Blogs 'N' Sods #7: The Hippest Trip in Ameica

originally posted on 16 September 2014

Nelson George, I know you are better than this.

George’s latest book, The Hippest Trip In America (William Morrow, 2014, 256 pages, hardcover), documents the first truly Black experience on television in the United States: the Soul Train TV show.

Soul Train was conceived and produced by Chicago radio personality Don Cornelius and starred Black performers and dancers. It was also the first nationally syndicated Black program on television. Even with the passing of the Civil Rights Act several years prior, this was an unheard of acheivement for any Black entrepreneur.

George has written some amazing and hard hitting books about Black culture previously, including books on the decline of Soul music, the rise of Hip-Hop, a detailed chronicle of James Brown and the the rise and fall of Motown records. He seems to lose his footing in this instance.

As much fun as it is to find tidbits and anecdotes about the program, the book can’t seem to make up its mind what it is really about: Is it about Soul Train, or is it about Don Cornelius, its creator?

Yes, the two are inextricably linked. However, with the suicide of Cornelius still fresh in the minds of many, it seems like two books, with neither of them being finished.

If this book had focused solely on what it really is, which is a companion piece to VH1’s documentary of the same name, it might have had a better chance. On its merits, as presented here, it just seems lacking. (This may have been a better move financially for publisher William Morrow, as that documentary was VH1’s highest rated program ever at the time of airing.)

It isn’t like I am looking for dirt. Trust me, there are some very interesting insights on to how Cornelius ran his business. But, but by the end of the book, George details how much Cornelius wanted out of the business altogether.

Cornelius comes across like the old guardian of classic soul: knowing he is a mighty relic of the past and not knowing how to handle his own truly impressive legacy. Black music evolved, and Cornelius didn’t know what to do with it. The life of Cornelius ends on the saddest of notes, and much like this book, it feels like a huge, empty hole on what should have been a celebrated and cherished triumph.

For those looking for an alternate point of view, check out the book by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (of the greatest Hip-Hop band ever, The Roots), Soul Train: The Music, Dance, and Style of a Generation (Harper Design, 2013, 288 pages, hardcover).

Love, peace and soul to you all.

Ben Bear

Photo courtesy of William Morrow, 2014.

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