The Midnight Special

“I want my MTV” was the catchphrase of the early 80’s. But years earlier, producer Burt Sugarman saw a market for a rock and roll TV show that would take the medium just a bit farther than American Bandstand.

Late night TV was an untapped market in 1972. Once Carson was done, it was signoff time. So when Sugarman approached NBC execs with his idea of a Friday night show that would ride on Johnny’s coattails, and that would draw in the teenage demographic that was still wide awake at that hour, he was surprised and disappointed that they turned him down. Unfazed, he produced the first episode, bought the airtime (with help from Chevrolet), and televised it. The result? Great ratings, and reconsideration by the NBC execs.

Sugarman grabbed up rising star deejay Wolfman Jack, who was being blasted across the US and Canada from a 250,000 watt Mexican radio station. A year later, he would appear in the smash hit American Graffiti. Good move, Burt.

The pre-disco Bee Gees on the Midnight Special in 1973

The show would be hosted by a different musician each week (except for a year run with Helen Reddy as the regular lead), with the Wolfman providing his own running commentary. And man, did it attract the big names.

Groups and individuals who appeared on The Midnight Special during its eight-year-run included John Denver, Mama Cass, Harry Chapin, War, Linda Rondstadt, Ike and Tine Turner, The Doobie Brothers, Billy Preston, Loggins and Messina, blues legends Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, aargh, I could fill up a web page with the names.

Comedians also stopped by. They included George Burns, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Andy Kaufman, Bill Cosby, David Brenner, Martin Mull, and Robert Klein.

The show inspired an ABC copycat, In Concert. And it no doubt also put the idea of MTV into some creative exec’s head.

It was so much fun for thirteen-year-old me to stay up late Friday night, with my parents sound asleep, and jam to some great rock and roll. Ironically, now that I’m forty seven, my own son does the same thing while dad snores. Only he has access to the 24-hour-a-day version, while I had to wait until midnight (Central Time) to hear the Wolfman and listen to the best music that could be delivered through a three-inch television speaker.

We lost the Wolfman in 1995. Burt is still with us. He produced Children of a Lesser God and Crimes of the Heart in 1986, but has pretty much retired.

But we Boomers have fond memories of a show that the two talents joined up to give us some seriously great late-night rock and roll.

The Beatles on Sullivan

The Beatles’ first appearance on Sullivan

Ladies and gentlemen, THE BEATLES!

If your family had a TV that could pick up a CBS channel in the 60’s (or 50’s and early 70’s for that matter), you likely had Ed Sullivan on every Sunday night.

The show was aimed at entertainment for the whole family. And Ed reached out to teenagers, too.

Witness the four legendary appearances by The Beatles. My father, who enjoyed the circus acts and comedy, was aghast that these long-haired kids were on the stage and that you couldn’t even hear their music over the high-pitched screams of the younger female audience members.

I wouldn’t let him turn it off, though. I was mystified by the spell they cast over the audience, as well as the rest of the nation. I became a lifelong fan on the spot.

I’m not sure if I saw their first 1964 appearance. But I did see them after that, and news that they would be appearing on an upcoming episode would be the talk of the elementary school. Come the fateful Sunday night, life stopped for a while. The next morning, we were singing their songs, listening to them on the radio, talking about them, and buying little plastic guitars with rubber band strings with their names printed on them.

Man, I wish I had some of those Beatles memorabilia today.

The Beatles Cartoon

When the Beatles stepped off of that plane so many years ago, the entertainment industry changed permanently. The never-before-seen deluge of fan adoration was a bottomless well ready to be tapped. And no time was wasted in producing everything from little plastic guitars to Beatle-painted automobiles.

Little ABC, the perennial third-place network, cashed in on the Fab Four as well. They began showing The Beatles as a Saturday morning TV cartoon beginning on September 25, 1965.

And we Baby Boomer kids loved it.

The show maintained a basic premise: two adventures, and two songs, a kid’s version of Sing Along with Mitch, complete with a bouncing ball, as I recall.

I assumed it was really the Beatles doing the voiceovers when I was six. Of course, the bandmembers were far too busy conquering the musical world to do it. The actors who did the talking were Lance Percival (Paul and Ringo), and Paul Frees (John and George). What I remember (now keep in mind I haven’t seen the cartoon since Nixon was President) was Ringo’s distinctive laugh. Apparently, it was artistic license, as I never heard him laugh that way in real life interviews.

BTW, Frees provided the voice of Boris Badenov in the immortal Bullwinkle series.

Additionally, the Beatles’ Liverpudlian accents were Americanized a bit to make them more understandable to American kids, and this was not well received by Britons in general, the Fab Four in particular. The show was not shown in the UK until the 1970’s.

But I certainly remember the songs. They used some of the more obscure ones as well as the big hits. For instance, I remember belting out “Mr. Moonlight,” a definite non-best-seller, as that ball bounced endlessly across our black and white television. But I also remember “A Hard day’s Night.” However, I never did figure out what a hard day’s night meant.

There was also a riff played before each new adventure that I remember well. It must have been played by hired help, as I have never seen it mentioned on the most comprehensive Beatle anthologies.

The Beatles appealed to a very wide range of demographic groups. Could you imagine a Rolling Stones cartoon? And many Big Band fans and Bobbysoxers found the Beatles’ unique power pop sound appealing, much to their offsprings’ disgust.

But there was something about the original Fab Four, with their dry, slightly long locks that absolutely hooked many of us Boomer children, and continues to appeal to us many years later.

IMH(adult)O, the Beatles’ just got better with time. But that’s not how I felt back then. I was disturbed that the Beatles of 1969 looked so hairy and unkempt. I wanted them to be the clean, cartoon images that were on the television show. And apparently I wasn’t the only kid who felt that way. The show’s ratings had dropped precipitously by then and the last ABC episode aired that year.

Some blame the show’s demise on a newfound superhero obsession, sparked by Batman. But there was just too much genius involved to keep the whole Beatlemania phenomenon going. The previously mentioned Rolling Stones have had their ups and downs over the years, but their legacy is sustained quality. The Beatles, on the other hand, after their unbelievable debut in the USA, could not possibly last more than a few brief years.

Neil Young said “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” When a supernova-sized flame burns as brightly as did the initial spark of the Beatles, that may well be true.

Sound-Alike Eight-Tracks

Man, this is an obscure one. I couldn’t find anything but a brief mention on a site or two. So I guess I will hereby become the official source of internet information on sound-alike eight-track tapes.

These things were hawked on TV commercials in the early 1970’s. One in particular I recall was “Summer ’71.” Instead of paying royalties to the original artists of the songs featured in these collections of hits, the producers of these tapes would hire a band that would do their best to sound exactly like them.

It seems like a strange concept now, but it was big business in the 70’s.

If you watched as much television in the summer as I did, you soon had the samples of the songs played in the commercials memorized. As I write this piece, I can hear those Summer ’71 songs streaming through my mind . . . Brand New Key . . . American Pie . . . Drowning in a Sea of Love . . .

What you had to do was look out for generic labels, like the one pictured. Many times, the buyer of such tapes was surprised to hear someone who ALMOST sounded like, say, Chaka Khan instead of the real deal.

But the funny thing was that you still listened to them. The songs still sounded pretty darned good. And presumably, money was made, even though the tapes cost about half the price of the genuine article.

Probably the least compensated were the bands themselves. One in particular I recall was called “The Sound Effects.” I tried to research them, nada. I imagine these gigs covered the cost of rent and hamburgers, that was about it.

So the next time you pop your flash drive full of mp3’s into your high-tech car stereo, pause for a moment and remember when you used to jam to “A Tribute to Helen Reddy.” It only cost $2.99.

Thanks to Elk Bugles for the images.

Sing Along with Mitch

Mitch Miller and friend

On Independence Day, 1911, Mitchell William Miller was born in Rochester, New York. Naturally gifted at music, Miller went to the Eastman School of Music, where he excelled in the oboe and English horn. By the 1930’s and 40’s, he was working as a session musician, backing up many of the most famous artists of the day. In 1938, he was playing in the studio orchestra as Orson Welles was scaring the daylights out of our parents with his War of the Worlds broadcast.

Mitch got into the record production business. He proved to be a prolific producer of hits that, once again, our parents listened to. His first smash was Frankie Laine’s Mule Train.

In 1961, he became the host of Sing Along with Mitch. It was a very mainstream effort at keeping families singing together just like they had done in the previous decades. And, in fact, it was quite successful, lasting three seasons.

Once upon a time, families gathered around the radio to hear music. Woody Allen’s wonderful, overlooked classic film Radio Days summarizes the era perfectly. It seems strange today, when I listen to Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, and my son listens to Green day and Radiohead, and neither of us has a clue what the other’s favorites are all about. But, then again, we both listen to Counting Crows, so there’s hope.

1961 TV Guide

Mitch was judged by many to be an anti-rock and roll zealot. But the accusation simply doesn’t hold water.

Mitch stuck with his favorite music. While he didn’t go out of his way to promote the new sounds, that certainly didn’t make him an enemy. In fact, while heading Columbia Records, he tried to sign Elvis, but chose not to take up manager Colonel Parker’s offer. Nobody can fault him for not wanting to deal with a manipulative dictator.

Mitch lost his job at Columbia for not signing enough teen-popular acts, though. But his last hurrah was Sing Along with Mitch, where audiences at home were encouraged to follow the bouncing ball and join in with Mitch and His Gang.

The show was ridiculed by youngsters, one of the earliest manifestations of the Generation Gap. But I can only remember one song distinctly that I heard on the show, so many years ago. It was written by none other than Woodie Guthrie, held in such high esteem by Bob Dylan himself, who immortalized him in his own Song for Woody. The song was This Land Is Your Land.

Bruce Springsteen called this one of the first protest songs. And the fact that Mitch Miller encouraged all in the family, from Grandma to little Johnny, to sing it, tells me that this apparent middle-of-the-road music exec might have been just a bit more on the ball than the youngsters of the early 60’s might have thought.

BTW, Mitch is still around, 96 years young. Here’s to you, Mitch Miller. May you lead us with the bouncing ball for years to come. (update: Mitch died at the age of 99)

Local Music Shows on TV

KOAM’s Circle 7 crew, playing on radio in the early 50’s

Our local TV stations had lots of time to fill when the networks weren’t broadcasting. There were blocks for the station’s choice of what to show that would run from 12:00 noon and 1:00 PM (central time). Another break came between 3:00 PM and 5:30 PM each day. There was also an hour available between 6:00 and 7:00 PM each weeknight. Saturday nights, when network news was not broadcast, the time would stretch between the end of whatever sporting event was shown (about 5:00 PM or so) and 7:00, when the evening’s network shows began.

The stations I grew up with, KODE channel 12 out of Joplin, and KOAM channel 7 out of Pittsburg, Kansas, filled much of the free time with local music shows.

In the mid-south, where I grew up, the primary television demographic was the thirty-to-forty-year-old male. I’m not sure why, but it seemed that most local shows were aimed at that particular audience. I’m guessing that this was because program managers were males aged in their thirties and forties. They grew up listening to local musicians on the radio, and the genre transferred easily to the black and white screen.

KOAM’s Melody Matinee

Anyhow, the results were shows like Melody Matinee, broadcast every weekday at 12:30, right after the local noon news broadcast. Melody Matinee consisted of three musicians, Virgil and Earl on guitars, and a lady whose name escapes me who was a whiz on the Hammond organ. All three sang, as I recall, belting out classics right out of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? long before they were considered cool.

Kids would roll their eyes as our Depression-era parents would listen to the extremely tame (in our minds) renditions of songs that might be a hundred or more years old. I guess I know how my son feels when I get teary-eyed over Neil Young’s Powderfinger.

Melody Matinee ran for many years, originating in the 50’s and finally being retired around 1981.

Another local show, specializing in country music, was the Happy Jack and Helen show, broadcast from downtown Joplin. I believe it was Cope’s Fine Carpets that sponsored the half-hour, meaning every commercial break was given to them. The show featured lots of picking and singing, and I’m sure it had a goofy guy in ill-fitting overalls to provide comic relief, as did every single local or national C&W TV show of the time.

But the teenaged demographic was courted, as well. KODE broadcast Teen Hop on Saturday afternoons between noon and 1:00. The show featured teenaged couples from the area competing in dancing with Top Forty hits being played. The winners would get a $20 gift certificate or something similar.

The homegrown music shows were low-budget, laid back fun. And I’m sure, if you pored over the few (if any) remaining videotapes, you could probably spot future famous musicians among the local talent. But irregardless, I feel like the passing of local music shows filmed in nearby downtown buildings is one more sign that we Baby Boomers just might not stay eternally young like we were sure we would.

K-tel Records

If you watched daytime television in the early 70’s, odds are you you heard commercials featuring snippets of songs fired at you in rapid order, with the added admonition “Not sold in stores!” You would then be presented with an address where you could mail a check for a very reasonable sum in order to receive a record album or eight-track tape in the mail.

Except for the anxious waiting, it was win-win.

K-tel hawked kitchen gadgets, Miracle Brushes, and records on television in the 60’s and 70’s. They became a familiar part of our living room ambiance, as we would step out to the kitchen or bathroom in the middle of a Roy Rogers movie to the voice of a fast-talking K-tel pitchman. The salesmen were frequently imitated by comedians. Who can forget Dan Aykroyd’s Bass-O-Matic blender on SNL?

Philip Kives, K-tel’s founder, was a Saskatchewan farmer before becoming a door-to-door appliance salesman. Not satisfied with trudging suburban sidewalks, Kives began presenting his vacuum cleaners and other home appliances in public areas such as fairs or the boardwalk in Atlantic City. In 1962 Philip and his brother Ted launched Syndicate Products Ltd. in the basement of his parents’ Winnipeg home. One of the company’s early endeavors was a five-minute television commercial for Teflon-coated cookware. The amazing sight of an egg not sticking to a pan (Teflon was brand new, remember) sold a whole slew of frying pans.

K-tel made TV commercials that ran longer than the standard sixty seconds and aired them at off-peak hours, a practice which has evolved into today’s 2:00 AM infomercials. Of course, you’ll recall that they ran thousands of traditional ads, too.

In 1965, Kives bought the rights to a few country music tunes and released the paradoxically titled 25 Country Hits with Groovy Greats. The man had a Midas touch. The weirdly-named album sold 180,000 copies in Canada.

He turned his eyes southward and in 1971 released his first US-marketed compilation: 25 Polka Classics. It sold a cool million copies.

Like their sales pitches, the albums started coming out fast after that. Compilations were released every couple of weeks for a while covering every conceivable genre, including the under-appreciated World’s Worst Music category. Polkas, classic rock (before the term even existed), country/western, blues, Perry Como (whatever you call his style of music), it was all covered.

K-tel managed to license a whole lot of music at a very reasonable rate. They passed the savings on to consumers. The result was that you could get real songs by original artists at a fraction of the cost of buying albums from the mainstream record companies.

Nowadays, the idiots who run the RIAA are doing all they can to ensure that you will continue to buy CD’s at fifteen bucks apiece. If K-tel was to start up today, no doubt they would be met with firm refusals to license songs more cheaply. Instead of K-tel, savvy consumers are bypassing CD’s in stores and buying music online, in many cases bypassing the RIAA altogether. Odds are the cigar-smoking clueless clods will go out of business before giving the public what they want: affordable music, just like K-tel gave us so many years ago.

Hey Hey We’re the Monkees

What a concept. Let’s cash in on the Beatles by creating our own group. We’ll run an ad in Daily Variety saying we’re looking for four guys in a struggling pop band. We’ll piece together a group, with a strong emphasis on their acting ability. It’ll make for a hit show and hit records!

Yeah, THAT will work.

Incredibly enough, it did.

The Monkees were born in 1966. Two were musicians (Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork) and two were actors (Mickey Dolenz and Davey Jones).

The show went on the air in September 1966. Within months, they had two number one singles. Or did they?

“Last Train to Clarksville” was revealed to be recorded by a group called Boyce and Hart and the Candystore Prophets. The Monkees’ contribution was overdubbed vocals.

However, the group didn’t wither a la Milli Vanilli. Instead, they rebelled.

Nesmith was not one to kiss up to anybody. I remember him slamming the Recording Academy when he got a Grammy for producing an R&B album in the late 70’s. He said the very concept of a Rythm and Blues Grammy was racist! Needless to say, he was the most vocal about wanting to be allowed to exercise his own musical talent.

Musical production for the show and albums was handed over to Don Kirshner, a legend of the back end of the music business, producing the albums and shows. While this eliminated the complete musical non-involvement of the group, it didn’t end the stress.

Kirshner hired some writing giants (Goffin and King, Neil Diamond, etc.) to contribute songs. Their next album, More Of The Monkees, was loudly criticized by Nesmith as being not only BAD, but the WORST album ever recorded! It had a grand total of ONE song written by him. Of course, this was before the Sgt. Pepper remake by RSO, so he may have been right about how bad it was.

The group finally released their own product in 1967, Headquarters. It was well received, and was a hit. It was also the group’s acme.

The next album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., featured much outside songwriting like was evident in the early days. This time the group made the decisions, and they didn’t do well.

In 1968, the show ended. A movie was released that same year called Head. It was about the group, and was allegedly very strange. IMDB gives it a 6.2 with a largely polarized audience. I hope to see it someday. It sounds like my kind of flick.

The Monkees should have never ever worked. But somehow, they did. Of course, they didn’t last long. That would have been stretching the odds too thin.

American Bandstand

Early days shot of Bandstand

Rock and roll music. Television. These two very potent forces of the 50’s combined to create a juggernaut of a television series that possibly every single Boomer watched at least once. It was a regular Saturday afternoon ritual for me in the early 70’s, until I became observant enough to note that many of the artists were lip-syncing. By then, the Midnight Special was on, and that’s where I got my fix of genuine live music at the much cooler time of late Friday nights.

But that doesn’t mean that AB was a bad show. On the contrary, the fact that it began as a Philadelphia local in 1952 that soon became a national staple that ran until 1989 shows that there was something very, very special about American Bandstand.

It all began with Philadelphia station WFIL on October 7, 1952. At first, host Bob Horn showed music videos. Is that visionary or what?

Of course, the music wasn’t rock and roll. That’s because the show actually predates the craze.

Soon, though, the TV show began playing hit records as kids danced to them, imitating a local popular radio show. The format clicked, and Bob Horn’s Bandstand (as it was initially known) became a smash local hit with the schoolkids who hurried home to watch it, excellently portrayed in the overlooked NBC series American Dreams.

Horn hosted the show until 1956, when a very public drunk-driving arrest got him kicked off the show. He was replaced by an answer to a trivia question named Tony Mammarella for a bit, then Dick Clark took over the reins.

Dick Clark in the 50’s

Besides possessing a personality that clicked with the kids, Dick was smart enough to stay sober behind the wheel. The result was the creation of two icons: Clark himself, and American Bandstand.

After Clark had hosted for a year, ABC finally relented from a hard-sell campaign and began broadcasting the show. That’s when “American” was added to its name. It kept its after-school daily time slot, and a Saturday night version was added in 1958.

Bandstand began as a Philadelphia experience, and remained so until 1964, when it moved to LA. The regulars became as known to TV viewers as their own school friends. A kid could spot and imitate the dance styles of, say, Kenny and Arlene, or Bunny and Kelly. Kids in Philly could even line up at the studio in hopes of being selected to dance among the regulars.

It was a tight ship, too. Girls weren’t allowed to wear slacks or tight sweaters and the boys had to wear a coat and tie. Nasty vices like smoking and chewing gum weren’t allowed.

The 1964 LA move put an end to the hominess of the original show. However, its popularity continued to soar as a national institution.

Another big change in the ABC show took place a couple of months before JFK was killed in 1963. The daily format was scrapped in favor of a single weekly show that was aired at noon in my area. And it made the jump from black and white to color in the fall of 1967.

Regular features included Rate-a-Record, where three kids would hear a new release and give it a grade from 35 to 98. Live acts began appearing after the move to ABC, and in fact many stars received their first national exposure on the show. Thus did America learn about Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others.

The show finally ran out of gas years after I quit watching. Its final episode, by then in a syndicated format, took place in 1989. Clark has toyed with the idea of reviving it, but has yet to actually do so. He’s a busy guy these days with So You Think You Can Dance, which reminds Bandstand viewers of their national dance contests.

So whether AB was an after-school memory for you, or, like me, a Saturday afternoon experience, this one’s for you. I hope you give it a good rating!

The Day After

Most of the memories here are from my childhood. In 1983, when our generation was all grown up, this movie was shown on ABC TV. This was one of the last coups for network television, cable not quite having taken over yet. It was watched by 100 million people, the most-watched TV movie ever.

My brand new wife and I watched this on our TV in our first home in Amarillo, Texas. It changed the way we looked at the world, as it did for everyone else who watched it.

The movie starred Jason Robards as a doctor in Kansas City. Other familiar 80’s faces included John Cullum, John Lithgow, Stephen Furst, JoBeth Williams, Steve Gutenberg, and Amy Madigan.

The movie opens with familiar news broadcasts from the Cold War era, troop buildups, rattling of sabers, etc. People pay little attention as they go on about their lives.

Eventually, the Soviets blockade West Berlin. This is construed as an act of war.

Things accelerate rapidly at that point, with the general public at last taking notice when they see missiles launching all around them.

That’s when it hits: if we’ve launched ours, then they have launched theirs.

All of those airborne missiles show why their area is a prime target: the Soviets want those missiles destroyed before they are launched. The fact that they are already in the air won’t stop them from bombing the area.

The movie showed life after a nuclear attack. The survivors were the unlucky ones.

It was impossible to watch The Day After and not feel deep emotion. Nuclear war with the Soviets was a real possibility in 1983. It was scary. By the end of the decade, the Berlin Wall was down. Communism fell in large part. Watching the movie recently on the SciFi Channel, my emotions had changed to relief.

Here’s to the Cold War not being around anymore.