By Ralph Greco, Jr. & Shawn Perry
Promoting the release of the famed 1970s late night TV show, The Midnight Special, on DVD, producer Burt Sugarman and Mark Goodman, former MTV VJ and currently with SiriusXM Radio, spoke candidly about the show, how it came to be and how it worked, its variety of guest performers, its influence of subsequent music television programming, and the possibility of bringing The Midnight Special back.
Created by Sugarman for NBC, The Midnight Special premiered on August 19, 1972, and ran through May 1, 1981. It used to follow The Tonight Show on Friday nights, from 1:00 AM to 2:00 AM. Sugarman, who lived next door to Johnny Carson, pitched the idea of a show featuring rock and pop artists of the day, filling in a time previously relegated to test patterns. The Midnight Special was key to bringing the best of 70s and early 80s pop rock to people’s living rooms, and now with the DVDs, featuring an array of artists that include Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith, the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Hall & Oates, Aretha Franklin, Linda Ronstadt, Blondie and many more, you can experience the best perfromances from the show all over again.
What made The Midnight Special so unique was that an artist had to be able sing and play live. As Sugarman explained, the country acts of the time were road dogs, pretty much playing live all the time, but as the 70s progressed and big rock acts stretched more and more years in between releases and subsequent tours, many were not up to snuff as much as they wanted to be. The idea of singing live on TV was not something a few of the show’s guests looked forward to.
“We had, over the long time we ran on the air, about seven, eight, or nine acts that just wouldn’t sing live,” Sugarman said. “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 around right now. They were frightened. That’s what it was.”
The veteran producer and businessman cited Jim Croce’s performance on the show as a good example. “I remember Jim Croce coming out and looking at the camera, and he said, ‘I don’t know, man. I’m out of here,’ and he actually wanted to leave. Fortunately, we talked him into staying, and then his performance was sensational, and he wanted to come back three, four weeks later and do the show again. Unfortunately, he had that airplane accident.”
As a fan whose days with MTV were still in the distant future, Goodman had a different perspective. “I was in college when the show debuted,” he related. “In the dorms, at that time, we didn’t really have TV. I didn’t even see the first year or two of it. But after I got out of school, it was amazing to me. You have to remember, I grew up in Philadelphia, so seeing music on television wasn’t totally weird to me because I saw Bandstand, but Bandstand was lip sync. The songs would fade and the artist would still be singing, so it was very weird.”
Getting artists to sing live was one thing. Getting NBC to sign off on the show was another. The network wasn’t completely sold on a rock and roll show coming on after The Tonight Show, but Sugarman assured the suits that from the pilot (featuring John Denver), he’d push an agenda to the Friday night youth audience that would make everybody happy..
“The network felt that the rock and roll people were all drugged out and half of them wouldn’t show,” Sugarman explained. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll put up the money,” and (then) I said, ‘I’ll give you another reason: It’s a voting year and I’ll make it a get-out-to-vote show for young people.’ That’s pretty hard to turn down.”
So Sugarman put up the money and had the show shot on three stages built in a state-of-the-art sound and video studio next door to where The Tonight Show taped. Six months later, The Midnight Special assumed its Friday night post for the next nine years on February 2, 1973. It was an eclectic mix of artists to be sure, from soul to country to rock and roll and R&B. On any one given show you could see a Wolfman Jack’s crazy and zany intro to Helen Reddy hosting to Argent and the Bee Gees performing. With all this talent, was there one characteristic Sugarman and Goodman felt set all these artists apart and made them so special?
“The breadth of artists that are covered by The Midnight Special is so huge,” Goodman chimed in. “I don’t want to be cliché, but the basic thing that they all have in common is that they were musical pioneers and they were artists. They were trying to do things that were going to make people spark to music and were right current with the times, and in many cases, even forward-looking.”
Sugarman added: “As I think about the acts and the songs, I think that within five or 10 seconds, with your eyes closed and you hear these songs start, you will know who the artist is and what the song is. Many of these artists have an awful lot of songs out. But I think instantaneously, on this list that has been put out, you know who it is, and you love that song. That’s the only familiarity that I see to put together.”
Was there ever an artist Sugarman wanted on the show but never got? “Elvis,” Sugarman answered without a flinch. As it turns out, the producer and the King were good friends. “I knew him quite well and played football on weekends with him and spent a lot of time with him,” he said. “That made it even harder not to have him on the show.”
Eventually The Midnight Special’s successful nine-year run came to an end. When asked why the show was cancelled, Sugarman was quick to clarify that the show was “never cancelled.” A breakdown in business dealings with NBC, due to changes in management, and perhaps the changing tide of the times, brought The Midnight Special to a close in 1981 — fours months before MTV went on the air and changed music television once again. Goodman, part of the channel’s first lineup of VJs, believes it was simply one influencing the other. “I don’t really think that MTV could have happened without The Midnight Special as a precursor.”
With the DVDs — available individually and/or as part of various multi-disc sets — out on the market, there’s a possibility of not only reviving memories for those who saw the shows when they aired, but also of winning a new audience. With that in mind, has Sugarman ever considered bringing The Midnight Special back for the new generation? “It was really fun, but I don’t want to go through that again,” he laughed. “I think that for that reason, The Midnight Special probably won’t come back. I am talking to someone now that’s been talking to me for about a year and a half about it. He would be a great host, a wonderful artist, but we’ll have to see if it goes further. I rather doubt it, but we’ll see.”