The “hippest trip in America” started its journey from Chicago 49 years ago today … and never looked back.
The first nationally-syndicated episode of “Soul Train” aired October 2, 1971 and would continue every Saturday, for an astounding 35 years, with the last two a “Best Of” situation once the ratings began to slide and most of the affiliates became Fox stations that moved the show to the wee hours. Created, executive produced and hosted by Don Cornelius, “Soul Train” was groundbreaking as the lone commercial television program on air created by Black talent specifically for a Black audience.
Before giving the world R&B’s top talent along with his weekly “peace, love and soooouuul” benediction, Cornelius worked as a news reader and backup disc jockey for Chicago radio station WVON in 1967 when he was hired by local TV news station WCIU in 1967.
His side hustle, though, was promoting and hosting a series of concerts featuring local talent at Chicago-area high schools. He called his traveling caravan of shows “The Soul Train.”
WCIU brass got wind of this musical locomotive and in 1970, invited Cornelius to air his concerts on the network. After locking in Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck & Co. as sponsors, “Soul Train” premiered on WCIU-TV on August 17, 1970, as a live show airing weekday afternoons. The first broadcast featured Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites and The Emotions.
And the show’s hyped, high-pitched “Sooooooouuuuul Train!” introduction? That was local WVON disc jockey Joe Cobb, who initially announced it like that as a joke. Cornelius would not only like it, but hire him to introduce the show in the same manner for every broadcast. He tells the story below.
Joe Cobb Original voice of “Soul Train”
Soon, Chicago-based Johnson Products Company – with its Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen hair products…
…saw a cash cow in “Soul Train” and agreed to co-sponsor the program’s expansion into national syndication. Cornelius and “Soul Train’s” syndicator targeted 25 markets outside of Chicago, but could only secure seven: Atlanta, Birmingham, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
The show would eventually expand to all 25 targeted markets. But on October 2, 1971, the first episode aired only in those lucky seven, with guest stars Gladys Knight and the Pips (singing “The Friendship Train”), Eddie Kendricks, Honey Cone and Bobby Hutton.