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TELEVISION REVIEW

Recalling ‘Soul Train,’ a cultural icon of cool

Don Cornelius’s “Soul Train’’ brought black pride, style, and music into America’s living rooms. Don Cornelius’s “Soul Train’’ brought black pride, style, and music into America’s living rooms. (Amy Goldberg)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / February 6, 2010

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In the late ’60s Don Cornelius was growing weary of only seeing dark-skinned faces on TV in connection with news reports of urban unrest. So the Chicago reporter came up with an alternative, one that would tap into the joy and creativity of the African-American community.

When Cornelius’s brainchild, “Soul Train,’’ signed off in 2006 after 35 years on the air, it had the distinction of being the longest-running syndicated show in history and had indelibly imprinted itself on popular culture.

It may have been just another Saturday morning teen dance show - modeled on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand’’ and hosted by deep-voiced cool cat Cornelius - but like any cultural first, “Soul Train’’ was about much more than what was on the surface.

Those ripples out into the wider world are examined in the lively and absorbing new VH1 documentary “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America,’’ airing tonight at 9:30.

In addition to chronicling Cornelius’s early struggles and triumphs, the show lays out the ways in which “Soul Train’’ both cemented and reflected a community in flux, from the civil-rights movement to urban blight to ’80s upward mobility and beyond. Predating shows like “Good Times’’ and “The Jeffersons,’’ “Soul Train’’ brought urban black style into living rooms nationwide, advancing acceptance and causing reverberations in the arenas of fashion and choreography. And Cornelius found ways to integrate nonmusical voices like Jesse Jackson and Richard Pryor into the show as a means of community outreach.

Like most TV documentaries, “Trip’’ is a collection of archival footage and famous talking heads. (Actor Terrence Howard narrates.) But when that footage includes rarely replayed clips of James Brown strutting down the signature “Soul Train Line,’’ and the chance to hear Sly Stone and Snoop Dogg reminisce about their milestone moments, the formula gets funky.

As one of the first black men in broadcasting to own his show, Cornelius was a savvy operator. But he is candid about his own blind spots when it came to embracing newer styles of music as they emerged. He first viewed disco as a threat and hip-hop as a fad that sounded bleak and ugly. But he ultimately featured both, understanding that was what his audience wanted to hear.

The producers also cram in a plethora of fun facts, including famous names who rode the train as dancers - Rosie Perez, Fred “Rerun’’ Berry of “What’s Happening!!’’ fame, and Jeffrey Daniel, the man who taught Michael Jackson how to moonwalk. We learn that Gino Vannelli, the first white artist to perform on the show, saw his live concerts instantly integrated because of it.

As fans of R&B music - and bigger audiences -British artists like David Bowie and Elton John also clamored to appear (Bowie recalls, correctly, that his unrehearsed lip-synch of “Fame’’ was a “farce.’’ ) And even after Cornelius handed over the conductor’s keys in 1993 (successors included actor Shemar Moore) the train kept on rolling with the hottest acts.

After 90 minutes of “peace, love, and soul’’ - Cornelius’s famous sign-off catchphrase - I found myself scrambling over to YouTube for more, including Al Green’s complete wicked and wild live take on “Here I Am.’’ I already plan to resurrect the “Soul Train’’ line at my next party.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

SOUL TRAIN: The Hippest Trip in America On: VH1

Time: Tonight at 9:30