It was going to take the right person. Writing a biographical book about the history of Soul Train required a meticulous journalist with stamina, one capable of enduring the marathon history trail of this epic television series’ 40-year existence. Accepting the challenge would be greater than a 5K run; this all-important writing assignment would be the equivalent of jogging around the world while simultaneously drafting an encyclopedia, with a mandatory time machine ride somewhere between the starting gun and finish line.
Enter University of Maryland journalism professor and award-winning journalist Ericka Blount Danois. The Baltimore native began stretching her writer legs as a stringer for the Philadelphia Tribune. Since then the Columbia University graduate’s work has graced the pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, ESPN The Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Heart and Soul, Vibe, Wax Poetics, The Source, and The Wall Street Journal, among other notable publications. Her credentials read like the index of the annual Writer’s Handbook.
Danois was handed the honor of writing the first written biography of Soul Train, tentatively titled Love, Peace & Soul. For this she interviewed nearly 100 celebrities and Soul Train alums as sources. With the book currently in post-production, the decades-high anticipation for its release is already beginning to build.
But was Ericka Blount Danois the right person for this historical undertaking? Without question!
SoulTrain.com: Ericka, how reliable are you at keeping secrets?
Ericka Blount Danois: Oh my gosh, not at all! I’m just kidding [laughs]. I’m good; I don’t do the gossip thing.
SoulTrain.com: Good to know. Were you a good math student or a student who was good at math?
Ericka Blount Danois: Once upon a time I was a student who was good at math. Then I took geometry, and then calculus; then I was a student who was bad at math. Before that I loved math. I was pretty good at it.
SoulTrain.com: Tell us what you liked about your favorite documentary.
Ericka Blount Danois: I liked [Beats, Rhymes & Life] about A Tribe Called Quest. It really illuminated the whole Native Tongues time period, what the group was all about, how they came together, and how they were so different from everything else that was going on at the time. And then how they fell apart and why they fell apart. But then it talked about their personal lives, which was really interesting – particularly Phife and his struggle with diabetes. But hearing the music, going back in time and reliving it was a great experience.
SoulTrain.com: Okay Ericka, you’re tasked with writing the biographical history of Soul Train. Did it feel like you’d been entrusted with a big secret you couldn’t wait to tell?
Ericka Blount Danois: I feel less like it’s a secret, but that I found out so much that I need to tell all of what I found out. There’s so much history, so many anecdotes, so many things that impact the show I think people should know! I discovered so much and I want to share it.
SoulTrain.com: Looking back on Soul Train strictly from its numbers–the number of years the show has been around, the number of people who appeared on the show, its ratings–did you feel the mathematic aspect of its history was overwhelming when trying to add it all together?
Ericka Blount Danois: Absolutely! That was the biggest struggle, trying to figure out how to tell the story. You can’t really tell forty years’ worth of history in one book. You can’t do that. So what I narrowed it down to was this: What were the defining moments? What were the moments in history that stood out from that show? What kinds of things changed the show and changed the direction of the show? I had to look at the narrative in that way because I couldn’t sit down and do a 4,000 page book on forty years’ worth of what happened.
SoulTrain.com: There are going to be people attracted to the book simply because they have affection for Soul Train. Then you’ll also have people who care nothing about history. So how do you write the history of Soul Train to appeal to people who might otherwise be bored with it?
Erick Blount Danois: That’s a good question. When I initially thought about doing it I didn’t think that broadly about it. When doing research and interviews, I found out there is a bigger story.
SoulTrain.com: What was it?
Ericka Blount Danois: The Civil Rights movement intersected with the beginning of Soul Train. Then also the business story: Where Don Cornelius came from, how he started his own company, what Martin Luther King thought about his company, and how some of the white artists crossed over to a black market because of the show.
SoulTrain.com: The music history aspect, for those interested in that, assumedly goes without saying.
Ericka Blount Danois: For music it was the Golden Age, the best music–black and white. The time period–the 70s and 80s, then hip-hop in the 90s–produced some of the best music we’ve ever had! With this one story I think people can get US history, they can get television history, they can get music history, and business history on how Don built this company and television show from scratch with his own money! He was able to call the shots because he did it that way.
SoulTrain.com: It sounds like you’ve taken a documentary approach to writing the history of Soul Train. How did feature writing with newspapers and magazines prepare you for this?
Ericka Blount Danois: Technically, it helped to craft a story. What I did was make each chapter a story, like you would in a magazine article. I guess practice from doing that came into play when you’re making your narrative. When you’re writing for magazines and newspapers, you’re writing for a very broad general audience, and you have to able to get their attention and keep it.
SoulTrain.com: From what you’ve learned doing research, what was it about Soul Train, to its television audience, that made it almost seem unreal?
Ericka Blount Danois: At the time there was just nothing else like it. That’s as simple as it can get! There was nothing else like Soul Train on TV! For you to turn on the TV at noon on Saturday and see some of the best artists performing, seeing kids who looked like you wearing the latest fashions and doing the latest dances, commercials about natural hair styles. You’d see Don interviewing all kinds of people; he’d have special guests like the Lakers and Fred Williamson among other stars along with the music guests. There was just nothing else like that! People were probably just in shock at first!
SoulTrain.com: Without giving too much away, what is something you discovered about Soul Train you thought was real, but turned out to be fiction?
Ericka Blount Danois: The first white artist to appear on Soul Train was not Gino Vannelli. It was Dennis Coffey. In the documentary they said Gino Vanenelli was the first white artist, but Dennis Coffey was one of the first people on the show, period! I think he was either the fifth or sixth act on the show. Don always had white artists on. He never said they weren’t allowed. People assumed it was a black show and they weren’t welcomed, but they were.
SoulTrain.com: Regardless of what some may have assumed, most people still understand Soul Train appealed to a broad audience. Do you need to do that with this book?
Ericka Blount Danois: I haven’t come across anyone who’d be like, “Oh no, I wouldn’t watch Soul Train.” Everybody watched it every Saturday. Most people already get it. It was as big as American Bandstand–or bigger, really. I think what’s as important as conveying that it had a broad appeal was that it also made history.
SoulTrain.com: Now that you’ve absorbed all this information and history, even though you’re writing it do you think you’ll ever be able to get Soul Train out of your head?
Ericka Blount Danois: [Laughs] Oh my gosh! The Soul Train monkey will always be on my back! It’s a constant because it was 40 years, because it was so many artists, and there’s a million stories. Having to pick and choose, going through piles and piles of papers to determine what people want to hear, it could go on and on. But there’s a deadline. And after the book, I want to see the show; and I could watch it over and over. It never gets boring.
For more information on Ericka Blount Danois, visit her official website ErickaBlount.com and on Twitter @erickablount.
–Mr. Joe Walker
Mr. Joe Walker, a senior contributor for SoulTrain.com, is an acclaimed entertainment and news journalist published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. Former Editor In Chief of both XPOZ Magazine and The Underwire Interactive Magazine, his work has graced the pages and covers of Hear/Say Now Magazine, Notion Magazine, Kalamazoo Gazette Newspaper, MLive.com, and AllHipHop.com. He loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker. Also visit TheGrooveSpt.com and ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.