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'Midnight Special' Rocked Late Night TV: Facts And Stories

Entertainment | August 19, 2020

Left: Psychedelic soul group Sly & The Family Stone performs on the TV show 'The Midnight Special' in 1971 in Burbank, California. Right: Host Wolfman Jack. Sources: Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; actorz.ru

The Midnight Special was a music-oriented TV show that happened late at night, and was performed live -- breaking the established rules of network programming just by its mere existence.

See, in the early ‘70s late night TV wasn’t a thing. Once Carson bid the audience adieu on The Tonight Show there was no reason to keep watching, which is exactly what drove Burt Sugarman to create NBC didn’t want the show so Burt Sugarman paid to produce it himself NBC didn’t want the show so Burt Sugarman paid to produce it himself. He presumed (quite rightly) that music fans and night owls would respond to a weekly showcase of modern music and comedy. On The Midnight Special, bands played live, they played loud, and they played. Even though this groundbreaking variety series was on the air for nearly a decade, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves for jumpstarting all night television.

NBC didn’t want the show so Burt Sugarman paid to produce it himself

source: NBC

Burt Sugarman was producing television long before he came up with the idea for The Midnight Special, so when he realized that there was money to be made in an after midnight variety show he knew what he was talking about. In 1972, television went off the air at 1 A.M. at the latest, it’s not that the networks didn’t have anything to show, they just didn’t think that anyone was TV that late at night.

Sugarman pitched NBC on a weekly variety show that would play after The Tonight Show, they rejected him outright but that didn’t stop him from producing the show. Rather than rest on his laurels Sugarman convinced Chevrolet to sponsor the pilot episode of The Midnight Special and he took it to air.

The pilot featured superstar John Denver in the host spot with with performances by Mama Cass, Harry Chapin, Helen Reddy, The Everly Brothers, the Isley Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, and War. Sugarman was not messing around with the first episode of his baby. The ratings were so good for this self produced episode that NBC reversed their decision and agreed to produce an hourly version of the show.

The theme of the pilot was the 26th Amendment

source: NBC

One of the strangest things about The Midnight Special’s pilot episode from 1972 is its obsession with telling the audience to go out and vote. At the time the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had just been ratified, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971. Sugarman wanted to show that The Midnight Special could be important so he made sure that every performer told the audience - especially those between the ages of 18 and 21 to go out and vote. He told Goldmine that he wanted to show NBC that the series could do good and make money. Sugarman says that he told NBC, “The FCC will love you for it.”

The success of “Midnight Special” help create more late night programming

source: NBC

The Midnight Special proved to be so successful within one year of its February 2, 1973 premiere date that NBC decided to try out late night programming five nights out of the week. Rather than produce five different shows to cater to five different demographics they created the talk show Tomorrow to air Monday through Thursday.

NBC’s decision to air late night programming five nights a week wasn’t just new and exciting, it was instrumental in creating space for shows like Saturday Night Live. Without Midnight Special who knows how it would have taken for 24 hour programming to become a thing?

Bands had to play live on the show

source: NBC

At the time, most of the musical performances that were on television were mimed to a backing track. Not only did it play the exact song that the labels wanted on the air, but it was easy for the television crew because there was no real set up, Sugarman wanted to upset the paradigm and put live music on television.

If an artist was booked to play on The Midnight Special they had to plug in and play their songs from beginning to end. Sugarman says that the artists who were the most comfortable appearing on live television were country musicians because they were used to playing in front of audience every night for a living:

The artists that were the most comfortable walking in front of the camera, or, remember, I had an audience of a couple of hundred people there, were the country artists, and the reason is because they toured all the time, so that was just easy for them. Some of the mainline artists, and I’m not going to got on who they are, were panicked, just panicked.

The Disco Special

source: NBC

Everyone caught disco fever in the 1970s, including the producers behind The Midnight Special. In 1978 the series was completely revamped for the dancing sect. The set was turned into a dance floor with a DJ booth where Wolfman Jack hung out throughout the broadcast. Even though the show was moving towards a more Top 40 and dance friendly format they still maintained the rock n roll underpinnings. For every episode hosted by KC & The Sunshine Band (and there were at least two in 1978) there were just as many performances by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Dickey Betts.

Even when the Village People hosted in January 1979 the show featured Toto and a music video from Rod Stewart. It was definitely a wild mix on Midnight Special, making it a treat for viewers with an open mind.

The final Ziggy Stardust performance is on “The Midnight Special”

source: NBC

On November 9, 1973, viewers were treated to something truly special. Rather than a normal episode of The Midnight Special, The 1980 Floor Show aired featuring the final performance of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, as well as two songs by Marianne Faithfull. The “Floor Show” was filmed at the Marquee Club in London over three nights in October, and it features songs from Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups, and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Ziggy and the Spiders were done away with on July 3 of that year, so this transitional performance by Bowie that referenced his most recent character was a really special thing for audiences - especially young American fans of Bowie who weren’t able to make it Soho for these fascinating performances.

The time slot dictated when the artists performed

source: NBC

On any given night on The Midnight Special you could see Alice Cooper, John Denver, War, and Chaka Khan on one episode, but Bob Sugarman knew that he couldn’t just throw whatever artists he wanted at the audience, he felt that he needed to ease the viewers into the more far out acts through Top 40 performers, which is why the performances became farther removed from pop radio as the night went on. Sugarman explained:

I’d have the middle-of-the-road acts first, because that was the demographic of Carson’s audience. So up until 1:45 a.m., you’d have Mama Cass, Helen Reddy and John Denver. Then I’d get into War, The Doobie Brothers, Aerosmith and Peter Frampton, the kind of acts the kids would want to stay up for.

Tags: Burt Sugarman | Midnight Special | Wolfman Jack

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.