Inside "Soul Train"

As Soul Train rides into the into the rail yard for good (for now, anyway), an article in the Chicago Reader Thursday features a new book that takes a behind-the-scenes look at the dance program’s Chicago days at WCIU-TV in the early 1970’s.

Titled A Critical History of Soul Train on Television, author Chris Lehman takes a look at the program’s WCIU era, unearthing many little-known facts. Among the findings:

– Though most programming of the era was produced and shown in color, the Chicago version of Soul Train was produced and aired in black-as-white, as WCIU did not broadcast in color until the late 1970’s (the major American networks had full color prime-time schedules by September 1966; Canadian public broadcaster CBC didn’t broadcast fully in color until 1974.)

Soul Train actually continued as a local daily show in Chicago until 1976, even as the show went national as a weekly syndicated version from Hollywood debuted in 1971 (according to a TV listing I have from the Chicago Tribune dated August 10, 1974, the weekly version of Train aired locally Saturday afternoons on CBS-owned WBBM-TV.)

Soul Train aired live from WCIU’s Board of Trade headquarters at 141 West Jackson Blvd. on the 43rd floor, in a very cramped space. The size was about the same as a studio apartment.

– The program’s Chicago version also featured some well-known political activists in the black community, including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Father George Clements of Holy Angels Church.

– Before the days Tom Joyner became known as “the fly jock” (flying between radio gigs in Chicago and Dallas simultaneously), you could assume Don Cornelius held the title first – from 1971 to 1973, he flew back-and-forth between Chicago and Los Angeles to produce and host both versions of Soul Train.

– There were significant differences in both versions of the show, in the size of studio and the way dancers performed.

– After Cornelius went to Los Angeles to stay, Chicago’s version of Soul Train had a new host – childhood friend Clinton Ghent, who coordinated the show, which included booking the dancers and picking the music. Chicago’s version of Soul Train ended in 1976 when Ghent became Cornelius’ assistant in L.A.; reruns would continue on WCIU until the summer of 1979.

Soul Train continued as a weekly syndicated show until 2006, when new episodes ceased airing. It segued into The Best of Soul Train – featuring reruns of the series from the 1970’s and 1980’s. But airings of this program ended a week or so ago, when contracts with stations expired.
The show’s previous syndicator (Tribune Entertainment) closed last December, forcing Don Cornelius Productions to sign with another syndicator, in which they did with Trifecta Entertainment. But Trifecta declined its option to bring Soul Train reruns back into syndication for the 2008-09 television season.

MadVision Entertainment – which recently acquired the rights to the series – plans to bring the show back in some kind of form in the future. Soul Train still holds the record for the longest running first-run syndicated program at 35 consecutive seasons, with the second-longest (Entertainment Tonight) currently at 28 seasons.

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