May 9, 2024

Many of Burt Sugarman's "Midnight Special" Performances Released on Dedicated YouTube Channel

In the era prior to the advent of music videos, the only genuine recordings (singles, albums) was often the recorded music itself (artist performances on film did not really exist, and tended to be exceptions). However, television performances on TV variety shows of the era were fairly close. Those recordings represent what we have for musical performances before music videos became routine.

Musical artists regularly guest starred on different variety programs of the day, including the legendary "The Ed Sullivan Show" which ran from 1948-71, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" which ran from 1967-69, "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" which ran from 1969-72, "The Johnny Cash Show" which ran from 1969-71 on a different network, several incarnations of the "Sonny & Cher Show" which collectively ran from 1971-77, "Tony Orlando & Dawn Rainbow Hour" which ran from 1974-76, "The Captain and Tennille Show" which ran for one season between 1976-77, "The Jacksons" which also ran for one season between 1976-77, and of course, the legendary "Tonight Show" starring Johnny Carson which was really more than a late-night talk show. The legendary "Carol Burnett Show" focus was really more on comedy, while musical performances were a secondary program idea.

While Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Tony Orlando & Dawn and The Jacksons all got their start in music, aside from Sonny & Cher, their variety shows were not primarily focused on music. They covered the full entertainment spectrum including TV, comedy and movies as well as music. A relative late-comer to the music-themed variety show scene was "Barbara Mandrell & the Mandrell Sisters" which was co-produced by Sid and Marty Krofft who were better known for producing odd and vaguely sci-fi children's shows as "H.R. Pufnstuf" and "Land of the Lost". The "Barbara Mandrell & the Mandrell Sisters" variety show ran on NBC from 1980-82. A brief fill-in known as "Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris" ran for just a few months in 2015, but the genre proved less suitable from a ratings perspective during an era where Americans enjoyed unprecedented access to hundreds of broadcast and cable TV stations (and this happened as even more choices became available with free ad-supported streaming TV ["FAST"] platforms such as PlutoTV had just emerged). 

But in 1972, the U.S. TV business was still dominated by a few major broadcast networks (whose origins were in radio broadcast networks of the same names in the decades before), hence producer Burt Sugarman pitched a unique program which he called "Midnight Special" as a means for NBC to capitalize on a potential audience in a late-night time-slot. Mr. Sugarman said "Our aim was to reach for the 18-33 age bracket, the young married and daters who attend concerts and movies but don't watch much television".

NBC initially rejected the idea. None of the Big Three broadcast television networks had any recurring programming on after 1:00 am ET, and common practice by most network stations was to sign-off after the final program (some local affiliate stations ran old reruns after to entice viewers and advertisers alike). Despite a lack of competition in the late night time-slot, NBC was not interested…initially. 

But the NBC rejection led Mr. Sugarman to instead buy the air time for a premiere on his own as a brokered show, and he managed to persuade Chevrolet to become the show's first sponsor. The show premiered with ratings high enough for NBC to subsequently reconsider its original denial decision, and the network ultimately bought the program.

The Burt Sugarman's Midnight Special's original time slot was on Saturdays from 1:00–2:30 AM in the Eastern and Pacific time zones (Midnight to 1:30 AM Central and Mountain). Midnight Special ran from 1972–1981. By 1981, however, cable television had become commonplace in the U.S., and with it a number of cable-only television stations, including the original iteration of MTV: Music Television which was inaugurated in 1981 (although the cable network later shifted away from music in 1992 to cheap, low-quality "reality" show programming and has since abandoned music content completely). 

One of the things which made Burt Sugarman's Midnight Special is it had musical performances from anyone who was anyone in the music industry between 1972-81. Those musical performances were recorded on film rather than video, meaning the quality of the performances has held up better than lower-quality video recordings of the same era have without digital remastering. 

Alas, due to the many thorny issues with licensing of music, many of Midnight Special musical performances were presumed out of reach. But on YouTube, Mr. Sugarman has released a surprising number of the original Midnight Special musical performances which are worth revisiting (if you saw them originally), or seeing for the first time now because they are a truly unique window into the music of that era.

I have created the following YouTube playlist for a sampling of some of the memorable music performances which aired on Burt Sugarman's Midnight Special. Have a look (and listen!), the list can be seen below, or by visiting 

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