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NPR Reflects On The Legacy Of “Soul Train”

Written by on October 18, 2021

“Soul Train” was first nationally broadcast 50 years ago, in October 1971. NPR’s Sam Sanders discusses why nothing has been able to replace it since its run ended in 2006.

Soul Train Line, circa 1973.

“Soul Train,” the famed music and dance television program, had its beginnings as a concert series featuring local Chicago talent, promoted and hosted by Don Cornelius. Cornelius’ work caught the attention of WCIU-TV, and they premiered “Soul Train” on Aug. 17, 1970 as a weekday afternoon television program.

It started out low-budget, airing in black and white, but quickly proved to be successful and was noticed by Chicago-based Johnson Products Company. They agreed to co-sponsor “Soul Train”‘s broadcast syndication and the program was picked up by stations in seven cities outside of Chicago — Atlanta, Birmingham, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia — as a weekly series beginning on Oct. 2, 1971. Soon after, Cornelius moved the show’s headquarters out west to Los Angeles. Notably, the Chicago line of Soul Train (called “Soul Train Local” and still broadcast in black and white on WCIU) continued airing new episodes until 1976.

“Soul Train” broke barriers as the only commercial television program with Black producers and an intended Black audience at the time, and became a cultural phenomenon across the nation — a dance party friends and families could join from their homes every week. NPR daily podcast Up First reflects upon the show’s legacy and impact on popular culture as a whole in the first of a three-part episode crossover with fellow NPR podcast It’s Been A Minute, hosted by Sam Sanders. Sanders, accompanied by author Hanif Abdurraqib, scholars, fans and a few featured dancers, delves into the show’s importance and why it stands alone with such strong cultural relevance — as well as how no show since has arisen to take its place in the culture.

Written by Morgan Ciocca

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