The Best Of Soul Train Quickly Loses Steam

When my editor, the wonderful A. Mac, asked me if I’d be willing to write a review the brand new nine-disc collector’s edition box set of SOUL TRAIN from Time Life I absolutely jumped at the chance. I said “groovy,” “outta sight” and “right on!” Like so many kids across the country I grew up watching Soul Train.

I’d switch on my TV in Chicago (Soul Train’s birthplace) and watch as the biggest and brightest African-American musical artists of all time and of the time strutted their stuff every week (some with the biggest afros, whacked-out styles and highest platform shoes I’ve ever seen) and made us all get up and dance. It was truly some of the first “water-cooler” conversation I remember growing up, and in school we’d discuss who sang/performed what that weekend before as we ate lunch or went from class to class. Simply put, you just felt cool watching it, like you were invited to the biggest and best party in the world.
So yes, I was all geeked up to devour and treasure these DVDs. However, after watching them all, I have to say, I am very torn. After catching this TRAIN, watching its classic performances and riding the wheels of nostalgia I feel that ultimately the people who created this set at Time Life didn’t have much SOUL.
But let’s start with the heart and, later on, get down to the art. Ready?
Soul train really was “the hippest trip in America” when it debuted August 17, 1970 (I was born the same year, although I am slightly younger, having been born in December). It came at a time when the civil rights movement and black power were then newer parts of the fabric of our nation, and showed how a small little show could gain steam and chug its way into pop culture history. Launching itself into syndication in 1971 the show featured stars lip-synching their songs (much like artists did on white counterpart American Bandstand). Except this time, the sound, look and feel were funky, black and beautiful.
The things the nine-disc Soul Train DVD set does right, is capture and preserve on-demand many of these performances from such classic, timeless artists, many of whom are no longer with us, and bring them back into our living rooms.

Artists like Barry White, Luther Vandross, Ike and Tina Turner, The Commodores, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls, Smokey Robinson, James Brown and more, who either sang live on the show (Barry White’s full orchestra is something to behold) or lip-synched (Marvin Gaye even notes how badly he mouthed the words to his own songs much to the smooth baritone chagrin of host Don Cornelius).

Either way, it didn’t matter. Black music artists, for really the first time, were being featured on a show hosted by a black man. It was groundbreaking, and nothing could stop those wheels from turning as we rolled into the seventies.
And while I am talking about key performances featured on the DVD I have to mention a few that had the most heart and just blew me away:
Ernest Isley playing guitar on the Isley Brothers’ cover of “Summer Breeze”
Bill Withers’ live rendition of “Use Me”
Ike and Tina Turner performing “Proud Mary”
Watching THE Jackson 5 perform songs when Michael was still young and innocent (and pre-many plastic surgeries), and when Jermaine was the one being groomed for super-stardom.
The live version of “That’s What Friends Are For” performed by Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder from the first Soul Train Music Awards show
These performances and so many more are reasons in themselves to watch this DVD set…
…but notice I said “watch,” not “own.”
Why do you ask? It all goes back to how Time Life fails in delivering the art.
This DVD set skips all over the place chronologically. Each DVD, with the exception of the last disc (33 minutes of highlights from the first annual Soul Train Music Awards) jumps from one year to the other, sometimes from one decade to another. Really?!

Couldn’t someone at Time Life (or whoever pulled these clips to sell) give us a wonderful train ride across time and pop culture by at least lining up the performances by year/decade. I mean how fun would it have been to see the show evolve from the seventies to the two-thousands, to see the artists and their music change over the years and see the show go from “the little show that could” to the juggernaut it eventually became? It truly would have been a stone groove!
But noooooooo! These discs jump all over the place. I can see what they were trying to do. They tried to make the DVD segments look like you were watching entire shows (complete with the classic show opens) but it fails and you’re not watching whole shows, and it fails because it seems like the producers of the DVD didn’t care enough to have some, well, soul.
Why not have a bevy of special features including a compilation of the Johnson Products Company’s hair care commercials? They are awesome and fun to watch, but on these DVDs they come up here and there instead of in an organized and chronological order.

What about having a special feature devoted to how they conceived the famous show open featuring the animated train and the infamous “Soooooooouuuuuuuuul Train” voice-over? And the interviews which comprise the main gist of the “special features” on certain discs are dry and boring, particularly those featuring Don Cornelius, himself, whose voice, while still rich and classic, could (and did) put me to sleep. They should have sprinkled clips from the show’s almost 40 years into those interviews to breath life into them instead of having just static talking heads give stock answers people not be awake enough to hear.
Just to illustrate how sloppily-edited this DVD set is, during Episode 45, there is an entirely out-of-place live interview with actress Vonetta McGee talking about her “upcoming” movie project  “Shaft in Africa.” O.K., yes, that was cool, but it was like even the DVD producers fell asleep and left the master running as it recorded. Having the interview included made no sense, and only would have if you, again, made a special feature out of the wonderful array of black talent throughout the show’s history who gave interviews to Cornelius, again marking how all of entertainment used Soul Train to promote the wonderful work of African-Americans.
Lastly, the “caboose” disc, a “best of” the first-annual Soul Train Music Awards was just thrown in, it seems, to give the set another disc to pump up the price. It’s only 33-minutes long. I mean why not put the whole show on the disc? It’s not rocket science? Why just put select (albeit) great performances on such a waste of a disc when you could have offered people a chance to own history and own the first historic Soul Train Music Awards show with it’s artists, fashions and fabulous faces (look for a young Denzel Washington and even younger Janet Jackson sitting in the audience)?
Sigh. What incredible time capsule opportunities wasted.
Again, I’m not trying to be completely down on this DVD set. It is truly awesome to watch and worth the time at any party or get-together just to see the incredible styles (especially Cornelius’ green velvet suit, with matching two-tone green shirt and wide-ass tie) and various trips down the Soul Train dance line. However, at $275 (!) it is not worth it, especially in these hard economic times. Sure it’s fun, but it’s like paying for what’s supposed to be a big swanky seven-course banquet and being only served frozen, store-bought appetizers.

I can only imagine what this DVD set could have been with the right people behind it, people who not only loved the show but love how much DVD and technology can bring you and me as consumers. Instead we pull into the station from a pretty long trip (13 hours!) thinking about how much we DIDN’T get to see. And you’ll never convince me that in the almost 40 years of this show’s history the sparse selections here were all the “best” they could come up with.
Soul Train was the epitome of cool, but shame on Time Life again for asking for so much money and delivering so little. You shouldn’t bet your bottom money because the DVDs ultimately aren’t the stone gas you’re led to believe they are, honey. Totally rent ‘em on Netflix.

And, by the way, if you really want a Soul Train special that’s full of history, fun and life check out if you can VH1’s 90-minute 40th-anniversary tribute “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America.” In just 90 minutes I got more history, tidbits and behind-the-scenes magic than in the entirety of this run-of-the-mill “ask” for money. 
This is Bill Ivory Larson signing off until next time wishing you love, peace and…SOUL!

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