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‘Soundstage’: Seminal PBS Series Became The Template For Music Television

For a young Bonnie Raitt, appearing on one of the first episodes of WTTW’s “Soundstage,” was a pivotal career moment.

“I was still relatively unknown nationally and to have Ken offer that kind of showcase, bringing me together with my friends and frequent tour mates Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, was a pretty amazing gift,” she says.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of “Soundstage,” the seminal live concert series produced by Ken Ehrlich, which aired on PBS stations nationally starting in 1974. WTTW executive producer/director of national programming Nicolette Ferri says, “From the moment it premiered … ‘Soundstage’ became a template for generations of music series; every series like it that followed was directly influenced by it.”

Jack Sussman, CBS’ executive VP, specials, music and live events, grew up watching “Soundstage.” “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to do what I wound up doing,” he says. “Because it was real, it was legitimate, it was live. It was real musicians playing instruments and singing — what a concept.”

The series evolved out of “Made in Chicago,” a local performance show that had been helmed by Ehrlich, and like its forebear was shot at the Windy City PBS affiliate’s studios.

Even as a young producer, Ehrlich knew how to harness the power of live music on television. The series debut, a tribute to blues great Muddy Waters, taught Ehrlich a profound lesson. Waters was subdued at first, hobbled by a bad accident. But as he sat surrounded by younger artists he’d influenced, Ehrlich felt the energy in the room shift.

“All of a sudden he’s growling and he’s being the old Muddy Waters,” Ehrlich says. “It was maybe the earliest realization I had about just how revered certain artists are by other artists. That stayed with me all my life.”

Though certainly not adverse to pop’s big names — Barry Manilow and the Bee Gees appeared on the show — the hourlong program wasn’t dependent on charts or mainstream success.

“I just booked the people that I wanted to see on television,” Ehrlich says. “I wish I could do that now 100%. I didn’t do this with managers and agents and publicists months in advance.”

WTTW’s Ferri, who has co-produced more recent “Soundstage” iterations with Joe Thomas’ HD Ready production company, studied Ehrlich’s earlier productions. “What amazed us was the small budget Ken had to work with and what he did with it. That’s when his creativity kicked in.”

Ehrlich moved to Los Angeles after “Soundstage’s” first three seasons, but returned to Chicago to produce a season’s flight of 16 episodes each summer before leaving the show for good around 1980.

“The show never broke anybody. It didn’t have that kind of impact,” Ehrlich says. “But there are people today that tell me the first time they saw John Prine was on ‘Soundstage.’ ”

As a fan and a musician, Raitt still reveres “Soundstage” and its legacy: “It really was groundbreaking,” she says. “ ‘Soundstage’ and Ken were always ahead in both taste, style and choice of artists to feature.”

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