Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ericka Blount Danois Takes the Hippest Trip in America

Posted By on Thu, Oct 17, 2013 at 7:08 AM

"The Asian chick with the long hair."

That's how many viewers in the 1970s thought of her. That's how she's described more than once in Love, Peace, and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America's Favorite Dance Show (Backbeat Books). And that's how the author of that book remembered her in a recent phone interview with the Flyer.

The author is Ericka Blount Danois. The "chick" was dancer Cheryl Song. And the TV show was Soul Train, the longest-running first-run syndicated show in television history — 1,100 hours of what was billed as "the hippest trip in America." Meet Danois and have her sign your copy of Love, Peace, and Soul when she's in Memphis on Saturday, October 19th, at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music from 2 to 5 p.m. Former Stax Records chairman and owner Al Bell, who wrote the book's foreword, will be there too, with the book for sale in the museum's gift shop.

Danois, who lives in Baltimore and teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, isn't used to giving interviews. She's more comfortable conducting them. But with the publication of Love, Peace, and Soul and with a recent Q&A (and excerpt from the book) on the Huffington Post, she's getting used to answering rather than asking the questions. Don't ask her, though, about the chances of there being a line dance, Soul Train-style, at her Memphis signing. That question's been posed, and it has been answered:

"I'm not a great dancer," Danois admitted. "I'm not looking forward to coming down any Soul Train line. But I will be giving a video presentation at the signing, with episodes from the show, 'classic' moments, discuss what the artists were talking about through their music and lyrics, different genres of music over the decades."

The Flyer: Before we talk about the book, tell me about your own upbringing and the part music played in it.
Ericka Blount Danois: My father worked at a record store and then as a stagehand. My sister and I would even work the spotlights sometimes at, you know, a Parliament/Funkadelic concert. My father also had a jazz radio show in Washington, D.C. So it was music played all day, every day, in our house. It was just part of our lives.

I also grew up reading the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books and wanting to be a detective. So the book and the research for it has been a dream come true. To rewatch Soul Train episodes — as a fan and critically — it just doesn't get any better than that. Fun? Absolutely!

But the show had a component beyond the music, the dancing, the guest stars. Don Cornelius, the host and man responsible for the show, was about black empowerment for those in front of the camera and behind the scenes and in the news.
I didn't realize that as a kid, but, looking back, it was pretty overt. Al Sharpton when he was still a teenager, Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH … they were on Soul Train. Don was very deliberate about employing black people, providing opportunities.

He was also a complex man.
To achieve his level of success, you have to be a little outside the norm. As a kid, I didn't realize that about him either. I just enjoyed his far-out clothes, his sayings. But, as I wrote in an article for Spin magazine, when I saw him in Chicago in 2011, he was a whole other person. Dick Clark was more complex too than people realize.

You write in your preface that soon after you got the publishing contract for your book, Don Cornelius committed suicide. He'd been through a nasty and expensive divorce. He had ongoing, major health problems. You were "forced to interview around him."
The challenge was pinning people down. Didn't matter who it was — an artist who'd appeared on the show, one of the Soul Train dancers. It seemed as if a lot of people were very protective of Don.

People, and particularly black people, want the history of the show to be told correctly. Because our history has so often been misrepresented, we're pretty skeptical. Don's death added another layer to that skepticism: the way he died. People were wary of talking bad about him, wary of talking about whatever demons he may have had, demons that may have led him to commit suicide in early 2012 — mental illness, depression. Suicide is a stigma in every community but definitely in black communities, black churches. I got past that stigma with my interviews, but it took a lot of convincing and persistence. Don's death was for everyone still so new.

What's also new: your interviews with the show's dancers, their back stories and how the show led to their own successful careers.
The Soul Train dancers were, for me, the most interesting part of the story — kids who worked on the show but didn't get paid. One of them traveled from New York to Los Angeles just for the tapings. What motivated them? The show was a stepping stone for these kids, many of whom went on to become singers, professional dancers, choreographers. I didn't know about that either. They parlayed Soul Train into real careers.

Jody Watley, Rosie Perez, Viveca Fox, MC Hammer ...
And Patricia Davis, Walter Payton ...

Who were your favorites?
Definitely the "lockers." As a kid, I tried to do "pop-locking." And Cheryl Song, the Asian chick with long hair, we were like, "Oh wow, we can dance better than her!" When I interviewed her, she was wonderful. She was the first Soul Train dancer I found. And I found out she'd been in Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video and worked with Rick James. I thought, again: wow.

And while I was interviewing the dancers, I was finding out more about Don … his background, the music scene in Chicago, where the show started. The book "took over." I couldn't stop finding information.

What would you like Memphians to know about the help you received on the book from the people at Stax?
This is unrelated, but when I came to Memphis, I was blown away by the Stax Museum. Stax has a real place in my heart, because the music that came out of there was like none other. The movie Wattstax had a HUGE impact on me.

Memphis is the centerpiece for soul music, the civil rights movement. They're both everything that Soul Train represented. Al Bell was a good friend of Don's. He helped Don get artists for the show. Stax, plus Motown: They helped Soul Train get to what it became.

You're a teacher. What do young people today think of the show? Do they think of it at all?
It's funny. They're excited by it. They know it through their parents. BET runs the annual Soul Train awards show. But it's not only young people. It's people from all walks of life. I started out as just a fan too. But writing this book showed me what an impact it had on me.

I hate to sound like an old person. I hate to be the one who says, "Back in the day, our music was better." But it WAS. Al Green singing "Jesus Is Waiting," one of Soul Train's classic moments: It's still mesmerizing. •

For more information on Ericka Blount Danois' book signing, call Stax at 942-SOUL.

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