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Sights Unheard: The Midnight Special

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Sights Unheard: <i>The Midnight Special</i>

The Midnight Special was an unusual addition to the TV schedule when it began airing regularly in 1973. Until that point, artists and bands were relegated to an occasional guest spot on a variety show or a miming performance on American Bandstand. The idea of putting a handful of the hottest musical acts of the era on TV and insisting that they actually perform live, let alone putting it on the air at 1 a.m. on Friday nights, was a bold one. So bold in fact that NBC, the network that producer Burt Sugarman insisting on working with, turned him down when he first brought it to them.

“I had trouble getting any of the networks,” Sugarman recalled recently. “I wanted NBC because I wanted to follow The Tonight Show. I knew that rating would be terrific to lead into something. But the network felt that the rock and roll people were all drugged-out and half of them wouldn’t show.”

To convince them, the then 36-year-old producer and former fast food magnate put up his own money (with a little help from sponsor Chevrolet) and framed the 1972 pilot episode as a “get out the vote” show for young people. It was a gamble, but it paid off. That first 90-minute show, which featured performances by guest host John Denver, War, The Isley Brothers, Linda Ronstadt and Argent was a big hit, and by February of next year, The Midnight Special had a lock on Friday night/Saturday morning for the better part of eight years.

For the most part, The Midnight Special held true to the standards of variety shows of the time. Hosting duties were handled by a rotating cast of famous folks like Richard Pryor, Joan Baez, Doc Severinsen and Johnny Rivers (who also recorded the show’s theme song). They’d offer a bit of light banter and then introduce one of the batch of acts playing that night.

Where things get interesting is when you look back through the list of performers that logged time on the show. The tastes of the bookers was impressively catholic, pulling in acts from across the musical spectrum. In its first year alone, The Midnight Special brought out the soft pop of Paul Anka and Jose Feliciano, country stars George Jones and Tanya Tucker, prog icons Genesis and King Crimson, and wild cards like Ravi Shankar, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. The only rules they put in place was in scheduling certain performances to air at certain times to better ease the transition from the friendly talk-show vibe of The Tonight Show.

“I knew the demo was a little bit older than I wanted,” Sugarman says, “so I would usually put softer music, whether it’s Jim Croce or the Bee Gees in the first 40-45 minutes. Then about 1:45, if I have something that might be heavier, I would start to put that on. Real rock and roll.”

Of course, the show certainly offered up its fair share of hitmakers like Olivia Newton-John, Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton. But for an NBC show, the producers used the late-night time slot to their advantage, taking some interesting chances as they did. They devoted an entire episode to one of David Bowie’s last performances as Ziggy Stardust, filmed live in London. Along those same lines, they offered up airtime to other gender-bending acts like Jobriath, Sylvester and the New York Dolls. They let Robert Fripp show off his Frippertronics set-up in 1979. And they even dared to comment upon their parent network’s standards and practices by sitting Lou Reed down for an interview with Flo & Eddie of The Turtles to discuss why he was not allowed to perform live on the show.

Outside of those stray moments, though, The Midnight Special stuck pretty closely to the middle-of-the-road chartmakers of the day. They followed the tide of current musical movements with disco and new wave infiltrating the program more and more, while almost entirely ignoring the influence of punk and really heavy rock (something Don Kirshner had no problem acknowledging).

Sticking with the hit parade still provided the show with some televised live music: a sweaty impassioned Barry White keeping the camera operators on their toes as he left the stage to do a little crowd work with the ladies in the room; KISS tearing through three songs with maximum volume; Redbone offering up a ceremonial Native American dance prior to running through their sole hit “Come And Get Your Love”; and a very chemically enhanced rendition of “Hocus Pocus” by the Dutch prog group Focus.

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The producers seemed to have great success with it all, too. They kept pulling in top-tier talent and, with little competition, did very well in the ratings as well. So, why did NBC scuttle the show in 1981 right as the boom of music on television was about to get underway thanks to MTV?

It started when Sugarman walked away in 1979 after NBC decided to change their agreed-upon advertising rates, cutting into the show’s and the producer’s income. The network pulled in Dick Ebersol, a former NBC VP who left his position to do independent production work, to take over. (This is why the recently released box set of Midnight Special clips doesn’t feature any material from the show’s last two years on the air.) The plug was finally pulled completely in 1981 when the network offered Ebersol the job of running Saturday Night Live after that show’s disastrous 1980-81 season. He agreed, but only if they would take Midnight Special off the air.

Quite the undignified end for a great show like that, and it was quickly forgotten in the wake of the cultural tidal wave that was MTV. The legacy of The Midnight Special isn’t given much to grow on either. DVD releases, including the six-disc set Time/Life released in September, are spotty compilations due to Sugarman et. al. not being able to secure the rights from a great many of the acts that played during the show’s run. As well, YouTube only provides bits and pieces rather than full episodes. But at least those little portions are out there, hopefully adding up to music fans of all stripes giving The Midnight Special its rightful place in the music-on-TV continuum.

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