The Best of Soul Train is available as a single-disc, three-disc, and a nine-disc set. The three-disc set was made available for review.
Growing up as a member of the Gen X generation, I saw many Saturday morning shows come and go, but there seemed to be two constants through the years: American Bandstand and Soul Train, two music-based programs featuring appearances by then-current artists and the kids who listened and danced to their work. Bandstand came first in 1952, and then Soul Train, hosted by producer Don Cornelius, followed in 1971 with a specific focus on black music, such as R&B and soul. New episodes were produced until 2006. The vast majority of the material collected here is from the 1970s with only one segment from another decade: Steve Wonder’s appearance from Episode 671 aired September 21, 1991. Some of the video footage exhibits wear and minor damage. Some of the clips, but not many, are cut short.
The line-up is star-studded and predominantly male featuring the likes of James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, The Jackson 5, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, and Barry White to name a few. Some artists sing live and others lip-synch. The difference in the power of the performances is very noticeable. The best example of this is when Aretha Franklin lip-synchs “I Was Made For You” then later in the same episode (#314, airdate December 1, 1979) she plays piano and is joined by Smokey Robinson for a smoldering duet of his “Ooo Baby Baby” that is so much better. All three Marvin Gaye “performances” (#89, airdate February 16, 1974) are unfortunately lip-synched, but it’s funny to watch him because it’s so obvious as he doesn’t always hold the microphone near his mouth.
The show was well known for its dancers, and they reveal the changes in fashion and dance styles throughout the years more than the musicians do. Making clear their importance, a number of the “Soul Train Line” segments are included in the set. As a part of the show, a number of times the Soul Train Dancers get to ask the artists questions, though some kids blow their opportunity by asking the musicians foolish things like what their sign is.
The national syndication sponsor for Soul Train was Johnson Products Company, who made hair care and cosmetic products for African Americans under the names Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen. Surprisingly, quite a number of commercials are included here, which is unusual for a TV-on-DVD set. The spots are funny artifacts of their time. The most unusual one features the ghost of Frederick Douglass doing an Afro Sheen commercial.
The Isley Brothers open Disc 1 of the DVD set with three songs (#119, airdate December 14, 1974). I very much enjoyed their performance, especially guitarist Ernie Isley who brings to mind Jimi Hendrix with his outfit and the way he tears it up. As I watched, it slowly dawned on me that it was an all-black audience dancing on the set. I had mixed emotions over this realization. Obviously the show filled an unfortunate void for the artists and viewers at the time, but surely all the wonderful music contained herein appealed to all races. Even as a kid to young to appear on the show, I heard these songs on the radio and enjoyed them. It’s not until the aforementioned Stevie Wonder show from 1991 that a Hispanic and a white girl can be seen, although it is amusing to see the latter stuck in the back or off to the side and get almost no face time.
The episodes can be watched in their entirety or just the performances can be chosen. There are over three hours of Bonus Features presenting modern-day interviews with Don Cornelius, Smokey Robinson, Brian McKnight, Cuba Gooding Sr., dance coordinator Eric Casem, Jody Watley and Clarence Avant talking about the show, its origins and impact.
With three options to choose from, there’s no good reason not to own a version of The Best of Soul Train, a must-have for anyone who considers themselves a music lover.
Article first published as DVD Review: The Best of Soul Train (3 DVD) on Blogcritics.