Cornelius’ indifference to celebrities and staff alike. George stated:
“Don Cornelius was absolutely one of the most formidable people you ever had to interview. He wasn’t a ‘huggy hey-man-how-you-doing’ type brother. The cool, the reserved…that’s how he was and how he presented himself to the world very often. I remember [when] I was at Billboard magazine from 1982 to 1989 as the Black Music Editor…I had been to Soul Train a few times…going to Don’s office was almost like going to the principal’s office…and that voice comes at you…” De Santiago added, “I was actually terrified of Don and I think most people were because he was ultra-aloof. He rarely had eye contact with you, and if he did give you eye contact you had no idea what was going to spew out of his mouth…he didn’t tame his tongue…he would rarely smile…he just wasn’t the kindest man but you did have respect for him.”
George: “He was not someone you can go like ‘I just love Don Cornelius’ in that emotional way…there were barriers…and there were very few people [like] Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Smokey, The O’Jays…he had a tight group of people who really, really lauded him. One of the most famous episodes of Soul Train is Marvin Gaye and Don Cornelius playing one-on-one basketball refereed by Smokey Robinson.” The two also mentioned some female artists including Janet Jackson and Diana Ross that Cornelius was kind to, and discussed – despite his opinion – how he reluctantly embraced Rap and Hip-Hop to stay current.
One of “Soul Train’s” standouts – De Santiago, always stylishly dressed, had his own unique dance style. He said he was surprised and unprepared for his celebrity when people would recognize him on the street. He tries to keep all the Soul Train dancers in contact by throwing an annual Christmas party.
George says “I wrote this book for the internet age. I tried to make sure that the show number and the year [are] very specific when I mention something…everything in the book is online…you can see all these clips…that way I’m not making anything up. It’s all there.”
De Santiago said he received a call from the Smithsonian Institute asking if he could get in touch with all the dancers that are still around to see if they would donate clothing and other items from the “Soul Train” era. They want him to be the curator for a permanent “Soul Train” exhibit at a museum they’re building that will be called The Smithsonian Museum of African-American History – an honor that underscores the significance of Soul Train being an agent for the evolution of culture and style.