"The Midnight Special: 1972-81 --- Late Night's Original Rock & Roll Show"

Aug 31, 2002 (Updated Jun 15, 2007)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:A flashback look at pre-MTV music television that is full of memories.

Cons:A photo of each artist on each show would have been a nice addition.

The Bottom Line: If you loved pop music in the 1970s and the early 1980s, this book is for you. Packed with memories and informative to read.


On August 19, 1972, the relative quiet of late-night television --- the domain of Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and other talk show hosts --- was jolted from its couch potato slumber by the arrival of contemporary rock and roll music via "The Midnight Special" on NBC-TV.

Background

Although rock music had an established place on daytime television previously via shows such as "American Bandstand," "Upbeat," "Shindig," "Hullabaloo" and "Music Scene," no late-night show had dared to concentrate solely on the current pop music scene.

Burt Sugarman

Executive producer Burt Sugarman (later producer or executive producer of such films as "Children Of A Lesser God," "Crimes Of The Heart" and "Extremities," as well as TV's short-lived brilliance of "The Richard Pryor Show" and the 1971-72 Grammy Awards show) had become fascinated by the idea of "the irreverant spirit of late-night television, and the power of live pop music" as a potential vehicle for a 90-minute television series.

The first episode

When that first episode aired in August, 1972, it was broadcast as a one-shot, late-night special, airing at 1 a.m. directly after the regular highly rated Carson show on NBC-TV.

According to Sugarman's introduction to this book, NBC execs feared a rock show (would rock artists show up on time? would they destroy things? would they be high on drugs?), so to sell the idea Sugarman hired the very down-to-earth singer John Denver as the host of that first episode.

That first episode was also launched with a message on the importance of voting in presidential election year 1972 (the year Richard Nixon would win in a landslide re-election that November). This was the first year that the national voting age had been lowered to allow 18-year-olds the right to vote.

Additionally, with a network worried about finding sponsors for the show, Sugarman agreed to personally guarantee "this experiment" by fronting the money for it ($180,000 to cover the cost of the show, the air time and potential advertising revenue).

That's how this first episode came to air. Sugarman believed it had a weekly series potential, but he first had to show it could grab an audience.

Sugarman's dream became a ratings hit and was equally popular with the critics.

That first episode's appeal was driven by its musical stars: host John Denver, with guests Cass Elliot (from The Mamas & The Papas), Argent (featuring Rod Argent from The Zombies), Linda Ronstadt, The Everly Brothers, David Clayton-Thomas (from Blood, Sweat & Tears), War. Helen Reddy, The Isley Brothers and Harry Chapin.

The weekly series

This success led to NBC-TV making the show a weekly series beginning on February 2, 1973.

Each show would feature a different host for that week, initially with musicians as hosts such as Helen Reddy, Johnny Rivers (whose performance of the song "The Midnight Special" became the show's weekly theme), Mac Davis and David Bowie, but later hosted by the likes of radio disc jockey Wolfman Jack, comedian Lily Tomlin, actress Sissy Spacek and record industry executive Clive Davis during a nine-year run, 1972-81.

Although comedians (such as George Carlin, Chevy Chase and Steve Martin) and actresses (like Spacek and Lynda "Wonder Woman" Carter) would perform, the show remained dominated by its musical guests all those years.

The arrival of MTV

During its run, other late-night imitators popped up, such as ABC-TV's "In Concert" and the syndicated "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert," but "The Midnight Special" was the most successful of these shows.

Music Television, or MTV, became a 24-hour event beginning in 1980, initially airing video clips and live concerts. This led to the eventual cancellation of "The Midnight Special".

The final episode, which the book's author, B. R. Hunter, refers to as "the day the music died," aired March 27, 1981, hosted by Skip Stephenson and Byron Allen from NBC's hit series "Real People." The final guests were Waylon Jennings, Cathy Moriarty, Robert Urich, Yarbrough & Peoples and previously unaired live footage of Creedence Clearwater Revival from 1970 --- not quite as exciting a lineup as that first episode nearly nine years earlier.

The show later was briefly rebroadcast by VH-1, another music television station and the sponsor of this book (as in "VH-1 Music First Presents..." which precedes the title on the cover of the book).

The book

Throughout its more than 160-pages, this large-size paperback is illustrated with hundreds of color photographs (capturing the appearances of most of the artists in shots from the episodes they appeared on).

An informative foreward by the author (no biographical information on author B. R. Hunter is provided in the book) who gathered much of the show's staff together to research the show's history and a fine introduction by executive producer Burt Sugarman add to the book's quality presentation.

The book's page backgrounds also include a design that recalls the 1970s' post-psychodelia era as well --- very cool and fun. There's even a page of "who's who" that identifies the dozens of "bubble" photographs pr artists that adorn the front and back covers of the book.

This is a fine, well-written trip down that road called memory lane, which includes commentary on the performers on each episode.

The episode guide

A major plus to this book is that it lists every episode (all 418 broadcasts, including re-broadcasts: for instance, the pilot episode with John Denver was later re-aired as Episodea #140, #171, #280 and #421) aired by NBC-TV.

The episode guide includes the names of each host, the guests and a complete list of every song performed by each artist featured in that episode.

The performers

Among those guests were most of the big names in pop music between 1972 and 1981. In addition to those named already, those hundreds of recording artists that appeared on the show included:

Eric Carmen (first as one of The Raspberries; later as a solo act), Badfinger, Elton John, Alice Cooper, Peter Frampton, Ike and Tina Turner, Don McLean, Curtis Mayfield, The Byrds, Steely Dan, Albert hammond (whose sang his hit "It Never Rains In California" and whose son is a member of the currently popular rock band The Strokes) and The Spinners.

Also: The Doobie Brothers, Billy Preston, Anne Murray, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Johnny Nash, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Pointer Sisters, T. Rex, Riah Heep and B. B. King,

Also: Earth, Wind & Fire, The New York Dolls, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, The Guess Who, Mott The Hoople, Steve Miller, Genesis, Rick Nelson, Little Richard, Sly & The Family Stone, Aerosmith, Marvin Gaye (who got an episode all to himself), Randy Newman, Flo & Eddie (aka Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, lead singers from The Turtles) and Eric Burdon (former lead singer of both The Animals and War).

Also: The Electric Light Orchestra (featuring Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan from The Move), Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, The Ohio Players, Olivia Newton-John, Poco, The Charlie Daniels Band, Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, Loggins and Messina, Rod Stewart & The Faces (with guest Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones joining them on stage) and Herman's Hermits.

Also: Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, Jim Croce, The Commodores (featuring future solo artist Lionel Richie), Tom Jones, Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers, Abba, KC & The Sunshine Band, Heart, Van Morrison, Carlos Santana, Neil Young, The Bee Gees, he Four Tops, Lou Reed, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Cheap Trick and many, many more.

JUST RELEASED --- another cool music book

"Raspberries TONIGHT!" by Bernie Hogya and Ken Sharp with photography by Gene Taylor --- a full-color, 100-page paperback book about the 2004-2005 Raspberries (Eric Carmen, Wally Bryson, Dave Smalley and Jim Bonfanti of "Go All The Way" fame) reunion tour: http://www.epinions.com/content_217001201284

On the web

From one of the acts on the show: Capitol/EMI's 20-track 24-bit digitally remastered CD "Greatest" by Raspberries (the original lineup --- Eric Carmen, Wally Bryson, Dave Smalley and Jim Bonfanti --- who sang the million-seller "Go All The Way" reunited in 2004-2005) was released in May of 2005 in the U. S. and Europe. It features all 7 of Raspberries Hot 100 singles, has 20 tracks and runs 78:53 minutes: http://www.epinions.com/content_186044681860

You might also enjoy the story of "The Ed Sullivan Show," "A Really Big Show" by John Leonard: http://www.epinions.com/content_134775148164

Official site: http://www.midnightspecial.com/


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