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Producer revisits Midnight Special TV series

Burt Sugarman shares the behind-the-scenes story about the now-legendary show that changed the lives of its viewers — and the way TV operated.

By Mike Greenblatt

IT WAS FEB. 2, 1973,when the vast wasteland of broadcast television was rocked by the emergence of a controversial new show, “The Midnight Special.”

Initially launched from 1 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., after the Friday installment of “The Tonight Show,” the now-legendary 90-minute show was unlike any other before or since. It was packed with star power: Alice Cooper, Harry Chapin, Tom Petty, The Doobie Brothers, Peter Frampton, Joan Baez.Over the course of its 450-show run, artists including Alice Cooper, Sly & The Family Stone, Jim Croce, Tom Petty, The Bee Gees, ELO, Fleetwood Mac, The Cars, Todd Rundgren, Golden Earring, The Doobie Brothers, Chic, Blondie, Billy Preston, Peter Frampton, Edgar Winter, War, Robert Palmer, Aretha, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Joan Baez, The Hollies, Sammy Hagar, Harry Chapin, Marvin Gaye and The Kinks were among those who performed live on “The Midnight Special.”

And it almost didn’t get on the air.

Wolfman Jack on The Midnight Special in 1973

Wolfman Jack on The Midnight Special in 1973

Producer Burt Sugarman shares the behind-the-scenes story about the legendary show that changed the lives of its viewers — and the way TV operated. 

GOLDMINE: How did you get away with going against the prevailing television wisdom of the age, lip-synching? The performances are all live!
BURT SUGARMAN:Lip-synching protected the artist, but, on this show, being in that fabulous studio, right next to Johnny Carson, there was no way in the world that we were going to let anybody lip-synch. We just wouldn’t do that. It was all too good — the circumstances, the sound, and, man, we had a lot of nervous artists! Only the country artists seemed at ease with it, because they do roughly 300 shows a year. They’re used to doing it live. But the other artists were concerned. Wolfman Jack would go into their dressing rooms. He’d talk to them, convince them it was OK to do, then they’d talk to other artists when they’d come offstage. And it worked!

GM: Did you book the show? What a wide range of talent!
BS:Yeah, I decided all that with two young women who did all the logistics once I decided who we wanted. Eventually, they would bring artists to my attention. For instance, if Rod Stewart had the No. 1 song in the country, we’d want him. We knew we sold records. No question. When artists would come on, their records sold! But if an artist hit No. 1 without us, we’d want ’em to do their No. 1 on the show! The label would invariably say, “You can have Rod, but only if you also take this unknown, Christopher Cross, who would like to do his ‘Sailing.’ So I listened to the song, loved it, and we did it. I’m just using those two as an example, because that’s how it worked. If I hated the unknown’s song, I wouldn’t do it. If the song didn’t hit me but I didn’t hate it, I’d do it because I figured the labels knew more about it than I did, and they’re investing all this money in it. But, I’d put the unknown on after 2:10 in the morning.

GM: You came on at 1 a.m. Fridays, after “The Tonight Show.”
BS: That’s why I’d have the middle-of-the-road acts first, because that was the demographic of Carson’s audience. So up until 1:45 a.m., you’d have Mama Cass, Helen Reddy and John Denver. Then I’d get into War, The Doobie Brothers, Aerosmith and Peter Frampton, the kind of acts the kids would want to stay up for. Don’t forget, back then, there was nothing on usually after 1 a.m. The stations would go dark with the national anthem, then a test pattern, with their broadcasting resuming at like 7 a.m. The key thing I’m most proud of is breaking that barrier.

GM: Plus, back then, it was risky to have acts like Alice Cooper, The Cars and Electric Light Orchestra.
BS: That’s why NBC originally had refused our idea. I said, “Listen, you’re making a mistake. This is all about getting out the vote. The FCC will love you for it!” I had our hosts telling the young people to go out and vote.

GM: That’s right! The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971.
BS: And that’s how I got the show on the air! But they still didn’t want to pay for it. So fine. I paid for the show, and that meant I owned the show. NBC owned “The Tonight Show.” Johnny certainly didn’t own it. And that right there proved to be so important to me. I, in essence, bought the TV time from them.

GM: I will not soon forget seeing Linda Ronstadt and totally falling in love — like every other healthy American male of the time. I carried a picture of her in my wallet for years.
BS: Remember who she was dating at the time?

GM: The Eagles?
BS: California Gov. Jerry Brown!

GM:What performances, too! She could back it up. She does “Long Long Time” and “When Will I Be Loved.” That’s just two of so many great performances from that era. I loved the early Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers doing “American Girl” and “Listen To Her Heart.” To see The Bee Gees do “Lonely Days,” “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” “Jive Talkin’” and “Nights On Broadway” looking so young. What stands out for you?
BS: I can’t say. There’s just too much — 450 shows! Oh, my God! I wouldn’t know where to begin.

GM: Over and above “The Midnight Special,” you also worked with Richard Pryor [1940-2005].
BS: He and I had a handshake deal in about 1968, where we became 50-50 partners. I’d handle all his business. I’d handle all his money. And he performed. Well, believe it or not, that still goes on today. When I get checks for Richard, I send Richard’s piece of the money to his estate. All on a handshake. It never changed.

GM: How was he to work with?
BS: He was fabulous to me. He would never allow me to see him on drugs.

GM: You did all those game shows, too, like “The Newlywed Game,” “The Dating Game” and “The Gong Show.”
BS: Yeah, but “The Midnight Special” was unique. You know, my friend Don Kirshner [1934-2011] had a show [“Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert”] where all he wanted to do was to book the heaviest hard-rock bands, whereas I was trying to book everybody from country to comics. We broke Steve Martin! It was such a great variety of musical acts and comics. Those were very exciting, great years for me. I’d be right off to the side of the stage when they performed, and prior to their entrance, I’d be talking to them and getting them to relax. I did whatever I could to make their experience more comfortable so they would enjoy it.

GM: The young Chaka Khan with Rufus, man. Oh, and the Janis Ian tune. What was she? 12?
BS: [Laughs.] She was such a tiny little thing. Sixteen, I think.

GM: One after another, it’s amazing, from Barry White [1944-2003] to the gorgeous young Olivia Newton-John.
BS: Tony Orlando at that time was an incredible live performer. He really got the audience going. He’d jump right in the middle of them! Neil Sedaka, too.

GM: So many are not with us anymore. To get to see them sing live in their prime or even before their prime, in their youth, is just incredible.
BS: Yeah, John Denver especially. He was such a gentleman. I miss those days.