The Best of Soul Train (3 DVD)

RIYL: ’70s soul, really bad fashion, Afro-Sheen

Prior to MTV (to say nothing of the network’s lack of acceptance for soul and rap music for half a decade or so) and BET, or for those of us who just didn’t have cable for a long time, “Soul Train” was the primary destination for soul music lovers looking to check out their favorite artists. Running for over three decades, just about everyone who was ever anyone in R&B or hip-hop stood on the hallowed “Soul Train” stage and performed as dozens of young, stylish dancers showed off their latest moves.

Time-Life has recently opened the “Soul Train” vaults and unleashed a nine-DVD set containing hours of performances, interviews and legendary routines, and even more recently, some of the all-time classic performances have been compiled onto the “Best of Soul Train” DVD.

This 3-disc set contains performances from some of the all-time greats of soul music, and almost all of them come from the show’s first few years, 1971-1979. (Stevie Wonder provides the only content coming from a later date, with a 1991 medley of his hits.) Although many of “Soul Train’s” guests lip-synched, this set is heavy on the rare live performances. They include a sweaty run through “That Lady” by the Isley Brothers, riveting performances of “Use Me” and “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers, an impromptu duet of “Ooh Baby Baby” by Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson, and a performance by Barry White and a huge orchestra that must have required Don Cornelius’s production company to expand the Soul Train stage.

In addition to those performances, you get mimed but still incredible performances by the Jackson 5, the Commodores and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (featuring a frighteningly dressed Teddy Pendergrass). There’s also interview footage from those shows (worth the cost for the Marvin Gaye segment alone) as well as several dance routines that show how ahead of their time the Soul Train dancers were (in addition to how horrendous some of the fashions of the time were). You also get to see some of the groundbreaking commercials that ran during the Soul Train episodes, among the first ads to feature products geared exclusively towards a black audience. Bonus footage includes interviews with Soul Train creator/host Don Cornelius, the legendary Smokey Robinson, and Soul Train dancer-turned-Grammy winning singer Jody Watley.

As an admitted “Soul Train”-aholic, I’m hoping that eventually the highlights from every episode (up until the mid-Nineties, when I pretty much stopped watching) gets released. However, if you are a fan of soul music in any one of its incarnations, you need to have this DVD in your collection. So throw on your tightest bell-bottoms, pick your afro, and take a ride on the funkiest train in music history. As Don famously stated at the end of each episode, “you can bet your last money that it’s gonna be a stone gas, honey!”
(Time-Life 2010)


Various Artists: Motown 50 – Yesterday, Today, Forever

How does a legendary label celebrate its 50th birthday? By inviting the public at large to vote on its 50 greatest hits, turning the results into a terrific 3-CD compilation…and then releasing it only in the UK. The upshot is that even though you’ll have to pay import prices for it – and even though anyone who’s interested in Motown probably already has copies of most, if not all, of these songs – Motown 50 is one of the more interesting and consistently interesting label retrospectives to come down the pike in quite some time. Much of this is owed to the strength of the catalog, of course, but still, Motown has never been a label known for playing fast and loose with its heritage, both of which make this the entry-level Hitsville compilation to own. If Motown 50 has a major drawback, it’s that it’s sequenced in order, meaning you start out listening to the classics (Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street”) and wind up with lesser entries like Lionel Richie’s “My Destiny”; it would have been better (and braver) to count down rather than up. But hey, that’s what the shuffle button is for – and when the label takes enough care to tack on 11 tracks of Motown artists covering (often left-field) hits, who can complain? When you can get the Elgins’ “Heaven Must Have Sent You” and Stevie Wonder covering “Light My Fire” in one compilation, all disagreements are minor. Now when is this getting an American release? (Motown 2008)

Motown 50 Official Site


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