As unbelievable as it may seem now, there was a time when TV entertainment wasn’t available 24 hours a day. That all changed with Burt Sugarman’s music-focused variety show The Midnight Specialwhich debuted on August 19, 1972.
Until the early 1970s, it was common for most TV stations to cut their programming after midnight and show nothing at all until the local news arrived in the morning. None of the three national networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, had any programming airing after 1 a.m.
Sugarman, a television producer with experience in the music industry, saw a missed opportunity. The last show that NBC aired on Friday nights was The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carsonwhich was immensely popular and had a large audience of teenagers and 20s.
So why assume that all of these people went to bed on the Friday night immediately after Carson’s program ended? Why not create a show aimed at a younger audience – featuring live music and the occasional comedian or entertainer and see if that would make any money?
It was a great pitch, but NBC wasn’t part of it. So Sugarman did what any great promoter does and took a huge gamble. He bought the airtime himself, convinced Chevrolet to be the sponsor, and directed a 90-minute pilot episode.
Watch John Denver and Cass Elliot in ‘The Midnight Special’ Pilot
“The network figured rock ‘n’ roll people were all on drugs and half of them wouldn’t show up,” Sugarman told Jason Price in 2014. say what, I’m going to put up the money,” and I said, “I’m going to give you another reason: it’s a voting year and I’m going to make it a show to get young people to vote. “”
And that’s what Sugarman did: between performances, young people were encouraged to register and reminded that the voting age had recently been lowered to 18.
The real appeal of the pilot, however, was the fact that it would feature live musical performances, instead of the lip-synched ones that were then standard in many television shows. Sugarman leaned into this trope. He called his show The Midnight Special after an old American standard, and asked Johnny Rivers to record the song as his theme music.
He enlisted famed DJ Wolfman Jack to be the announcer and convinced John Denver to be his guest host. He asked Andy Kaufman to do a comedy set and signed musical acts such as Cass Elliot, Harry Chapin, the Everly Brothers, War, Linda Ronstadt, Argent and the Isley Brothers – all of whom would perform live.
It worked. NBC saw the ratings, bought the show, and put it into regular production, where it would stay — still airing late at night — until the early ’80s.
Watch Kiss in “The Midnight Special”
During this time, The Midnight Special became the premier TV venue for bands who wanted to perform live to broadcast their music to national audiences.
“At the time, a band would come to Los Angeles on Saturdays and synchronize their hit on American bandstand“distributor Paul Brownstein later told Ed Robertson. “If they really wanted major TV exposure, though, they’d have to go to NBC in Burbank and do The Midnight Special, because it was the only opportunity for a network television gig at the time. They were performing with live vocals.”
During the course of the show, this opportunity attracted an immense number of groups. Wolfman Jack remained the announcer and often interviewed artists after they performed, but The Midnight Special also featured a number of guest hosts – usually musicians – who ran the show between their own performances.
The huge list of artists who appeared on the program reads like a who’s who of 50s, 60s and 70s rock ‘n roll, including Chuck Berry, Blondie, Aretha Franklin, Prince, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, AC/DC , Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie and almost everyone in between. Comedians George Carlin, Steve Martin and Richard Pryor also starred on the show, as did Monty Python. ELO has appeared seven times, more than any other group.
Watch Prince perform in ‘The Midnight Special’
The live musical performance aspect of The Midnight Special could actually be intimidating, especially for performers used to lip-syncing on TV.
“We’ve had, in the long time that we’ve been on the air, about seven, eight, or nine acts that just wouldn’t sing live,” Sugarman later told MTV’s Mark Goodman. “They said, ‘We can’t’ or ‘We won’t; we don’t do that,” and I just didn’t put them on. Obviously, I can’t name them. Half of them are still there right now. They were scared. That’s what it is. was.
It was a magical show and brought music to a nationwide audience that craved it. All Good Things, However, Must End: The final episode aired May 1, 1981 after NBC pulled the plug. The era of variety shows was coming to an end and a new form of TV music was brewing that might never have seen the light of day if The Midnight Special hadn’t proven that there was a huge appetite for music playing on television at all hours of the day and night.
This new form of music was video, of course. MTV debuted on August 1, 1981, just three months after The Midnight Special closed its doors.
Rock’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ 60 Greatest Performances
Was Aerosmith’s “Night in the Ruts” doomed?