Burt Sugarman recalls a ‘Special’ time

Midnight Special_collectors edition

By Chris M. Junior

Once upon a time — not that long ago, really — watching band performances on late-night network TV was a rare treat, not a routine experience.

Burt Sugarman remembers those days very well. Sugarman was the creator of “The Midnight Special,” which aired on NBC from 1972 to 1981. The variety show’s list of live performers and hosts reads like a who’s who of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Aerosmith, The Bee Gees, Aretha Franklin, Heart and Marvin Gaye, for starters) and the Country Music Hall of Fame (Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty and Tammy Wynette, among others).

Highlights of Sugarman’s show have recently been repackaged and are available in three new StarVista Entertainment/Time Life DVD collections: “The Midnight Special Collectors Edition” (11 discs featuring about 10 hours of live performances and around five hours of featurettes and interviews), “The Midnight Special Collection” (six discs containing 96 performances) and “The Midnight Special” (a single disc with 16 performances).

Sugarman recently checked in from California to explain why “The Midnight Special” was, well, so special.

Today, you can watch TV five nights a week and see a live music performance, or one that was recorded live earlier the same day. But that wasn’t the case in the early 1970s. Talk about the climate back then in the TV industry and what you said and did to convince executives that “The Midnight Special” would find an audience.

Burt Sugarman: “The only way to convince network executives of anything is to actually do something and show them. I was turned down when I brought that proposal to NBC in 1972, three different times. That’s where I wanted to be because I wanted to follow ‘The Tonight Show.’ It had the highest rating going in, and then when they went off, everything either went off to an American flag or to black because there was no more TV [programming] on. I could not understand why people had not programmed late at night.

“[I was told] ‘We’re not going to invest any money in this thing. Your acts won’t show up. They’re rock ’n’ roll; they don’t go on TV. Let’s forget about it.’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. You guys are always looking with the FCC to find nice things to do to make them happy, and you have trouble doing that. This is an election year. My show is going to be get out to vote’ — and that got his attention. Then he said, ‘Will you pay to put the show on? I’ll just sell you the time slot, and you go put the show on.’ I said, ‘You got a deal,’ and what that allowed me to do was own the show. And then I had some help with a couple of sponsors … so it got started because I paid for the show and I promoted ‘get out to vote.’ ”

In the history of the show, was there an artist or two who was very close to backing out at the last second, for whatever reason?

Sugarman: (Pause) “That really didn’t happen. Interesting enough, once they saw the first couple of shows, they knew from their record company that the show sold records, period. And that was the attraction. The record companies would bring their acts over … and they could tell the next day records were selling. So that’s really what pushed it, and people really wanted to be on it.

“What would happen is, the record company would say, ‘We’ll give you the Bee Gees and their newest hit, but would you do me a favor and [include] so-and so? It’s a new act we want to break.’ And I loved the idea of breaking new acts.”

Who were some of your favorite “Midnight Special” performers?

Sugarman: “I can’t even go there because so many are still around (laughs). … The country acts were really special. Many of the rock ’n’ roll acts were scared to death about TV. But the country acts toured 280 to 300 nights per year, so for them, to see a red light in front of them with a couple of cameras, they were thrilled. Loretta Lynn was so great; she kept saying, ‘I want to come back.’ And I heard that out of George Jones and Kris Kristofferson.

“Jim Croce hosted the show, and he said, ‘I want to come back and host this again. Can I come back in three weeks?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you can. I’ve never done that before, but you can. You’re one of the hottest acts in the world now.’ And he was killed about 11 days later.

The Wikipedia entry about “The Midnight Special” refers to “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” as your show’s “syndicated late-night cousin.” How did you view Kirshner himself and that show?

Sugarman: “The bottom line is Don Kirshner and I were friends. He had a different kind of show. He had a heavier rock show, and they did a lot of lip-syncing on his show. We didn’t. The deal was you gotta sing live. … What I did was put on middle-of-the-road acts after ‘The Tonight Show’ because that’s what [my next-door neighbor] Johnny Carson’s demo was. I put on John Denver or Mama Cass, and then around 1:45, I’d switch over and get heavier. That seemed to work.”

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