It makes complete sense that Questlove would want to write a book about Soul Train. How the Roots drummer and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon bandleader found the time to do it while he “poured through more than 1,100 episodes of the show,” according to the dust jacket of Soul Train: The Music, Dance and Style of a Generation, out today, is a mystery.
For a coffee table book, it’s a fairly modest tome—nearly 250 pages of full-color photos and large print, though still with more writing than you might expect from a guy as busy as Questlove is these days. In his introduction, he wastes no time mentioning his hometown. The fourth line: “Growing up in my house in Philadelphia, we weren’t allowed to watch anything on television except Sesame Street and Soul Train.”
Part of the fun here is the author’s obsessiveness and steel-trap memory for long-ago details. He recalls burning his arm on a hot radiator when he was roughly 2 years old as much for the soundtrack–Curtis Mayfield singing “Freddie’s Dead” performing on the show–as the pain. For Questlove, music leaves the most beautiful scars.
His joy in dissecting the series throughout its span across three decades and paying tribute to the impact of Don Cornelius on pop culture makes it a fun read, even if you’ve never seen a single episode or can’t recall the “synchronized howl” of “Sooouuuuul Train” that opened each show or picture the dancers grooving down the dance line (you can thank Charles “Robot” Washington for those stiff-armed moves you bust out after a few beers).
Aside from Questlove’s childhood memories, Philly makes a few cameos (though not with Cameo): Hall & Oates surfaces in a chapter on “Blue-Eyed Soul,” and a Teddy Pendergrass performance and interview takes on eerie gravity in light of his car wreck two years later. Homegirl Patti LaBelle is awarded with a “Top 10” Soul Train moment for her 1981 rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a version that’s been mimicked and lampooned many times since, sealing its status as a classic. Interestingly, Boyz II Men and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince earn only passing references as ’90s icons.
Along with Questlove’s wit and geeked-up dissections—episode five, for example, is his pick for the first “supershow,” with performances by both Bill Withers and Al Green—more than 350 archival photos translate Soul Train’s energy on the page. From a haunting dressing room shot of the late Cornelius to countless frames of the show’s eclectic and flamboyant rump-shakers, there’s plenty of eye candy. The most arresting shots are a series featuring a young Michael Jackson, in the heyday of the Jackson 5, long before the ravages of fame and fortune took the heaviest toll.
If you’re a Soul Train fan or a music buff, this book makes a strong case for a spot on your shelf. It reads like a conversation in a vinyl record shop and looks like a photo album the Smithsonian should display. If you’re a cultural historian, it’s a lively reminder of the way Cornelius broke barriers for black entertainers and gave mainstream America a unique look at black music in a way television never had before. Even if you’re none of those, Questlove’s nerdy valentines to the show and infectious enthusiasm make it worth a look.