When I was growing up in Chicago, there was no rowdier time in our house than Friday night, when my mother, my three siblings and I stayed up to watch "Red Hot and Blues" on Channel 26, Chicago's first UHF station. Part advertisement and part dance spectacle, it was our chance to celebrate the end of the week, listen and dance to our favorite R & B songs and howl at the cheesy commercials delivered by pitchmen selling used cars and ugly furniture: "You'll do well to see Dell's - Dell's Furniture." (Even hearing the voice was enough to send us all into fits of laughter.) Just as attractive as the music was the lineup of shabbily dressed kids from the West Side who gathered in front of the camera to dance — a great counterpart to us shabbily dressed kids from the South Side. The show was the highlight of our week.
That show, started in 1967, was the precursor to a later version hosted by a young man named Don Cornelius. It wasn't long before he went national with a much more refined concept, the show that generations of us know as "Soul Train." Two recent books chart the rise of this African-American cultural phenomenon: "The Hippest Trip in America," by the filmmaker and cultural critic Nelson George, and "Soul Train," by Ahmir Thompson, known as Questlove, beloved of a generation of culturally conscious lovers of hip-hop as the drummer for the Roots (the house band on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon"). Both books are packed with reporting, not only on the rise of Don Cornelius and his vision of a stylish and beautiful African-American dance show, but also on the back story of dancers and musicians whose careers were built through what became the "Soul Train" brand. The difference is in sensibility. While George writes with the ease and credibility of a critic and journalist, Questlove writes with a fan's passion.