What Makes “The Midnight Special” Special?

Music and television often go hand in hand, and are constantly changing and adapting to new trends. In the 70’s, programs playing after midnight were unheard of, let alone a show that only featured live music. The Midnight Special was an American late night musical variety series that aired on NBC during the 1970’s, which followed the Friday night edition of The Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson. It was created and produced by Burt Sugarman, who is best known for originating this stellar, iconic weekly show. As described in its name, The Midnight Special was a must see.

Sugarman wanted NBC to premiere his program. He hoped to gain views from The Tonight Show’s very large audience, and felt that the NBC would gain a larger audience if there was a show based around live music performances, a concept that was not introduced to television yet. However, they declined the offer (but not for long). This was mainly because of the late time slot that was projected to be The Midnight Special‘s airtime, as shows usually ended at midnight, and because of the uncertainty of the show’s possible success. Not to be discouraged, Sugarman took his novel idea, and the lack of competition for this airtime, and bought the time slot himself. He actually convinced Chevrolet to sponsor him. In disbelief to NBC, the program had extremely high ratings when it was premiered.  As a result, NBC bought the show and it remained a part of their late night lineup until 1981, airing from 12:30AM to 2:00AM.  As programs playing this late was unheard of, the popularity of the show skyrocketed, and they had to schedule artists performances way in advance.

A main attribute to the program’s success was its spontaneity. Helen Reddy, often known as the “queen of ’70s pop”, who was an Australian singer, activist, actress, was the regular host from 1975-1976. Aside from Reddy, the show featured guest presenters to introduce the performers of the night. Earning a spot to play on The Midnight Special was considered a goal of many musicians to. It helped records sell and music become more popular, getting the musicians’ name out to the public. Another perk was the live music. The Midnight Special had the honor of featuring all genres and artists, such as David Bowie, Aerosmith, Blondie, The Jackson 5, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, and over 80 more musicians. Many artists have said in interviews that The Midnight Special helped them gain fans and popularity, as well as make comebacks. For example, in 1979, the Beach Boys, an American band formed in California in 1961, covered a song by Chuck Berry, called “Rock and Roll Music, and have accredited a part of their later success to the program.

On October 5, 1979, Blondie made her second appearance on The Midnight Special, as it was highly requested by the viewers of the show. They had appeared in January of 1979, singing live versions of “One Way or Another,” and “Hanging on the Telephone”. On October 5th, Blondie used her platform to speak out against nuclear warfare. In the middle of “Heart of Glass”, she says, “the use of nuclear power is merely a symptom of our troubled times. It is time for all Americans to take control of their own lives and stop being pushed around and poisoned. The race for nuclear superiority can only end with the destruction of civilization”. Blondie utilizing her platform to bring awareness to social and political issues, demonstrated the importance of this unscripted show. Many other musicians took after her lead and used the program to stress and educate the audience about various matters.

Even now, on Youtube, there are clips and snippets of various musicians’ performances on the program, including Steve Martin and Donna Summer, musical acts performed live on television. Before this show, it was typical for singers to lip sync to their prerecorded songs, and many found it unusual that the stars weren’t. The series occasionally aired vintage footage of older acts, which kept the audience interested every week. With a constant slew of positive comments and ratings, The Midnight Special aired for almost 10 years, gaining the credit it deserved and an audience with an appreciation for live music.