Judge Chris Claro attended a spiritual boot camp to have his soul trained.
You can bet your last money, it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey!
Listen my children and you shall hear, of the time when all we had were three or four channels to watch. Pre-cable, before the VCR, much less the DVR, what was on was what was on, when it was on. If, say, you wanted to watch Soul Train in my neighborhood, you had to be in front of that TV at noon on Saturday, or else the show was gone into the ether forever.
Smash cut to forty years later; we're barraged with "entertainment" from nearly every quarter. TV monitors on city streets, in elevators, in our pockets, for God's sake, hitting us with messages, choices, music, movies, games, an endless stream of demands for our attention. Viewing options have increased a thousand fold. Dozens of hours every week are devoted to music and dance on television and we watch it when we want, where we want, on whatever we want. Between youtube, DVD, and our parents' basement full of old VHS tapes, the weekly Soul Train appointment is just another relic. But that whole "into the ether" thing? Looks like I spoke too soon.
Facts of the Case
From 35 years of the premier showcase for soul and R&B performers comes The Best of Soul Train. Replete with the platform shoes, vested suits, and original Afro-Sheen commercials, TimeLife has gathered fourteen episodes from the 70s—one, for some reason, is split and included on two different discs—and one, oddly, from 1991, into a handsome, three-disc box.
Sure, Dick Clark showcased his share of performers of color on American Bandstand, but it was Don Cornelius, the writer, producer, and engineer of the Soul Train, who really gave African-American musicians a home on television. For 35 years, beginning in 1971, Soul Train, with its "gang" of young dancers and it's not-so-puzzling "Soul Train Shuffle," attracted top-flight performers to its Los Angeles studio to rap with Don, answer questions from the gang, (Sample question to the Jackson Five: "How does it feel to be superstars?") and, of course, sing their latest hits.
With his basso pipes, granny glasses, and occasional afro, Cornelius, who hosted Soul Train for its first 22 seasons, was the laid-back MC whose banter with his guests was casual, unscripted, and if the shows in this set are any indication, uniformly pedestrian: does it really matter that it took Vonetta McGee's hairdresser ten hours to braid her cornrows? Not to come down too hard on the Don, mind you. After all, nobody was watching Soul Train looking for hard-hitting interviews.
They were watching to see the performers and hear their music, and on this count The Best of Soul Train gets it absolutely right. The episodes on each disc are in no particular order, which is a nice way to watch them; it gives a sense of the changes in fashion and sound through the '70s and that the sequence is less important than the content.
That content seems to encompass every soul, funk, and R&B performer of the '70s, with some performing live and others doing lip sync to their hits. Without question, the performers who sing and play live in the studio are much more dynamic than those just mouthing. Even if Bill Withers's voice sounds a little ragged when he does "Lean on Me" and "Use Me," it's much more exciting to hear him actually singing, backed by real musicians who are miked and playing, than it is to watch the Commodores pretending to play and sing "Sail On."
Likewise, James Brown, fronting his entire band, tears it up on "Sex Machine," Barry White rocks the Train backed by his Love Unlimited Orchestra, Sly and the Family Stone do a blistering "Dance to the Music," and Stevie Wonder plays an intimate medley of his hits surrounded by eager members of the Soul Train Gang. Because they're singing live in these appearances, viewers are reminded of what made these performers so electrifying.
Seeing the exhilarating live performances makes it even more disappointing to watch equally exciting performers like Marvin Gaye, Lou Rawls, and the O'Jays mouthing along to their hit records. Even the Jackson Five are reduced to stepping their way through three of their pre-recorded hits. (Weirder still, the Five play under an enormous sign that says "Jermaine," who was embarking on a solo career at the time. Interesting how that worked out.)
Technically, The Best of Soul Train looks and sounds surprisingly crisp for material that's nearing 40 years old. The colors are a touch faded, which adds an ironic charm to the set, emphasizing the retro fashions, with Captain Cornelius sporting the baddest threads on the train. The audio on the live performances is more than acceptable, vocals nicely balanced with instruments. Sound on the lip-sync scenes takes the viewer right back to the days of AM radio.
TimeLife drops the ball on the extras for The Best of Soul Train. Though there are three interviews on each disc, with Cornelius, Smokey Robinson, and Cuba Gooding, Sr., among others, they're all static and listless, with the subjects shot by a locked-off camera, speaking to an unseen interviewer, answering questions that are spelled out onscreen. Strange that they would spring for doing the interviews, but show so little commitment to how they look. In addition, Cornelius seems to have slowed down verbally quite a bit since the old days, and his recollections take a long time to take shape.
Though it's not a home-run box, The Best of Soul Train is a rockin' ride back to a time when lapels were fat, Aretha was thin, and Michael was magic. If you're looking to put some funk in your trunk, this box is worth a look and a listen.
The Best of Soul Train is found not guilty due to its all-star lineup. Don Cornelius, however, is cited for his flagrant disregard of good fashion taste.
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