In the period between American Bandstand and MTV, several shows tried to bring rock ‘n’ roll to television. In the wake of Elvis Presley and the Beatles’ debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, ’60s series like Hullabaloo, Shindig and The Music Scene featured rock and pop performers. But it wasn’t until The Midnight Special premiered on August 19, 1972, that rock ‘n’ roll found its own home on the air.
Back in the early ’70s, the only ways for fans to see their favorite rock stars were in concert or in the pages of magazines like Rolling Stone or Creem. So the idea for The Midnight Special, which ran on NBC from 1972 to 1981, came to creator Burt Sugarman in a light-bulb moment. A veteran of producing Grammy Awards telecasts, Sugarman was frustrated by the network’s lack of programming after the The Tonight Show — the screen reverting to test patterns at 1:00 a.m. A next-door neighbor to Johnny Carson, Sugarman recognized this TV wasteland for what it was: a place where he could cater to an audience that craved seeing its latest rock ‘n’ roll heroes brought into their living rooms every Friday night. And, with the pilot, which premiered at 1:00 a.m. on August 19, 1972 with Johnny Rivers rendition of “The Midnight Special,” Leadbelly’s classic gospel song, he did just that.
The Midnight Special’s eclectic lineup reflected the show’s commitment not only to rock, but also to mirroring the Top 40 melting pot of the 70s, including genres such as folk, blues, R&B, soul, country and pop. For much of the run, the show was presided over by the legendary, gravelly-voiced DJ Wolfman Jack (Brooklyn-born Bob Smith), who was recruited as a permanent announcer and made his debut in Episode 2; he would go on to become the living symbol of the show and a powerful draw for performers who were more than happy to share the stage with him. A variety of guest hosts appeared along with Wolfman Jack over the years including such ’70s music icons as the Bee Gees, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Loggins and Messina, Richard Pryor, The O’Jays, Electric Light Orchestra, KC & the Sunshine Band, plus frequent host Helen Reddy. Viewers and members of the studio audience were treated to one-of-a-kind concert events direct from The Midnight Special stages featuring anyone from Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Bee Gees and Earth, Wind & Fire to Electric Light Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, Jim Croce or John Denver, performing their biggest hits live.
The TV DVD archivists at StarVista Entertainment/Time Life will bring consumers back to the ’70s for the seminal, groundbreaking live music TV show on DVD, featuring extensive bonus features! The Midnight Special Collector’s Edition, available exclusively online at MIDNIGHTSPECIALDVDS.COM has been released in a beautifully-packaged 11-disc set, featuring nearly 5 hours of specially-produced bonus features and a 32-page collector’s book. There are also two retail configurations: a 6-disc set and a single DVD; which are now available in stores.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with the creator of this iconic series, Burt Sugarman, and former MTV VJ Mark Goodman to get a look inside their careers and bringing this awesome new collection to the masses!
You’ve been involved with projects that have really impacted the lives of many music fans, both with Midnight Special and of course, Mark, with MTV. What are some of your first musical memories and what impact did music have on your lives?
Burt Sugarman: Obviously, I’ve liked music forever, growing up as a kid and this and that, and my music taste changed. Country music was always in there, always important to me, but everything, everybody, and how many of these people were characters and what happened in their lives, et cetera, et cetera, that had nothing to do with Midnight Special, but that continually went through my psyche. I went to concerts here in Los Angeles at the Shrine Auditorium or wherever it might be, just loved it always, didn’t ever know early if I’d be in the music business.
Mark Goodman: My taste has been all over the place as well. My parents were into music big time. They loved jazz music, so I grew up listening to great jazz vocalists like Sarah Vaughan, Eartha Kitt, people like that, Dinah Washington. That was my earliest experiences. Then as a young teenager, while all my friends were listening to pop music, I was listening to black music in Philadelphia where I grew up, so I was listening to Smokey Robinson and the TSOP, which would come along a little bit later on, The Sound of Philadelphia. That was my thing, until all of sudden, I heard Cream, “Sunshine of Your Love,” and between that and a couple of other things that were going on with my generation at the time, I got into rock and roll, and the rest, as they say, is rock history.
I was curious what challenges you might have originally faced in bringing Midnight Special to life. I imagine it was quite the undertaking.
Burt Sugarman: Well, they were big, of course, at the time. I look back on that quite often. But first, I had trouble getting any of the networks. I wanted NBC because I wanted to follow The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Johnny was a next-door neighbor of mine. We played tennis all the time together. I knew that that rating, when he went off, would be terrific to lead in to something but the network felt that the rock and roll people were all drugged out and half of them wouldn’t show, and what happened then was I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll put up the money,” and 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.
When I said that and the money, they said, “OK, go for it. If you’ll do that and they don’t show up, it’s your problem, not ours. We’ll give you the time.” But that was the toughest thing to overcome, and it took a few months of hard meetings to get it finished, Jason.
Mark Goodman: Burt, I got a question for you that maybe Jason would like to hear the answer to. I’m wondering what the bands thought because certainly at that time, it was, like, Before Midnight Special, it was really, like, American Bandstand. There really wasn’t that much going on, and certainly at that time of night, you have the freedom to do a lot more. Were the bands really into that idea of being able to play on TV for a national audience live? Was that a cool thing or was that something that everybody thought, “That’s never going to work. I don’t want to do that. It’s going to sound like crap?” What was their response?
Burt Sugarman: I’ll start with the musicians. The artists that were 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 go on who they are, were panicked, just panicked to walk out in front and see a red light on three or four cameras and start to sing or talk or something. The other thing is with me, they had to sing live. There was no lip syncing. So all that made it very interesting, but we got through it and loved every second of it.
Mark Goodman: And some of the performances are so incredible, and like you said, because they’re live, that’s what impresses me the most. Four months later, after you went off the air, MTV debuted, and of course, we were all lip sync.
Burt Sugarman: Yes, right. 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 could talk him into staying, and then his performance was sensational, and he wanted to come back three, four weeks later and do the show again, and unfortunately, he had that airplane accident.
Mark Goodman: Oh, jeez, oh. Wow.
Burt Sugarman: One other thing with Jim, somebody, it might have been Gladys Knight, somebody wanted to present me with a gold album for being responsible, they said, for selling all the records. Croce was the one who was going to give it to me. I said, “Look, I don’t go on camera. It’s just not what I want to do, and thank you so much.” He said, “Well, you don’t go on camera, then now that I’m ready to go on, I won’t go on. You have to go on camera.” I actually did for the first and only time I went on camera because of the way Jim said that to me. He had me nervous.
Mark Goodman: That’s great! Oh my God, that’s fantastic.
Burt Sugarman: He was a classic.
Mark Goodman: I hope that’s good, Jason.
Definitely, thank you. Obviously, you guys have experienced music from very different perspectives. I was curious, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned that you could pass along to people today looking to pursue a career in the music industry?
Mark Goodman: Don’t.
Burt Sugarman: This is probably the only time that I will disagree a little bit with Mark, in the spirit of cooperation, but I always feel, period, follow your dream.
Mark Goodman: I agree with you. I’m kidding, of course.
Burt Sugarman: Oh, I know that.
Mark Goodman: It’s a hell of a business. I think musicians now have to be, and in whatever genre, they have to understand that there has to be a bit more to what’s going on. I think honesty is key. I think people smell a phony. People smell hype, and we are more averse to hype than ever. So as an artist, you have to make sure that you are speaking honestly.
From the other side of it, from the business side of it, you have to understand how to use social media. You have to understand how that works and how that can feed your career because, like I was saying before, it is a level playing field in many ways, and there’s story after story after story of people who hosted a video on YouTube and wound up being signed in six months. After they get a million views on YouTube, you’re discovered. Does that make sense, Jason?
Yeah, I guess just as a followup, you mentioned your book, Mark. Any chance we might see some type of collaboration where we could get a book out of Burt as well?
Mark Goodman: I would love to see Burt write a book. Burt should write a book, just the stories that he’s told today.
Burt Sugarman: Burt is not going to write a book. He loves reading books. But I’ve just given it a long and hard thought, and I am not going to write a book.
It’s great to hear all these stories. I was wondering, looking back on both of your careers, are there any moments that you might wish you went a different direction or made a different decision and see how they played out, so to speak?
Burt Sugarman: For me, there’s been times certainly that I wished I had made a different decision. I mean that just goes along with it. Do I really want this act, and what happens if they go on the green room? My God, I should be very careful but not putting these two people, et cetera, et cetera. There’s times, and that’s just a small example, when you just make the wrong decision. You hope it’s not a serious one, and you want your correct decisions to be 75% and the wrong ones to be 25, and I think in life, you’ll be better.
Mark Goodman: By the way, it seems to me that Burt made those decisions. He went all over the place. You did everything that you could do.
Burt Sugarman: Exactly.
Mark Goodman: I have to say for me that I never doubted for a minute. I was one of these lucky kids who, by the time I was 13 years old, I realized that I was a crappy musician and I didn’t have the patience to practice, so I was trying to figure out what else I could do to be involved with music, and I realized at that age that radio was going to be my way, and I never looked back really. That was what I pursued, what I wanted to do, was what I pursued in college. I graduated with a degree in communications. I was working before I left college at two radio stations. I never, for a second, thought about television until I was working in New York in a radio station and somebody told me about this weird TV channel where they were going to be playing videos all the time. I segued into that by accident, but I never, ever … I have no discernible skills, is the problem, so I can only do this.
What’s up next for you both? Where do you have your eye on in the meantime that we can look forward to in the years to come?
Mark Goodman: I want to go into business with Burt Sugarman.
Burt Sugarman: Thank you for the compliment. As I said earlier, I’m curious, and that curiosity leads me into different ventures. My eyes are always open. I enjoy those things, and I continue to do them. Mark, how terrific it is at a very young, young age you knew what you wanted to do. That’s fabulous.
Mark Goodman: Yeah, I do feel really lucky, especially we all … Burt, you mentioned that you have your college-age kids. I have a 22-year-old daughter. So many have no idea, so I feel really, very, very lucky.
Burt Sugarman: Yeah, you did good, but they’ll find their way. Let them follow their dream, right?
Mark Goodman: That’s the advice I always give, is to love because everything becomes a job sooner or later, and if you love it, at least you’re still going to be able to go to work every day.
Burt Sugarman: You get up in the morning with a smile.
A “must-have” for fans of ’70s music and ’70s pop culture, THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL COLLECTOR’S EDITION, priced to add to every music lover’s home entertainment collection at $99.95, features eight discs of 130 incredible live performances from the era’s greatest stars (carefully selected from 423 complete shows), one disc of comedy performances and two discs of specially-produced, exclusive bonus programming, including interviews with Peter Frampton, Alice Cooper, Loggins & Messina, Eddie Money, George Benson, Charlie Daniels, Todd Rundgren, Helen Reddy, Neil Sedaka, creator Burt Sugarman and many more; as well as 12 featurettes, including “The History of The Midnight Special,” “Wolfman at Midnight,” “Star-Studded Stage Fashion,” “No Safety Net: Live on TV,” “I Am Woman: Helen Reddy as Host,” “Benson & Frampton Talk Shop,” “The Making of The Midnight Special” “The Legacy of The Midnight Special“, a Burt Sugarman featurette and more. Additionally, the collector’s set includes a 32-page, full-color booklet with an intro from Burt Sugarman, artist photos, liner notes and more.
With nearly 10 hours of live performances, THE COLLECTOR’S EDITION features a roster of “who’s who” in ’70s music, including:
- Aerosmith/ “Dream On”
- Alice Cooper/ Medley: “Eighteen/Only Women/Billion Dollar Babies”
- Bee Gees/ “Nights on Broadway”
- Earth, Wind & Fire/ “Shining Star”
- Electric Light Orchestra/ “Evil Woman”
- Fleetwood Mac/ “Over My Head”
- Gordon Lightfoot/ “Sundown”
- Heart/ “Crazy on You”
- Helen Reddy/ “I Am Woman”
- Jim Croce/ “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”
- John Denver/ “Take Me Home, Country Roads”
- KC and the Sunshine Band/ “That’s the Way (I Like It)”
- LaBelle/ “Lady Marmalade”
- Linda Ronstadt/ “When Will I Be Loved”
- Marvin Gaye/ “Let’s Get It On”
- Neil Sedaka/Captain & Tenille/ “Love Will Keep Us Together”
- Peter Frampton/ “Show Me the Way”
- REO Speedwagon/ “Keep on Loving You”
- The Doobie Brothers/ “Listen to the Music”
- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers/ “American Girl”
THE COLLECTOR’S EDITION also includes some unique collaborations that were a hallmark of The Midnight Special, such as:
- Aretha Franklin & Ray Charles/ “Takes Two to Tango”
- Carlos Santana & George Benson/ “Breezin'”
- Etta James & Dr. John/ “I’d Rather Go Blind”
- Gladys Knight & B.B. King/ “The Thrill Is Gone”
- Helen Reddy & The Bee Gees/ “To Love Somebody”
- John Denver & Cass Elliot/ “Leaving on a Jet Plane”
- Neil Sedaka/Captain & Tenille/ “Love Will Keep Us Together”
The 6-disc retail set ($59.95srp) and the single ($12.95srp), will include 96 and 16 live performances, respectively, and a host of bonus features.
“It was so electric in the studio. We knew we were blazing new trails.” — Creator Burt Sugarman
A musical microcosm of its era with highlights offering some of the most indelible moments of the ’70s airwaves, The Midnight Special has, at long last, been preserved for music lovers everywhere. And with in-depth featurettes and interviews, home audiences can truly visit the ’70s anytime, courtesy of StarVista Entertainment/Time Life.
THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL COLLECTOR’S EDITION (11 DISCS)
Pre-order Begins: August 12, 2014
Run time: Approx. 16 hours
Online Exclusive Collection includes:
- 11 DVDs in deluxe collector’s edition packaging
- 130 Complete Live Performances
- Classic comedy from The Midnight Special by Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal, George Carlin, Andy Kaufman, Steve Martin and Freddie Prinze, and more.
- 32-page collector’s booklet with an intro by creator Burt Sugarman, liner notes from The Hollywood Reporter’s Contributing Editor Roy Trakin and archival photos
- Almost 5 hours of hours of specially-created featurettes, in-depth interviews and more.
- Twelve featurettes including: “Benson & Frampton Talk Shop,” “Burt Sugarman,” “George Benson: Early Influences,” “I Am Woman: Helen Reddy as Host,” “No Safety Net: Live on TV,” “Songwriting” Featurette, “Star-Studded Stage Fashion,” “The Musical Diversity of The Midnight Special,” “The History of The Midnight Special,” “The Legacy of The Midnight Special,” “Behind the Scenes of The Midnight Special,” and “Wolfman at Midnight”
- Interviews with: Alice Cooper, Burt Sugarman, Charlie Daniels, Christopher Cross, David Steinberg, Eddie Money, Frankie Valli, George Benson, Harry Wayne Casey, Helen Reddy, Kevin Cronin (REO Speedwagon), Loggins & Messina, Mark Goodman (MTV), Melissa Manchester, Neil Sedaka, O’Jays, Peter Frampton, Robert Bell, Thelma Houston, Todd Rundgren
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.